HARBEL, Liberia — The killers launched from the plantation under a waning moon one night in October 1992. They surged past tin-roofed villages and jungle hideouts, down macadam roads and red-clay bush trails. More and more joined their ranks until thousands of men in long, ragged columns moved toward the distant capital.
Men in camouflage mounted rusted artillery cannon in battered pickup trucks. Thin teenagers lugged rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Children carried AK-47s. Some held long machetes.
The killers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, women’s wigs and cheap rubber sandals. Grotesque masks made them look like demons. They were electric with drugs. They clutched talismans of feather and bone to protect them from bullets. In the pre-dawn darkness, they surrounded Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
They loosed their attack on the sleeping city. Artillery slammed into stores and homes. Mortars arced through thick, humid air that smelled of rot. Boy soldiers canoed across mangrove swamps. As they pressed in, the killers forced men, women and children from their homes. They murdered civilians and soldiers. Falling shells just missed the U.S. Embassy, hunkered on a high spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
A new phase of Liberia’s civil war had begun. It would whip savagely out of control over the next decade. More than 200,000 people would die or suffer terrible injuries, most of them civilians — limbs hacked off, eyes gouged out. Half the country’s population would become refugees. Five American nuns would be slaughtered, becoming international symbols of the conflict’s depravity.
Orchestrating the anarchy was Charles Taylor, a suave egomaniac obsessed with taking over Liberia, America’s most faithful ally in Africa. For the attack that October morning, he had built his army of butchers and believers in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone.
Firestone ran the plantation that Taylor used to direct the October 1992 assault on Monrovia. In operation since 1926, the rubber plantation was considered to be the largest of its kind in the world, a contiguous swath of trees, mud-brown rivers, low hills and verdant bush that at the time splayed across 220 square miles – roughly the size of Chicago.
Firestone wanted Liberia for its rubber. Taylor wanted Firestone to help his rise to power. At a pivotal meeting in Liberia’s jungles in July 1991, the company agreed to do business with the warlord.
In the first detailed examination of the relationship between Firestone and Taylor, an investigation by ProPublica and Frontline lays bare the role of a global corporation in a brutal African conflict.
Firestone served as a source of food, fuel, trucks and cash used by Taylor’s ragtag rebel army, according to interviews, internal corporate documents and declassified diplomatic cables.
The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor, according to an accounting in court files. Between 1990 and 1993, the company invested $35.3 million in the plantation.
In return, Taylor’s forces provided security to the plantation that allowed Firestone to produce rubber and safeguard its assets. Taylor’s rebel government offered lower export taxes that gave the company a financial break on rubber shipments.
For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader.
“We needed Firestone to give us international legitimacy,” said John Toussaint “J.T.” Richardson, a U.S.-trained architect who became one of Taylor’s top advisers. “We needed them for credibility.”
While Firestone used the plantation for the business of rubber, Taylor used it for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops.
Secret U.S. diplomatic cables from the time captured Taylor’s gratitude to Firestone. Firestone’s plantation “had been the lifeblood” of the territory in Liberia that he controlled, Taylor told one Firestone executive, according to a State Department cable. Taylor later said in sworn testimony that Firestone’s resources had been the “most significant” source of foreign exchange in the early years of his revolt.
In written responses to questions, Firestone acknowledged the agreement with Taylor, but said it had never willingly assisted Taylor’s insurrection.
The company said Taylor rebels had used Firestone’s trucks, food, medical supplies, fuel and tools under the “obvious threat of violence to anyone who considered stopping them.”
At the moment of the October 1992 attack that came to be known as Operation Octopus, Taylor controlled the vast majority of Liberia. He faced a weak interim government in Monrovia, backed by 7,000 largely untested soldiers from allied West African nations.
Operation Octopus effectively plunged the country into five more turbulent, terrible years of intermittent warfare. Taylor turned a civil war between his forces and the Liberian government into a bloodbath as more rebel factions joined in the fight for spoils: diamonds, timber, power. It spilled into neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, where rebel forces allied with Taylor hacked the limbs off civilians in a terror campaign of unchecked brutality.
In July 1997, Taylor won his war, and not on the battlefield. He was elected president, dominating with 75 percent of the vote. For many Liberians, a vote for Taylor was a vote of resignation. Many believed it was the only way to stop the killing. After Taylor became president, more factions arose, more bloodletting, more revenge. Liberia and its people suffered yet again.
In 2003, Taylor was indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. He resigned the presidency. He was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison — the first head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity since the Nazi era.
The path to cooperation was neither direct nor easy for Firestone and its executives, according to interviews and documents. Some company officials actively resisted working with Taylor and his fighters, even in the face of real and implied threats of physical violence.
Other senior officers felt the company had no choice but to give in to Taylor’s demands. They believed that working with Taylor was the only way to protect the thousands of impoverished Liberians who lived and labored on the plantation.
Firestone also received conflicting direction from the United States government. One ambassador urged the company to work with Taylor. In Washington, diplomats warned Firestone executives about the dangers of doing business with him.
But in the end, Firestone as a corporation, and as a collection of men, made a deliberate decision to cooperate with a man whose forces were publicly denounced as violent, vicious and rapacious by the U.S. government and human rights groups.
The U.S. State Department had issued a report blaming Taylor’s forces for killing civilians, raping women and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to become refugees. Human Rights Watch said that Taylor’s forces had engaged in a killing campaign that put a targeted ethnic group at “risk of genocide.”
Today, Firestone maintains that at the time it struck its deal with Taylor, the guerrilla leader had “no well-established record” of human right violations. It said that many other companies and world leaders had treated Taylor as a legitimate political figure. Other companies operating in Liberia at the time chose to leave. But some stayed on through the violence.
“Does Firestone believe it did the right thing? Yes,” Firestone said of its decisions in Liberia. “Do we, along with former U.S. presidents, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and many leaders around the world who worked with Charles Taylor regret the war criminal he became? Yes.”
The decision that Firestone faced confronts American companies operating to this day in war-torn, volatile regions in an increasingly globalized economy. All aim to make money. All must weigh, to one degree or another, their hierarchy of obligations – to their shareholders, to their foreign workers, to their host countries, and to their own sense of right and wrong.
Donald Ensminger served as the managing director of the Firestone plantation when Taylor invaded Liberia. He witnessed the violence first hand. Taylor rebels killed and imprisoned his workers. They threatened Ensminger with death at the point of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Ensminger was let go from the company in October 1991. For the next 23 years, he kept silent about Firestone’s choice to do a deal with a warlord. Now, he told Frontline and ProPublica, he wanted to explain.
He said that he warned Firestone that Taylor was a killer. He told the company that working with him might be a crime. He urged them to avoid deals that might legitimize the guerilla leader as the ruler of Liberia.
For him, the decision was clear. And Firestone got it wrong.
Gerald Rose, who served as the deputy chief of mission in Liberia at the time, holds an equally unsparing view of Firestone’s choice.
“Do I think they have blood on their hands? Yes,” Rose said. “I would not have made the decisions they made. I believe they facilitated a warlord in his insurrection and in the atrocities that he created.”
Through the years, Liberia has been hesitant to examine its past. Taylor, for instance, was tried only for harm he caused in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. In 2009, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended sanctions for scores of perpetrators. It cited Firestone for having aided Taylor in carrying out his rebellion and called for more investigation. The Liberian government never acted on those recommendations.
The stunning truth is that nobody has ever been punished in Liberia for the civil war that destroyed the nation. In fact, some of the people who helped to wreck the country are now the same people responsible for rebuilding it.
Top officials of formerly warring factions are now politicians passing laws in the legislature. They are pastors preaching from the country’s pulpits. They are executives running some of the country’s largest businesses.
The damage they inflicted on Liberia haunts the country even today. Liberia’s shattered infrastructure and weakened health system have struggled to cope with the spread of the Ebola virus, which has killed thousands of Liberians.
In an interview with Frontline and ProPublica, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged that Liberia had not yet succeeded in shaking the Taylor regime or the devils of its history.
Efforts over many months to reach Taylor through his lawyers and family were not successful.
Johnson Sirleaf looked thoughtful when asked to describe Liberia’s relationship with Firestone. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Johnson Sirleaf said the company had benefitted Liberia with jobs and revenue.
In fact, during its decades of operation, Firestone had built a nation within a nation. The company provided housing, schools, food and health care to workers and their families. Some 80,000 Liberians lived within its borders. Firestone introduced currency, built roads and opened up the rural interior.
At the same time, Johnson Sirleaf said, Firestone has sometimes failed to live up to its obligations to the country whose people have provided it with so much over so many years. Over the decades, the company has faced accusations that it exploited its laborers, received unfair concession deals, despoiled the environment and exacerbated corruption.
Said Johnson Sirleaf: “It is a mixed story.”
[caption id="attachment_82540" align="alignleft" width="240"] Charles Taylor[/caption]
Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was a man of many faces: bureaucrat, jail breaker, revolutionary, orator, warlord, president, war criminal.
Born in Liberia in 1948, Taylor came to the United States in 1972 to attend college. He received an economics degree from Bentley College, a private school with a campus of brick buildings and leafy trees outside Boston.
In the United States, he was one of many young, educated Liberians in the 1970s agitating for change in their home country.
Taylor saw his chance in 1980, when a Liberian army master sergeant named Samuel Doe seized control of the government. Doe’s men gutted the president, William Tolbert, in the presidential mansion that overlooked the turquoise ocean. They tied 13 government officials and political allies to wooden poles staked in the ground at a nearby beach and executed them.
Doe was 28 years old and barely literate. To Taylor and other Liberians, he represented the overthrow of the old patrician order that had long ruled the country. Taylor decided to join the revolution. Taylor was appointed head of the government’s procurement arm, the General Services Agency.
The urbane, educated Taylor soon fell out of favor with Doe, who surrounded himself with thuggish fellow Krahn tribesmen. Taylor fled back to the United States amid charges that he bilked the Liberian government of nearly $1 million. An ardent Cold War ally, Doe asked President Ronald Reagan’s administration for his extradition. Taylor was locked up in a Massachusetts jail to await deportation.
There, the myth of Taylor began. In September 1985, Taylor broke out of the Plymouth County jail. News reports said that he sawed through bars, descended on knotted blankets and escaped into surrounding woods.
How he accomplished the feat — if that’s indeed how he escaped — has never been fully explained. At his war crimes trial, Taylor boasted that the CIA had aided the escape, a claim the agency has never confirmed or denied.
Taylor made it to Mexico and eventually Libya. There, he received instruction at a military camp established by Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi to train African revolutionaries. In the late 1980s, Taylor and his cohorts created the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, dedicated to overthrowing Doe.
Doe had become wildly unpopular. He had massacred thousands of other, rival tribe members, surrounded himself with cronies and driven the country into debt. In late 1989, the country was so broke that Doe convinced Firestone to provide an advance on future tax payments.
On Dec. 24, 1989, Taylor began his revolution to overthrow Doe and ostensibly return democracy to Liberia. It was, at first, quixotic. He launched his coup d’état not from the capital, but from a remote border crossing. He had a few dozen men, a paucity of weapons and little ammunition. He was taking on a longtime ally of the United States, with little popular support and no military experience.
Few people in either the U.S. or Liberian governments saw him as a serious threat.
“He wasn’t on our radar,” said Herman “Hank” Cohen, who back then was the assistant secretary of state for Africa.
That soon changed. Doe badly bungled his response to Taylor, sending out troops who ruthlessly murdered civilians. Angry men and women who had suffered the brunt of Doe’s oppression began taking up arms to join Taylor’s nascent band.
Taylor commanded a pauper’s army that grew to thousands, led by a handful of trusted lieutenants, Libyan-trained mercenaries and professional military men.
Among the most notorious recruits were the Small Boys Unit — young children, often orphans, who swore allegiance to “Papai,” as Taylor was called. To prove their loyalty, the children sometimes had to gun down their mothers and fathers. They would become among some of the most vicious killers in a war of heartless, mindless, unfathomable killing.
As the months passed and his march toward Monrovia continued, Taylor’s legend and ego only grew. He presented himself as a Baptist who neither smoked nor drank. A mesmeric speaker, he would appear before adoring crowds dressed in fine white linen, spouting promises of democracy, jobs and better days.
At other times, he wore camouflage and carried an AK-47. He would take to the radio to announce the impending capture of a nearby town, then magically do it. For many in Liberia, the spirit world remains close at hand. In such a place, Taylor became something more than a man — mystical, powerful, otherworldly.
Taylor seized much of the country’s rural, tribal interior, then his forces swept down an old railroad line built by a mining company to the Atlantic coast. There, he captured the country’s second-largest port, a jumble of docks and cranes in the rundown town of Buchanan. Hundreds of people were slaughtered as his soldiers settled old ethnic scores.
Elementary and middle schools emptied of children as they flocked to join Taylor. Catholic nuns reported school attendance dropping from 3,000 to 1,000 students in one town. Children too young to carry rifles were given grenades instead.
Taylor’s eyes now turned west, toward Monrovia, a capital of concrete and decay overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Between his army and his ambition lay an extraordinary treasure: the Firestone plantation. Some 40 miles from the capital, the plantation had the country’s most modern communications and electrical systems. It had food, gas, vehicles. Right next to it sat the principal airport, Roberts International Airport.
In the early days of June 1990, Taylor hurled his men forward.
For more than six decades, the Firestone plantation had spread across the coastal plains and rolling hills of central Liberia. It was a kingdom of men, machines and rubber trees, wedged between two tannin-stained rivers, on some of the country’s most fertile soil.
At the center of this kingdom was House 53, reserved for the plantation boss. It stood on a hill overlooking the rest of the plantation, a two-story antebellum-style Georgian Colonial mansion of pink brick. It had a wide porch, six white Corinthian columns and jalousie windows. Other homes for expatriates, featuring verandas and manicured gardens, were scattered nearby in a section of the plantation known as Harbel Hills. There was a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a country club with a bar.
About 3 miles down the road was Harbel, Firestone’s own company town, a portmanteau formed from the names of the business’ founder Harvey S. Firestone Sr. and his wife Idabelle. It held Firestone’s central office, industrial garages and a latex-processing plant redolent of ammonia and other chemicals. The town itself was a collection of tin-roofed homes and shops, a grocery store, a bank, schools and brick and cinder-block bungalows for mid-level Liberian managers and domestic staff.
A soccer field ran along the edge of town. On weekends, Firestone would show movies outdoors. The grounds were meticulous: close-cut grass and neat rows of rubber trees with the undergrowth cleared out. The order and precision immediately marked the plantation as different from the rest of the riotous, overgrown country.
Beyond the town were the trees, rows upon rows of trees: more than 8 million Hevea brasilienses planted in neat lines. Hidden in the groves and bush were dozens of work camps connected by roads that laced the farm.
These were the homes of the tappers, the Liberian workers who did the hard work of extracting the latex sap from the trees. The camps were long, low rows of residences almost like coops. Units generally consisted of a single room. The homes had wattle and daub walls and aluminum roofs. There were no windows and no kitchens. The work camps had communal pumps for water and outdoor kitchens for cooking. There was no electricity. Bathrooms were outhouses or the nearby bush.
Every day, the tappers got up to work before dawn. They cut thin slashes in the rubber trees with sharp knives, careful not to cut too deep or too often. The sap would run out into small cups — raw latex, the source of natural rubber.
Thousands of workers labored to meet their daily quotas by tapping hundreds of trees. To meet the demands, or surpass them to make more money, the tappers sometimes put wives and children to work to complete their tasks.
The collected latex was poured into giant metal buckets, which each held up to 75 pounds of sap. They were carried two at a time by workers holding a wooden yoke across their shoulders. The latex would be weighed. The workers got a few dollars a day.
From there, the sap would be processed into hunks of block rubber or canisters of liquid latex. At the end of a good year, the daily, delicate tapping and gathering of thousands of tiny cups produced tens of thousands of tons of rubber. The raw material was shipped off to factories around the world to become car tires and rubber hoses, hospital gloves and condoms.
This was the world of the Firestone operation — described in 1990 by one company executive as resembling “an old Southern plantation.”
After years of decorum and routine, it was about to become a gruesome battlefield.
Taylor’s war machine was sighted near the Firestone factory at 7 a.m. on June 5, 1990.
Ensminger, the plantation boss, woke to find Taylor’s fighters on the other side of the slow-moving Farmington River — the eastern border between the Firestone farm and the rest of Liberia. Wearing their trademark red bandanas, the rebels sang and danced on the bank some 400 feet away, waving U.S dollar bills and brandishing automatic rifles.
Tough, pragmatic and taciturn, Ensminger was not surprised by the arrival of the men. Grim stories raced ahead of Taylor’s swarm.
On April 6, Ensminger had issued a “strictly confidential” memo to the 40 or so U.S. and foreign-national staff who oversaw the plantation’s Liberian workers.
To the persons not covered by the memo — the Liberian workers and their families — Ensminger projected confidence as the maelstrom drew closer.
On April 28, he met with 180 Liberian staffers who were “near panic” at Taylor’s approach. Ensminger told them “they should be calm, as there was nothing to fear,” a company memo said. He told Liberian managers and workers that the fighters would simply pass through the plantation on their way to attack the capital.
In an interview, Ensminger said he warned the employees that Firestone would not be able to protect them if Taylor’s troops overran the plantation. He said he told them,
On the June morning when the rebels massed on the river-bank and mortars thumped in the distance, Ensminger directed his staff to carry out some last-minute errands. He sent Steve Raimo, the company’s accounting manager, to drive a pickup truck through the plantation to ensure that workers got their weekly pay before the rebels crossed the river.
Upbeat and optimistic, Raimo joked with Ensminger that he would hang his arm out of the window to make sure the fighters would know he was white.
“I knew that at that time that the rebels weren’t out to hurt us,” Raimo said. “We weren’t really involved in the fray.”
As the fighters began crossing the river in roughhewn canoes, they called out soothing promises. They shouted out that they had “no interest to harm workers” and were “only interested in soldiers,” Ensminger wrote in a journal that he kept during the invasion.
Whether or not Ensminger believed the rebels, many Liberian workers apparently did. When the fighters finally reached Firestone’s side of the river just before noon, some workers celebrated. To them, Taylor’s men were Freedom Fighters come to overthrow Doe, Liberia’s reviled dictator.
Women ululated on the main market street. They waved their hands above their heads. “Freedom fighters, freedom fighters,” some shouted.
Matthew Chipley, a skinny teenager who lived with his family on the plantation, watched as the fighters entered the town, guns held high. “People were jubilating. People were happy to receive Taylor,” he said. “They were in poverty, things were hard for them, and nothing good was going on.”
Mary Pollee, a young mother with three children whose husband worked in the Firestone electrical generator plant, remembered that the rebels seemed concerned about people’s safety. “All of you, go in your house,” they shouted to villagers. “When the rebels enter, they are not killing nobody,” she said.
Arthur Welwean, a college student and the son of Ensminger’s cook, raced down to the river’s edge to watch young boys with wigs on their heads and AK-47s in their hands spread out through the plantation. “This is gonna be good,” he remembered thinking. “These guys are in town. They wanna liberate people.”
Michael Mulbah Sr., a Liberian manager who had gone to college in the United States and lived on the plantation, recalled the excitement over the prospect that this motley militia might overthrow Doe. “We talked that they were our saviors,” he said.
It took only a day for the saviors to turn into devils.
The first person the rebels killed after crossing the river, according to several witnesses, was a mentally handicapped man. He was gunned down in the street. Next, the rebels began hunting down people who belonged to tribes closely associated with the ruling regime.
Kevin Estall, a British expatriate who was Firestone’s agricultural operations manager, recalled seeing piles of dead bodies of Liberians laying outside the Harbel supermarket. He was told the rebels had executed the men in public because they were from a rival tribe.
Mulbah was huddling in his bungalow when a group of Taylor’s rebels demanded that he leave immediately. Several boy soldiers glared at him, their eyes red, guns dragging on the ground behind them. Mulbah fled with two pairs of pants and some shirts.
“Taylor was like an eagle,” said Mulbah. “He’d come at you with his claws hidden, until he wanted to take them out.”
Over the next couple of days, the rebels hunted down members of rival tribes, beating and killing them. They took Firestone trucks, fuel and rice. They imprisoned the chief of Firestone’s police force in the plantation jail.
Welwean, the cook’s son, was running to hide in a small camp when he heard screaming all around him. A squad of children jumped out of the bush holding automatic weapons. They wore maroon choir robes, which they had stolen from a church on the plantation. Too big for the boys, the robes trailed on the ground, their trim ragged and dusty.
The boys believed that Welwean was a government soldier. They had him raise his pants legs since they believed that the soldiers wore boots that left marks on the wearer’s calf. When they found no marks, they let Welwean pass.
Four days after the rebel invasion, government soldiers counterattacked, pushing the rebels back into the bush. They scoured Harbel for rebel collaborators, rounding up scores of Firestone workers.
The soldiers, members of the Armed Forces of Liberia, went on their own rampage. They beat and tortured Firestone workers who were suspected of assisting Taylor’s rebels. They raped women, forcing loved ones to watch. They dumped bodies in the plantation’s drainage ditches.
The plantation turned menacing and surreal: Shadows darted through the rubber trees, corpses stuck out from weed-covered ditches, artillery fire pounded like bass drums into the early hours of the night.
Neighbors turned on each other. One boy pointed NPFL soldiers to two Firestone workers from a targeted tribe. Taylor rebels slit their throats. A few days later, the dead men’s families handed over the boy to government soldiers. They executed him behind the Firestone bank.
Caught in the crossfire were Chipley and his family. The soldiers accused them of being spies. As the teenager watched, the soldiers flogged his mother and father. Chipley, who worked at Firestone’s processing plant, was tied up by the soldiers. Young girls that he knew were raped, he said.
Chipley and scores of plantation workers decided to follow the example of thousands of other young Liberians brutalized by Doe’s soldiers: They joined Taylor’s forces. They fled to rebel outposts in the northern part of the plantation and began training.
“They were plenty that joined,” he said.
As the battle erupted, many of the remaining expats headed for House 53. Ensconced on the hill, Ensminger and his fellow expatriates were protected from the killings below them. The men passed the time playing cards and listening to BBC reports about the war. Ensminger smoked his pipe and practiced his golf game, using a pitching wedge to place short chip shots into nearby buckets.
Still, the executives could not escape the violence. Rifle fire crackled from all around. The power was out for days. Reports streamed in of nine bodies in one camp, high casualties in another. Conflicting rumors had the rebels in control of the plantation one day, government soldiers coming to the rescue the next.
For those long used to control, confusion reigned.
The last question was a daily challenge. John Vispo, Ensminger’s Number 2 and the plantation controller, had withdrawn the equivalent of $10,000 in cash from the Firestone safe before he sought shelter in House 53. It was, he figured, the best way to appease the fighters, who were often drunk, angry and armed.
As rebel commanders streamed to the mansion with demands, Ensminger took careful notes in his journal. One commander got $500 to “insure safety [in the Harbel Hills] area.” Another fighter received 100 gallons of gas, five bags of rice and $40. Ensminger handed yet another group Firestone Truck 63A — the oldest available.
On other occasions he resisted: Tough talk prevented the theft of vehicles and a personal computer. There seemed to be no one in charge, no overall commander to contact.
“We are totally helpless!!” Ensminger scrawled after days of demands at gunpoint.
By the third day, a huge crowd of some 1,500 to 2,000 panicked Liberians headed for House 53. For decades, Firestone had provided them with food, shelter and safety. Now, they begged for protection from the savagery.
Vispo halted the crowd as it walked up the long, broad lawn leading to House 53. There was nothing that Firestone could do, he told them. Firestone chefs cooked up a big pot of rice, which was distributed among the crowd.
The next day, several dozen senior Liberian staffers — people who worked directly with the expats, who considered them friends and colleagues — approached a second time in hopes of rescue.
This time, Ensminger stood on the porch and delivered the response: There was nothing the company could do for them.
The decision did not sit well with some expats. Estall refused to take shelter in Ensminger’s house. He holed up in his own home nearby, taking in several Liberians who pleaded for refuge.
“They felt they had been betrayed,” Estall said of Firestone’s Liberian staffers. “They felt let down by Mr. Ensminger for not offering them any shelter.”
The rejection stung the Liberians. Firestone employees had difficulty believing that such a powerful corporation, one with so much sway in the Liberian capital and so much money in its bank accounts, could not help in any way.
Actually it could help – but that aid would only be for the expats.
On June 13 at 5:30 in the evening, six Taylor guerillas confronted Ensminger on the front porch of House 53. The expats recognized several of the fighters as men who had worked as caddies at Firestone’s golf course.
The commander pointed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at Ensminger and threatened to blow up the house. He demanded $1,000. Ensminger convinced the men to leave with a truck and $200.
During the takeover, Ensminger had maintained radio contact with the embassy and Firestone headquarters in Akron, Ohio. Now, he called them again. It was time to leave.
The U.S. Embassy sent military escorts to accompany the Firestone expats to safety. Just after dawn, 19 expats in 17 vehicles headed through Gate 15, the northwestern entrance to the plantation. U.S. special forces made sure they arrived safely in Monrovia.
The Liberian workers woke to find themselves abandoned.
Justin Knuckles, a senior Liberian manager, had taken refuge in the Firestone community center with other Liberian staff. He remembers finding a note on the door from one of the expats, apologizing for their departure. The note said they would return when the situation calmed down.
Raimo said leaving behind the employees was “disheartening.” Looking back, however, he could think of no way that Firestone could have evacuated all the employees on the plantation.
“Our hands were tied,” he said. “We had no U.S. Army or Marines or whatever to come in and help us evacuate these hundreds of thousands of people who had been affiliated with Firestone, one way or another.”
“It’s hard to process sometimes – the inhumanity of man towards man,” said Raimo, who is now a business consultant and a Christian minister. “Certainly, evil was taking reign in Liberia.”
The final scrawl in Ensminger’s journal: “WHAT AN ORDEAL!!”
Ensminger arrived in Akron some 26 hours after the evacuation. At a press conference, he recounted the story of the rebel invasion and the RPG pointed at his chest.
His biggest concern, he said, was for the workers.
As Ensminger spoke to the press, Mary Pollee was trudging through thick bush to keep her shattered family alive.
A group of government soldiers had burst into Pollee’s mud-walled home on the Firestone plantation just before the ex-pats evacuated. They dragged her and her husband Joseph outdoors. They stripped him to his underwear. In front of their three children, they began beating and kicking the couple, accusing them of working with Taylor’s rebels.
The soldiers hauled away her bleeding husband. They marched back later demanding a ransom for his return. Pollee handed over what little she had. The soldiers returned a day later. They asked for $500 more. When she told them that she did not have it, the soldiers gang-raped her. They told her they would kill her and her children.
The next day, the soldiers killed her husband behind the white-washed, cinder-block bank in Harbel. Pollee decided to flee into the surrounding jungle with her children. Just before leaving, she remembers hearing that the Firestone expats had evacuated.
It made little difference to Pollee and her children. They plodded through the bush, eating sugar cane to survive, weary, afraid, hungry. A few days into her trek, Pollee noticed that the 3-year-old boy who she had strapped to her back had stopped moving. Monko, her youngest, had died.
Pollee was crazed with grief. She held the child in front of her, stumbling through the bush. She ran into a stranger, who helped her to bury the boy in the wild.
After days in the jungle, Pollee and her remaining children reached Kakata, a rebel-held town just outside the plantation. Her ordeal was not over.
In a recent interview, Pollee sat, dignified and graceful, on her couch in her tiny, tidy home beneath a mango tree in a suburb of Monrovia.
She remains angry at Firestone. Why hadn’t the company stood firm against the rebels? Why hadn’t the Firestone police tried to stop the assault? Why hadn’t the company asked the government soldiers to stay back?
“Nobody were there to protect the worker, nobody,” she said. “They went with their children, their wives, everybody, nobody left here, and when they left that’s the time the people started raising hell with us.”
Still, she said she understood.
“When it come to a war,” she said, “everybody run away.”
To understand the ferocity of the fighting that erupted in 1990 — and why Firestone and its plantation inevitably became central in it — one needs to know something of Liberia’s unusual history.
The country was settled in the 1800s by freeborn American blacks and freed American slaves, the result of a back-to-Africa movement by the American Colonization Society, a philanthropic organization. It was supported by President James Monroe and the U.S. Congress.
Even after the colony declared itself independent in 1847, naming itself Liberia, or “Land of Freedom,” the country duplicated many of the economic and social structures of the American South. The settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, had a complex relationship with the indigenous Africans who lived in the region. Some of the settlers built Southern-style mansions and exploited the locals’ labor and land.
Firestone arrived in Liberia in the 1920s. By that time, Harvey S. Firestone Sr., the farm boy from Ohio who founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., had become one of the top industrialists of the gilded age.
He dreamed of finding a rubber source beyond the grasp of the British Empire, which controlled much of the world market. In Liberia, he found a spot in the narrow band around the equator where rubber trees thrived – and a nation that was in debt and desperate for business.
After two years of negotiations, Firestone and Liberia announced one of history’s great sweetheart deals. Liberia gave Firestone the right to lease up to 1 million acres — roughly 10 percent of the country’s arable land. The cost? Six cents an acre. The term? Ninety-nine years.
The deal survived an early controversy in 1930, when investigators from the League of Nations found officials in the Liberian government had engaged in forcing indigenous villagers to work on private farms, including Firestone’s plantation.
The investigators found no evidence that Firestone “consciously employs labor which has been forcibly impressed.” Soon after the scandal, Harvey Firestone Jr., the founder’s son, launched a public relations campaign, delivering a series of radio addresses that described the company’s work in Liberia.
The five-minute spots depicted a company that respected local customs, provided workers with health care and built roads for a benighted nation — all the while benefitting American car owners.
The 1950s were golden years for Firestone and Liberia’s elite. Firestone was Liberia’s largest private employer and the largest exporter in the country. Firestone’s profits after taxes amounted to three times the government’s total revenue for 1951, according to one study.
The company tightened its relationships with the country’s ruling class in part by helping them become rubber farmers, providing free saplings and agricultural advice. When the rubber began to flow, Firestone purchased it.
Former presidents Charles King, Edwin Barclay, William V.S. Tubman and Tolbert all owned large rubber plantations.
To preserve its plantation, Firestone worked closely with whoever ran Liberia, no matter how they came to power or what they did to hold onto it.
In office for nearly 30 years, Tubman turned into a virtual dictator, quashing dissent, imprisoning political opponents and creating a spy network to track ordinary citizens. Firestone maintained such close ties with him that when the daughter of one plantation executive got married, she and her husband honeymooned at Tubman’s summer retreat outside Monrovia.
Tolbert, Tubman’s longtime vice president and successor, had the most fractious relationship with the rubber giant. As president in the mid-1970s, he renegotiated the government’s contract with Firestone, insisting on raising taxes and hiring more Liberians in senior management. Firestone executives complained that the plantation’s profitability began to decline.
About four weeks after Doe’s bloody coup in 1980, Firestone sent Don L. Weihe, the affable executive in charge of the company’s overseas rubber operations, to meet the new dictator.
Doe suspended the 1976 rubber deal struck by Tolbert that had so pained Firestone executives. Until world rubber prices rebounded, he decided, the company would enjoy generous tax exemptions.
Taylor ensured that Doe’s role in the relationship would be limited.
After chasing the Firestone managers out in June 1990, Taylor took over the colonnaded grandeur of House 53. The message was unmistakable: The company that had dominated the country for so long, that held power over its leaders and its laborers, had been vanquished.
The stately mansion was often chaotic and frenzied. Cronies and bodyguards lounged in the hallways. Sycophants waited for an audience. Battle commanders rushed in and out.
Taylor’s goal was to seize Monrovia, which held half the country’s population, most of its major financial and political institutions and most important, the executive mansion – Doe’s presidential residence, a menacing, fortified structure overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Taylor staged his attack from the Firestone plantation. He was confident enough of his success that he announced he would occupy the mansion by early July.
His men battled to within 500 yards of the executive mansion where Doe had holed up with his men. That was as far as he would get. As the two sides traded mortar- and small-arms fire, Taylor suddenly called a halt to the operation. The United States had reached out to him to plead for peace.
Cohen, the State Department’s top Africa hand, talked with Taylor several times by satellite phone to negotiate a ceasefire. He even visited Taylor at a rearguard base in Ivory Coast, where he found Taylor seated on a throne, surrounded by child soldiers. Behind him was a portrait of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.
“He had visions of being a great statesman,” Cohen said. “He saw himself like that. ‘I’m gonna take over Liberia and make it into a new country.’ ”
The bid for peace failed, and Liberia faded further as a concern for the United States. Cohen said his superiors made that clear to him.
Into the void stepped an alliance of West African nations led by Nigeria, the regional heavyweight. In August 1990, the alliance deployed some 7,000 peacekeepers, known as ECOMOG.
The peacekeepers succeeded in halting Taylor. But they did not save Liberia’s president. Doe was captured and killed by the head of a rival rebel faction led by Prince Johnson, one of Taylor’s former generals.
A notorious, vicious drunk, Johnson had himself filmed as he ordered his men to torture Doe. While he sat behind a desk with two open cans of Budweiser beer, a young woman fanning him from behind, Johnson ordered his men to strip Doe. The portly president kneeled before Johnson in his underwear, quivering, sobbing, begging. Johnson’s men hacked off his ears. Blood poured down his torso. Doe’s body was later found dumped outside a medical clinic.
Amos Sawyer, a Liberian intellectual, would emerge as the president of an interim government named at a meeting of leading Liberian politicians, activists and religious leaders.
By November, an uneasy ceasefire had settled across the country. Liberians called it “no peace, no war.”
Taylor, unimpressed by the peacekeepers and the new interim president, went about the business of governing.
He now controlled almost all of Liberia. In typically grandiose fashion, Taylor named his territory Greater Liberia — though it was better known by its eponymous nickname, Taylorland. He declared himself president.
As his capital, he chose the village of Gbarnga in the flatlands of northern Liberia, a scruffy regional trading center.
Taylor turned a long, low single-story house on an airy hill overlooking the village into his executive mansion. From the outside, it was modest and unpretentious. Inside was rococo furniture and walls of varnished wood.
He formed a legislative body for Taylorland, the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government, or NPRAG. He appointed a Cabinet of ministers (frequently fired, sometimes beaten) and created a judicial system (hardly independent). He even hired a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
He also built his army — eventually amassing perhaps 10,000 fighters and child soldiers armed with machine guns, mortars and artillery cannon.
His dreams stretched wide as Liberia’s sky.
For a while, a group of Firestone’s Liberian managers worked with Taylor to run the plantation. But they couldn’t maintain the millions of rubber trees. They had no ships to transport the rubber, no sales network to sell it. The farm’s hydroelectric plant supplied electricity only haphazardly.
By February 1991, the plantation was in danger of falling apart. A group of former Firestone workers met Taylor on the veranda of House 53. Their message: They wanted Firestone back.
“The employees were not benefiting,” said Victor Bestman, the Liberian estates manager. Taylor’s associates “sold the rubber, enriched themselves and how they divided it nobody knows.”
Taylor grew to realize that he needed Firestone. Symbolically, the company’s return would amount to a bright neon sign indicating that Taylorland was open for business. Politically, its jobs and supplies of food would ensure that residents did not rise up in dissent.
“We needed Firestone to keep people busy,” Richardson said.
When Firestone abandoned Liberia, it made Taylor seethe.
For its own part, Firestone was in no mood to kowtow to a guerrilla leader who had threatened its managers and killed its workers.
In October 1990, Ensminger sent a brusque letter addressing Taylor as “Commander-in-Chief” — not President. He requested a meeting, and a guarantee that the Firestone personnel who attended the meeting would be safe. A week later, Ensminger sent a follow-up aide memoire – a term typically used in diplomatic circles to outline discussion points.
In it, Ensminger laid out Firestone’s conditions for returning to Liberia. At the top of the list: Firestone
Ensminger demanded better financial terms to lower the company’s tax liabilities. And he noted that Firestone would not recognize the “legitimacy” of any political or military authority so as to avoid “interfering in the internal affairs of Liberia.”
Today, Ensminger said he thought the company should not have attempted to negotiate with Taylor.
The missive did little to improve Taylor’s disposition.
Ensminger’s attitude was,
Taylor was prepared to wait. If Firestone wanted its rubber plantation back, it would have to bend – and pay.
Back in Akron, Ensminger and other managers began strategizing about how to get the plantation running again.
In 1988, the Japanese tire conglomerate Bridgestone had acquired Firestone for $2.65 billion — the largest purchase of a U.S. company by a Japanese one at the time.
Business analysts judged the deal a disaster. Bridgestone moved too slowly to make necessary cuts. The company hemorrhaged money. Between 1990 and 1992, the new U.S. subsidiary, called Bridgestone/Firestone, lost $1 billion, according to one history of the company.
On Bridgestone’s balance sheet, Firestone’s Liberian plantation wasn’t a large item, generating about $104 million in revenue and $15.6 million in profits in 1989, the year before the civil war. But the 15 percent profit margin the plantation achieved that year was a bright spot on a corporate ledger drowning in red ink.
Top managers “were under a lot of pressure from Akron to get the plantation going,” said Ken Gerhart, the Firestone manager who ran the company’s soda bottling plant in Monrovia. The plantation “was very, very profitable. It was very efficient.”
The company found alternative sources of rubber in Asia after the plantation’s abandonment, but the latex produced in Liberia was considered to be among the finest in the world, in part because of the company’s tight quality control. The plantation supplied about 40 percent of the U.S. market for latex, and 10 percent of the world market.
The value of the plantation itself – the land, the trees, the factories, buildings, vehicles and equipment – was estimated at nearly $200 million. If Firestone pulled out for good, those assets would be unsalvageable. Even a temporary interruption posed risks: There was no assurance that Liberia would allow the company back, especially under the favorable conditions of the original deal cut in 1926.
To figure out how to deal with Taylor and return to Liberia, Firestone hired a young Liberian-born lawyer with impressive credentials. Gerald Padmore had graduated from Yale and then Harvard Law School. He had returned to Liberia to serve in President Tolbert’s government. As the acting minister of finance, he sat across the table from Firestone in rubber contract negotiations.
Later, he switched to Firestone’s side and began advising company leaders on whether to return to Liberia. Firestone agreed to have Padmore answer questions for the company about events in the early 1990s.
“It was a real dilemma for the company,” Padmore said. There was “a lot of, I would say, soul-searching, and really tough, tough decision-making that had to be done.”
As Padmore saw it, there were two competing governments in Liberia, neither of which had been formally recognized by the United States. Firestone’s operations straddled the lines of control. The plantation sat in Taylorland. But the company shipped its rubber and latex from Monrovia. To move from the plantation to the port, company employees had to pass through numerous roadblocks and withstand entreaties for bribes at each stop. Who made the rules? Who got the company’s taxes?
Padmore said much of Firestone’s determination to return to Liberia was driven by concern for its Liberian workforce. Firestone had stopped making rice shipments to the plantation in June 1990, and so men, women and children were surviving on sugar cane and rotting bananas. During one period that fall, the company’s medical director was recording 10 to 15 deaths a day, according to a sworn deposition.
The plantation and its trees were also a worry. Rubber trees must be very carefully tended and harvested to prevent them from dying. Firestone had received word that Liberians had descended on the plantation to illegally harvest latex from the company’s trees. They were “slaughter tapping” — an industry term for extracting so much sap that the tree dies.
“We’re hearing stories from our employees that they’re distressed,” Padmore recalled. “We’re hearing stories that our assets are being looted or destroyed. It’s a question of do we abandon Liberia, as many other major businesses had done, or will there be a future, and how do we get back on?”
Padmore said the “easy answer” for Firestone would have been to abandon the plantation. Several companies fled Liberia at the start of the war. Others had chosen to stay, according to a State department cable.
Padmore said it was tempting for Firestone to say,
Padmore acknowledged that Firestone’s employees had experienced Taylor’s violence. His soldiers had threatened Ensminger. Gerhart was put on a hit list, and his personal driver had the soles of his feet cut off with machetes by Taylor’s men. Firestone expats witnessed Taylor’s fighters savaging people in Harbel.
In the interview, Ensminger said that was “laughable.”
In October 1990, Human Rights Watch reported that Taylor soldiers had committed widespread killing and torture. Two-thirds of Doe’s tribe, the Krahn, had fled the country. Those who remained, the report said, were “at risk of genocide.”
In early 1991, the U.S. State Department released its report on human rights violations in 1990, a congressionally-mandated assessment for every country in the world. For Liberia, it read like a gore novel.
All the warring factions, including government soldiers, had committed atrocities. Each time Taylor took over a new province, his forces hunted and killed hundreds of men, women and children from the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups, which were seen as sympathetic to Doe. Emergency food centers set up to feed starving Liberians became grotesque snares. Those in line were forced to produce identity cards. The Krahn were killed. In one particularly nasty practice, Taylor’s men set up a highway checkpoint called “No Return.” More than 2,000 people were killed there.
“The overall human rights situation in Liberia in 1990 was appalling,” the report read. “All combatants routinely engaged in indiscriminate killing and abuse of civilians, looting, and ethnically based executions.”
“Leaders of all the armed groups did little or nothing to stop the killings
and, in some cases, may have encouraged them or been directly responsible for the abuses.”
Official data, painstakingly compiled years later by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from the testimony of thousands of Liberians, attempted to quantify the human damage. By December 1990, Taylor’s forces alone had committed nearly 40,000 human rights violations. The toll included more than 6,400 killings, 800 kidnappings and 600 rapes, according to a ProPublica analysis of the data.
Mary Pollee said she was one victim of Taylor’s fighters. From the Firestone plantation, she fled to a city held by Taylor’s rebels. The fighters stole her food. They took her clothes. They threatened her with guns. And then one day, they grabbed her 13-year-old daughter and raped and killed her.
Pollee — her husband, a son, and a daughter now buried — went mad.
“I was like somebody going crazy,” said Pollee. She began weeping at the memory in her living room, the cicadas outside whirring, the sun beating. “I was not to myself, oh.”
In Ohio, Firestone executives continued to discuss what to do. Initially, they decided to wait to see if the conflict would resolve itself. But as those hopes faded, Firestone made its final decision.
The company would go back to Liberia.
“Completely justifiable,” Padmore called the decision.
In February 1991, Ensminger flew to Liberia to reach out to Taylor. Over the coming months, the company resumed feeding its workers. It sent shipments of rice to Taylor and to the interim government. It even hired Taylor forces to guard House 53.
Said Richardson: “They just wanted what’s for Firestone to be for Firestone.”
In April 1991, U.S. Ambassador Peter Jon de Vos secured a meeting with Taylor in Gbarnga. He invited Ensminger along for the journey.
De Vos was a proponent of Firestone and Taylor reaching an accommodation. After the meeting, a cable noted that “De Vos pressed Taylor” to talk with Firestone officials.
A news broadcast from the time showed that the meeting disintegrated quickly. With cameras rolling, Taylor received De Vos in an anteroom furnished with a gilded white and gold Louis XV couch and chairs covered in plastic. Dark wood paneling rose above red carpet. Impeccable, Taylor wore a dark suit, with a white pocket square and red tie.
De Vos, dressed in a rumpled suit and bow tie, and large, square glasses, was sweating profusely. He greeted Taylor. Then, he introduced Ensminger, tan, fit and mustachioed.
“This is Mr. Ensminger, the director general of Firestone,” De Vos said.
Taylor looked puzzled. “Oh, he works for the embassy now?”
“No, America works for him,” De Vos replied.
Within minutes, Taylor began to harangue Ensminger. He questioned why Firestone was using the port in Monrovia rather than the port that he controlled.
The camera panned to Ensminger. He sat silently. He wore a tight smile on his face.
In behind-the-scenes talks, Richardson discussed matters directly with Ensminger. Richardson recalled asking Ensminger to provide back pay to the workers. Richardson said Ensminger denied the request.
“He was a very arrogant son of whatever,” Richardson said.
Ensminger told a different story. He said that he and his team had repeatedly tried and failed to meet with Taylor. The reason? Taylor’s ministers demanded a bribe even to see the guerilla leader.
“They wanted money before they would talk to us,” he said.
Ensminger said he refused to pay.
By summer 1991, Ensminger had arrived at an impasse.
That’s when Firestone executives from Akron decided to pay a visit.
In late June 1991, a top Firestone corporate executive named John Schremp traveled from Akron to Liberia.
He was a chemical engineer who wound up as director of human resources at Firestone’s corporate headquarters. In February 1991, the company’s new Japanese management made him head of the division overseeing the Liberia plantation. He had never been to Liberia or run a rubber farm.
The novelty of Schremp’s trip was alluded to in an online biography which recounted the start of his career at Firestone:
Schremp and another corporate executive, Richard Stupp, first visited the plantation, traveling in a sport utility vehicle with an armed guard. They passed through checkpoints manned by West African peacekeepers whom Schremp described as “professional soldiers.” Then the team passed into Taylor territory. There, the checkpoints were guarded by young boys with AK-47s.
“We were shocked,” Schremp said, in a written response to questions.
On July 3, Schremp got word that Taylor wanted to meet. Richardson, Taylor’s top adviser, would lead them to the talks.
The team traveled up crumbling highways and dirt roads, past soaring cotton trees and the listless, mottled bush of central Liberia before they arrived at the autocrat’s capital in Gbarnga.
From there, Schremp and Stupp were taken to the sprawling retreat that had been former President Tubman’s summer home. The visitors were escorted into a ballroom with parquet floors. A few minutes later, Taylor swept in. He sat in a chair that looked like a throne.
For a few moments, Taylor’s ministers complained to Schremp and Stupp that Firestone had abandoned its workers. It had let down Liberia.
Taylor held up his hand, Schremp recalled. The ministers stopped talking. He declared his desire for “a new start with economic progress for all Liberians.”
According to interviews, Taylor told the executives that he wanted Firestone back in business. To do so, Firestone would have to deal exclusively with Taylor’s government. All taxes would be paid to Taylor. All labor problems would go through his ministers.
In effect, Firestone would treat Taylor’s government as the official government of Liberia — an economic, if not diplomatic, recognition that Taylor craved to establish the legitimacy of Greater Liberia.
There was one thing that was clear: Ensminger had to go. Taylor wanted an old acquaintance to take over — Weihe, the retired Firestone plantation boss who had dealt with Liberia’s politicians since the 1970s.
Two days later, Schremp indicated Firestone’s willingness to accommodate Taylor. In a letter, he wrote that the company wanted Taylor’s “assistance and cooperation” to clean up the plantation, resume services at the hospital and get water and electricity running again.
“We found the discussions very enlightening and helpful,” Schremp wrote in the letter. He said he was “confident” that Firestone and Taylor’s rebel government “have the common goal of a better future for Liberia and its people.”
The company’s about-face was complete.
Before, it had resisted the guerilla leader who had killed its workers, threatened to execute its managers and ravaged the country that had long been its partner.
Now, Firestone decided to acquiesce.
“Yes, absolutely,” Padmore said. “It was clear that without that, you would not be able to put a management team on the ground.”
Ensminger was upset at Firestone’s newfound willingness to cooperate. He had spoken with Firestone’s attorneys. They had worried about potential legal problems – including breaking U.S. laws governing companies operating overseas.
In the weeks after the July meeting, Ensminger flew back to Akron to protest the change in direction. He said he met with several senior Firestone executives. He and Schremp had a heated exchange.
“I stated the position that we had had, and we should continue to have,” Ensminger said. “We should not recognize Taylor and his people as the legitimate government for the country of Liberia.”
“I was very opposed to dealing with Taylor under his terms,” Ensminger said.
Ensminger said Schremp called him into his office, and threatened to fire him. Ensminger would not accept the dismissal letter. He said he insisted on a mutual agreement in which he would not discuss the company’s actions, in exchange for a buyout package.
Schremp consented, he said. In October 1991, Ensminger left Firestone. Schremp did not respond to requests for comment on Ensminger’s account.
Firestone responded to Ensminger’s assertion that its decision to work with Taylor had been a mistake.
Firestone continued with its new approach. The change in tack stirred apprehension in Monrovia and Washington.
While in Liberia, Schremp had paid a visit to Sawyer, the round-faced, genial interim president who had long opposed Taylor.
In a recent interview, Sawyer said he found Schremp “elusive” when he asked about Taylor. Sawyer said he warned Schremp about the consequences of cozying up to the warlord.
U.S. diplomats watched warily. In September 1991, Firestone executives spoke with State Department officials in Washington. The diplomats warned the company about the “difficulties and dangers of doing business in Taylorland” and of “potential legal problems,” according to one cable.
On December 17, 1991, almost two years after Taylor’s invasion, the board of directors met in Akron to discuss Taylor’s demands.
Schremp delivered the presentation.
In exchange for being able to return to its operations, Firestone would work with Taylor’s government. It would make a “significant” capital investment to restore plantation assets that had been damaged and looted. The company would turn Buchanan, Taylorland’s biggest port, into a “viable entity.” Firestone managers would also be allowed to re-occupy homes that Taylor’s ministers and followers had taken over.
The board, led by Chairman and CEO Yoichiro Kaizaki, approved everything, Schremp told Taylor in a letter.
Schremp closed his letter by wishing Taylor the peace of the Christmas season, and hope for the new year.
On the very day the board i Akron voted to go into business with Taylor, his fighters were stealing Firestone vehicles, looting nearby towns and had jailed and tortured two “hapless” villagers from Harbel, a Firestone official who visited the plantation told the U.S. Embassy.
On Jan. 17, 1992, Firestone consummated its deal with Taylor.
Gale Ruff, Firestone’s acting general manager at the time, headed to Taylor’s capital in Gbarnga. He had been advised to bring “beverages” to celebrate the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Firestone and Taylor’s self-declared government.
In Gbarnga, several of Taylor’s top ministers presented Ruff with the text of the memorandum. The details had been hashed out earlier between Schremp and Taylor’s representatives.
Ruff affixed his signature to the accord.
In a recent interview, Ruff said that he was fuzzy on the event’s details. But he acknowledged signing the agreement on Firestone’s behalf.
“I had to be a little like Sgt. Schultz. ‘I know nothing,’” he said, referring to a 1960s American sitcom in which a German prison guard constantly asserts his ignorance of sensitive matters. “I was basically handed a fait accompli. They needed a warm body on the ground to sign the paper.”
It was a remarkable document in the annals of corporate history.
On Taylor stationery, which bore a scorpion imprint, the agreement’s preamble laid out the stakes. Taylor’s government wanted to improve the Liberian economy. Firestone wanted to resume operation of its rubber plantation.
To do so, Taylor would return seized housing to Firestone’s managers. He would provide security forces to protect Firestone workers.
Firestone, in turn, would pay its Liberian workers in U.S. dollars. It would rehire the employees it had abandoned.
Perhaps most important: Firestone would also make all arrangements necessary “for settlement of present and future financial obligations” to Taylor’s government.
Firestone provided copies of the agreement to the U.S. Embassy and to officials in Sawyer’s interim government.
“Firestone conducts its business in full transparency,” Firestone said in its recent statement. The memorandum “made it clear, and in public, management’s determination to find a way to resume work on the farm and keep it a viable entity for Liberia as well as for Firestone and its employees.”
At the time Firestone signed the document, there was still a hope for peace. But those expectations crumbled in the following months. Democratic elections called for by one peace pact in April 1992 never materialized. The horrors of the civil war continued to mount. The U.S. State Department’s 1992 report of human rights violations found that 20,000 to 30,000 Liberians had died during the previous year. More than 600,000 had fled their homes.
Taylor’s rebels had detained some 4,000 West Africans for months, the report said. In one county, they killed as many as 1,500 people, mostly Krahn, and destroyed entire villages. They carried out clandestine killings, raped women, looted homes and stole cattle.
Firestone, Padmore said, was unaware of the scope of Taylor’s violence.
On May 22, at Firestone’s historic brick headquarters in Akron, the company confirmed its commitment to work with Taylor.
There, at 8:30 a.m. in the company’s second-floor conference room, Kaizaki, the CEO and board chair, met with two representatives of Taylor’s NPRAG government, according to a Firestone corporate summary of the meeting.
Kaizaki had assumed leadership a year earlier, with strict orders to restore profitability to the company. He spoke little English at the time. Firestone’s mostly Midwestern managers referred to him as Kaizaki-san — a traditional Japanese honorific.
Kaizaki told Taylor’s men that he would be glad to return to Japan to spread the news that Liberia under Taylor was open for business — so long as Firestone’s plantation was running.
In two brief phone interviews, Kaizaki said he recalled that Taylor representatives had come to Akron, but he did not remember meeting them. He did not dispute the meeting notes. He referred further questions to a Firestone spokesman.
ProPublica’s questions, Kaizaki said, were “unpleasant.”
Kaizaki made two promises before the events in Akron concluded: Firestone would
Firestone’s money started flowing to Taylor in January 1992.
That month, Firestone paid Taylor’s government $69,000 in income and reconstruction taxes; $10,000 for a “social security pension scheme;” and $6,000 for a “social security income scheme,” according to internal corporate records.
By the end of 1992, the records’ careful rows and columns showed that Firestone had paid out more than $2.3 million in income taxes, Social Security pensions, worker injury funds and rent. Of that total, more than $1.3 million was paid in “cash/check” and about $1 million in contributions of rice, buildings and equipment. The documents also showed that Firestone poured $35.3 million into rebuilding the plantation between June 1990 and February 1993. It’s unclear whether that total included the tax payments. The document said the money paid for rice shipments, plantation rehabilitation, pensions and labor settlements, and $12.3 million in “miscellaneous obligations and expenses.”
In the coming years, Taylor traded in smuggled diamonds and illegally harvested timber. While the exact sources of his war chest remained murky, the State Department estimated in 1996 that he could have been taking in as much as $75 million a year. In addition, he also received support from sympathetic nations, such as Libya and Burkina Faso.
But at the beginning of his insurrection, Taylor was a start-up warlord with a growing army and a need for new revenue. Taylor explained the special importance of Firestone’s resources while on trial for war crimes at The Hague.
At one point, Taylor said his dealings with Firestone netted $1 million to $2 million every six months. The cash was kept in a building in Gbarnga by Taylor’s finance minister, since there was not yet a First National Bank of Taylorland.
As to how he used the funds, Taylor was as transparent as an Enron footnote. The money purchased “food and medicine and different things,” he said.
Taylor said Firestone worried about its dealings with him.
Firestone “did not want to get involved in a violation of United States laws,” Taylor testified.
To accommodate those concerns, Taylor said that he worked out a scheme with Firestone. The company provided rubber to Taylor officials, who smuggled it out of Liberia and sold it in neighboring Ivory Coast.
U.S. Embassy cables from the 1990s corroborate Taylor’s testimony about Firestone’s worries. In 1991, U.S. Embassy officials noted that Firestone was “very concerned” that Taylor was making demands which could result in the company violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law bans American companies from paying bribes to foreign government officials. Firestone was being “remarkably cagey” about its dealings with Taylor, one cable said.
Taylor was also adamant that Firestone had never paid taxes to his rebel government.
“They did not pay taxes to the NPFL,” he said in his testimony.
Padmore, however, acknowledged that Firestone had, indeed, paid taxes. Such payments were entirely legal, he explained, because Taylor was a de facto government that controlled Firestone’s plantation.
Firestone “did not pay off warlords, or give money under the table,” he said.
ProPublica and Frontline unearthed previously unreported records of Firestone’s payments to Taylor in a lawsuit filed in a county courthouse in Akron, Ohio.
The documents, with their green-eye-shade accounting precision, surprised both Americans and Liberians.
U.S. officials who served in Monrovia at the time said they had not heard of the payments. Ambassador William Twaddell took charge of the embassy eight months after the Firestone agreement was signed. During a recent interview in Washington, D.C., he shook his head in disbelief when he was shown the Firestone document labeled “Schedule of Payments to the NPRAG.”
“It’s kind of amazing that it is so broken down by columns,” he said.
If Firestone became Taylor’s
Sawyer was also taken aback. When he viewed the documents in Monrovia recently, the aging ex-president reacted angrily, saying he would recommend that the current Liberian government look anew at Firestone’s role in the civil war.
“I think this is sad. I’m not only troubled by it … I’m angry at it,” he said. “The Liberian people deserve some explanation.”
“This is complicity,” he said. “This is complicity.”
Brenda Hollis served as one of the chief prosecutors at Taylor’s war crimes trial. An expert in international law, she exhausted herself trying to untangle Taylor’s finances. Even today, his sources of funds remain a mystery.
Hollis had never seen the documents, either. She scoffed at Firestone’s use of the term “taxes” to describe payments to Taylor.
Firestone fulfilled its second promise to Taylor in May 1992. Weihe came out of retirement to take over as managing director of the Firestone plantation.
A retired U.S. Air Force captain, he had wavy hair and an easy, gap-toothed grin. He liked whiskey and had a big diamond ring.
Weihe had acted as Firestone’s fix-it man before. A chemist, he was not particularly experienced in operating a rubber farm. He did, however, have a very particular set of skills that he had acquired during his long career: “I knew how to move around in the political circles,” Weihe said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, he sold off the company’s rubber plantations, except for the one in Liberia. Later, he bargained with Samuel Doe to get a better deal on the company’s contract with Liberia. In the late ‘80s, he ran the Firestone plantation in the final, turbulent years of Doe’s regime.
Weihe met Taylor when the rebel leader was a newly minted bureaucrat controlling the money that sloshed through Doe’s administration.
Weihe also befriended Richardson, Taylor’s top adviser. Both men loved deep sea fishing. In what could have been a scene from a Graham Greene novel, expats and Liberian anglers mixed at Firestone’s fishing club, a collection of wooden docks and 20-foot boats on a muddy creek just outside the entrance to the Firestone plantation.
“I didn’t sense any racism in him,” Richardson said of Weihe. “He didn’t have that plantation mentality.”
Although 65 years old and settled into retirement, Weihe welcomed the chance to return to Liberia.
In Firestone’s absence, Taylor had turned House 53 into his own personal White House, a place to retreat to as he scuttled around the country for security reasons.
A Firestone cook prepared meals for him. Firestone’s repairman fixed the hot-water heater after Taylor complained that the showers were too cold. Firestone workers cut the lawn by hand.
He reveled in his power. He welcomed diplomats, U. N. representatives, even former President Jimmy Carter, who came to Liberia to work on a peace accord.
Still, Weihe liked what he saw — on the plantation, and with Taylor.
“My first impression with Taylor was that he might be a reasonable man,” Weihe said. “He certainly spoke reasonably about how Liberia should be changed, and what should be done.
“What he said made sense,” Weihe said.
Taylor held up his end of the memorandum of agreement. He appointed Brig. Gen. Domingo Ramos, a mercenary from Gambia, to protect the plantation with about 300 soldiers. Matt Chipley, a Ramos commander, said Firestone paid him $425 a month and gave him free fuel and 25 bags of rice. Taylor also ordered Ramos to recover looted Firestone equipment, machinery and vehicles.
Taylor and his ministers’ homes in the hills were off limits. So Weihe and his crew set up a spartan dormitory in the guest-house Firestone used to put up visitors.
As the first summer rains began, the expats worked to assess the damage to the plantation. At night, they gathered at communal tables for meals of rice and chicken. Afterward, they relaxed with Club Beer, the local brew. Weihe drank whiskey from a small glass.
Taylor visited the Firestone expats on several occasions. In the humid guest-house, he gave long speeches on democracy and the future of Liberia.
“We called him Mr. President,” remembered Brad Pettit, the plantation’s controller. “I actually felt that if there was an election, he would be elected. I was impressed with the man.”
Occasionally, the expats ran into roadblocks set up by rebel soldiers. They saw child soldiers roaming the grounds. Convoys of armed rebels raced past.
“Should we have waited” to resume operating? Pettit asked recently. “Probably, yes, I will agree that that’s a probable, better answer. But we decided…that it was doable and we decided to try.”
Weihe rehired thousands of Liberians to tap rubber trees, rebuild plantation buildings and trim back jungle growth that threatened to overrun the plantation.
As decreed by Taylor for all foreign companies working in Taylorland, Firestone started paying workers half in Liberian currency and half in U.S. dollars, according to an embassy cable. As the U.S. dollars circulated, they helped provide Taylor’s government with much needed liquid currency.
Weihe created a new transport system that allowed Firestone to use the port at Buchanan to export liquid latex — previously only possible through Monrovia.
Taylor returned the favor. His port charged lower fees than the interim government’s levies in Monrovia. The arrangement saved Firestone money, put cash into Taylor’s hands and starved Sawyer’s interim government of badly needed revenue.
It was a sweet deal for everyone involved.
“Firestone’s intent was to make money. Always has and always will,” Pettit said. “Why did we go back? Because we felt sorry for the people that were there? Probably not. We wanted to get the investment earning money again.”
The languorous summer days of 1992 were filled with tension. Almost two years had passed since the cease-fire, and both Sawyer and the West African peacekeepers were running out of patience. Taylor had kidnapped more than 500 West African soldiers. He was fighting pitched battles with a rebel faction invading from neighboring Sierra Leone.
Weihe knew that Taylor’s fighters were using the plantation as a staging area. They rushed off to attack peacekeeping and government forces stationed at the Schieffelin military base between Firestone and Monrovia.
“You knew there was a war going on,” Weihe said.
Taylor’s rebels sometimes kicked Firestone workers out of their homes. In other cases, the rebels were Firestone employees — working when they weren’t warring.
Welwean, the son of the general manager’s cook, described a constant influx of fighters.
Expats and Liberians recall planes flying overhead in the middle of the night and landing at Roberts airport, just outside the plantation entrance.
Convoys of pickup trucks trundled up the main road, carrying secret cargo deeper into the shadows of the Firestone plantation.
Weihe and Taylor worked to set up a communications center and radio station in another senior manager’s house nearby, according to a Firestone official and a deposition from Tom Woewiyu, Taylor’s defense minister.
In July 1992, Weihe gave U.S. Embassy officers a tour of the resurgent plantation. He told them how Ramos had deployed around 300 soldiers to protect the operation. Another 1,000 or so rebels lived on the farm, “taking advantage of Firestone’s food distribution,” Weihe told the officers.
As the tour progressed, the group chatted with Ramos. He seemed laid-back, affable. They bumped into Gen. Adolphus Dolo, better known as Gen. Peanut Butter. He was infamous for recruiting child soldiers.
After the tour, embassy officials summarized the visit in a lengthy cable to Washington.
There was one more thing Weihe wanted the embassy to know. At some point, Weihe pulled one of the embassy officers aside. The rebels had not permitted Firestone to venture into some areas of the sprawling plantation, he said.
On Oct. 8, 1992, the new U.S. ambassador to Liberia paid an official visit to the Firestone plantation.
Twaddell and his entourage traveled smoothly across the 20-mile tarmac road from the capital to the plantation. Weihe provided a tour. There was great news.
Firestone was back in business.
For the first time since June 1990, Firestone had begun producing rubber in Liberia — 600,000 pounds in August, 3.9 million pounds in September.
More than 6,500 Liberians were back at work tapping rubber trees. Buildings destroyed by looting had been repaired. The company had managed to reopen Firestone’s hospital.
“It was a pretty impressive installation,” Twaddell said. “We got, I think, a pretty fair snapshot of what the operation was about and how it worked.”
That was only partially true. By the day of Twaddell’s visit, Taylor’s men had cleared the usual 25 roadblocks manned by teenage rebels looking for bribes. Child soldiers had vanished from sight. Taylor himself was nowhere to be seen.
Behind the scenes, though, Taylor was overseeing the final stages of preparation for Operation Octopus — an all-out push to seize Monrovia and take control of Liberia. Soldiers mounted a heavy machine gun in front of House 53 for Taylor’s protection. Taylor began spending most of his days at the plantation, he testified.
On the farm, some expats said they noticed nothing different. Weihe said he had no idea that Taylor was planning an attack. John Chapman, a British expatriate who was a production manager at the rubber-processing plant, said he vaguely recalled an armed convoy passing through the plantation in the days before the operation was launched. But he didn’t think much of it.
“We were concentrating on getting the factory running,” he said. “We were all pleased that it was running.”
During the tour, an embassy contact on the plantation
U.N. reports would later attest that arms dealers from the former Soviet Union were among Taylor’s chief weapons suppliers — including the notorious Viktor Bout.
Twaddell noticed that the soldiers he saw bore automatic weapons that were “shiny and new and apparently just out of the packing crate,” according to the cable.
If Firestone’s expats noticed nothing suspicious, their Liberian employees were more perceptive.
The monsoons of the rainy season had just given way to drier weather. The air thrummed with a kind of energy and dread. A sharp blade was scraping softly up Liberia’s neck.
At around 3 a.m. on October 15, Taylor unleashed his hell on Monrovia.
Howitzer cannons and 81 mm mortars set up in outlying suburbs hurled metal into the sleeping city — a narrow peninsula bordered by mangrove swamps, mudflats, creeks and the Atlantic Ocean.
Gerhart, who lived in a house overlooking the marshes on the eastern edge of Monrovia, awoke to rocket fire sailing over the roof of his home. “We knew the battle was on,” he said.
At the same time, in the fortified U.S. Embassy at the other end of the capital, Twaddell woke to booms. The barrage racked the city. Mortar shells landed near the compound. “It was chaotic, very scary,” Twaddell said.
Taylor had launched a mad, merciless, determined assault to seize the capital that he had failed to gain control of two years earlier. Some analysts believed that was why he had retreated to Firestone’s plantation — to plot the attack, to bolster his forces, to stock his magazines.
Taylor’s battle plan called for the entire weight of the NPFL and its allies to hammer Monrovia from multiple directions, enveloping it like the arms of an octopus.
Two attacks were staged from the Firestone plantation, one from the north and a second from the east. They were aimed at seizing Monrovia’s suburbs and the interim government’s only remaining airport. An allied rebel faction would attack from the west to destroy the base of the West African peacekeepers and seize the country’s largest port.
The city would be trapped against the anvil of the Atlantic. Taylor’s generals predicted it would fall in two weeks.
“We had the men. We had the will to fight,” said Daniel Chea, then Taylor’s defense minister.
Richardson had taken over Brad Pettit’s old house. Taylor’s men had captured a battle map that had belonged to the West African forces. Richardson spread it across a large table, tracking the battle as it progressed over the next several days.
The attack did not go as planned. The NPFL had stationed two aging missile launchers that could fire up to 40 rockets at a time in the suburbs across from the capital. The rockets fired wildly, overshooting the city and landing in the ocean, as harmless as fireworks.
The artillery barrage also was not hitting the intended targets. The 105 mm Howitzer guns were old, their barrels locked in place by rust and disuse. The only way to change the trajectory of the shells was by moving the cannons back and forth.
The 81 mm mortars landed randomly. One even hit Richardson’s family home in Monrovia.
“We were aiming pretty close. That’s the best we could do,” Richardson said. “People were trying to kill us. We were trying to kill them back.”
Richardson tried to compensate for the indiscriminate fire by using the radio station at Firestone to warn residents where the next rounds would fall.
Taylor’s commanders unleashed their shock troops, child soldiers who dashed across mudflats wearing cheap rubber sandals they called “Four Wheel Drive.” The child soldiers were often given drugs or alcohol before battle to boost their courage, according to human rights organizations.
Appearing drugged, they ran toward West African soldiers, firing and retreating, firing and retreating. The children cut down one adult after another. The men hardened.
Innocent Nass, a military analyst and retired Nigerian officer, remembered fighting against Taylor’s child soldiers at a later stage in the war. They were often the most violent, most devoted soldiers, drugged berserkers who attacked in human waves.
“You really don’t see them as children in the heat of battle,” Nass said.
As the rebels advanced through the suburbs, they carried out summary executions of civilians suspected of being government collaborators. They looted homes. They seized property. Some spray-painted their names across empty buildings to claim them as their own.
Some 200,000 people fled into the city to seek safety. Monrovia became a pestilent ark. People crouched in homes and died in the streets. They filled the hospitals: babies with head wounds, mothers with shattered legs, young men broken and wrapped in blood-soaked bandages.
The rebels ringed Monrovia. Chipley, the skinny kid who grew up on the Firestone plantation, was now commander of the Wild Geese brigade, considered to be one of the more professional units of Taylor’s army.
Chipley marched his 1,100 men toward the suburbs of Monrovia dressed in black T-shirts bearing the emblem of a flock of geese. They were armed with RPGs, lightweight 60 mm mortars and an anti-aircraft gun.
Christopher Vambo, known as Gen. Mosquito, swept south from the Firestone plantation with more than 2,000 men. He seized a suburb called Gardnersville, which was separated from Monrovia by 2 miles of swamp and river. He wore camouflage battle dress, a red beret and aviator sunglasses that dwarfed his face.
His men dressed in T-shirts and rags. They carried AK-47s and RPGs. They marched, singing, jumping. One wore a top hat and shell necklace. Another played a blue plastic recorder. One man held what appeared to be a leg bone.
West African soldiers “are trying to penetrate through,” Vambo told a CNN camera crew as he pointed to a decaying, withered skeleton trapped beneath a burnt-out armored personnel carrier. “Everything will crush on them.”
After several days of fighting, the perimeter around the capital had shrunk to less than 2 miles.
Rose, Twaddell’s deputy chief of mission, began evacuating non-essential personnel from the embassy. A former Army officer and helicopter pilot, Rose worried about the possibility of Taylor’s success.
“The first few days were very, very touch-and-go,” he said. “Taylor forces got quite close.”
The West African forces counterattacked, their forces rapidly swelling to 12,000 soldiers. They loosed bombs from Nigerian air force Alpha jets. They drove tanks and armored personnel carriers. They shredded the rebels’ swampy hideouts with big guns fired from Nigerian navy vessels.
The West African peacekeepers worked closely with anti-Taylor guerrillas and the notoriously brutal Liberian army — all of whom knew the terrain better than the foreign soldiers. The alliance began to push Taylor’s fighters back.
For weeks, the battle seesawed. Taylor’s men were pushed out of the capital, but the suburbs remained killing fields of whizzing bullets and rotting corpses, of child soldiers holding giant stuffed teddy bears, and poorly trained peacekeepers rampaging and looting.
Trapped in the chaos were five American nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ order based in Ruma, Illinois.
Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and M. Joel Kolmer (a cousin to Shirley) lived in a small convent just off the main road that runs through Gardnersville.
The convent was located on a shifting frontline between Taylor’s fighters and the West African peacekeepers. Much of what happened next was pieced together by reporter Charlotte Grimes of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1993.
On Oct. 23, the American embassy was informed that the convent had been cut off by overnight fighting. Two of the sisters were missing. They needed help. Under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, West African soldiers pushed forward to rescue them. But they had to withdraw. The zone was too hot.
The sisters’ bodies were found weeks later. Two were found dead in a car, a short distance from the convent. Three others were found in the convent itself. Several other bodies were found around the convent.
The deaths of the five nuns vaulted the impossible savagery of Liberia’s conflict onto the international stage. Taylor was held responsible, though he protested that his men were innocent.
The State Department described the United States as “shocked and appalled” by the “cowardly act.” Pope John Paul II called the nuns “martyrs” who had been “brutally murdered.”
In Monrovia, hundreds of people packed the Catholic cathedral on a sunny, sweltering day for a requiem for the sisters. Archbishop Michael Francis delivered a powerful, wrenching sermon. Embassy officials reported that he had called out Taylor for plunging the country into violent madness.
“The way to power is through the ballot box,” Francis said. “But this leader has resorted to any means to achieve it.”
As the throng of worshippers left the church, the choir struck up a hymn: “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”
Rose loaded the women’s bodies into C-130s on the tarmac of Monrovia’s municipal airport for flights back to the United States. They were buried together, on a cold winter day, in five side-by-side plots at the Ruma convent they once called home.
An inquiry by the Catholic Church and another by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission named Vambo and another NPFL soldier as the perpetrators. The FBI carried out its own investigation, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.
In a recent interview, Rose said he remains upset that the sisters’ killers have never been brought to justice. Two decades later, Rose is still determined to make sure that their deaths are not forgotten.
“Five American citizens were killed in an act of terror,” Rose said. “We as a government and those of us who serve in government have a deep responsibility to see that justice is done.”
“I have a responsibility,” Rose said. “That responsibility is unfulfilled.”
As Taylor’s wild boys tore up Monrovia, the plantation was humming.
The expats made their daily commute from the guest-house to the Firestone office and factories a little more than 3 miles away. In October, they celebrated a new milestone: factory production had reached a record for the year: 4.7 million pounds of rubber.
The managers knew, of course, that a big attack was going on. The hospital was filled with wounded NPFL soldiers. The roads were mostly blocked.
They kept their heads down and worried about the rubber.
“I felt safer on the plantation,” Weihe said. “When you’ve got work to do, and you know what you have to do, and you go about it, you really don’t get too frightened or worked up.”
A mile up the road from the plantation’s guest-house, Taylor’s war room was humming, too. He had expected the attack to last no more than two weeks. But his rebels had failed to establish even a foothold in central Monrovia.
By November, the peacekeepers had gone on the offensive, recruiting allies from other warring groups. They were hunting Taylor now.
West African air force jets began bombing-and-strafing runs. Since they had no anti-aircraft weapons, the aerial assaults chased Taylor’s men from one stronghold to another. His capital, Gbarnga, was hit. So, too, was the port he controlled in Buchanan. Kakata, a town with a heavy NPFL presence just outside the Firestone rubber farm, was also struck.
Then, of course, there was the Firestone plantation. It was full of families recruited to come back and live and work by a company eager to return to business.
The Liberians on the plantation said it was hard to imagine that the West African forces would attack. The peacekeepers would not dare place the lives of so many civilians in danger.
But the plantation also held Taylor’s command post. His communications equipment. Some of his soldiers. Even his weapons and ammunition.
On Nov. 2, the peacekeepers shattered the sanctuary, and Firestone’s decision to reopen its plantation in the middle of Taylor’s rebel base would exact a human cost.
At about 6:30 p.m., dozens of Liberian workers had gathered at the soccer field near Harbel for a game. Men, women and children watched from the sidelines. In the homes surrounding the field, people played checkers and Scrabble — a favorite Liberian pastime.
Suddenly, several olive-green Alpha jets streaked overhead. One loosed a bomb that exploded, flinging shrapnel, blood and body parts everywhere. People were screaming, dying. The planes passed by on a second run. They strafed survivors.
Welwean’s uncle was playing checkers with six other men. They were cut to pieces by the strafing. Julius Morlue, a Liberian who worked in Firestone’s accounting section, was summoned by his daughter. He raced with her toward the field. He found his wife between two houses, blood pouring from a fatal wound to her head.
“I could not do anything,” Morlue said. “I lay down side her body and cry, cry.”
Roberts, Weihe’s secretary, was drinking a bottle of beer in his house when the bombs dropped. His house filled with smoke. A few homes away, one of his neighbors was killed.
Mary Pollee had returned to Firestone after her journey of grief, taking up residence in the home she had once shared with her family. But with her husband dead, she said Firestone managers told her she no longer had the right to company housing. So she moved to a town adjacent to the plantation.
She was living there when she heard the bomb strike. She ran to see what had happened. She remembered stepping over the bodies of dead Firestone workers.
“Human being, these poor human being there that day, it was not easy,” she said. “Body, body. body. I would not even be able to stand there again to see. I were not able.”
From the guest-house 3 miles away, the expats watched the bombing with amazement.
In the gloaming, Weihe rushed down to the soccer field. He was sickened by what he saw: the blood, the bodies, the limbs like twisted doll arms scattered across the carefully manicured grass.
Weihe told an embassy official that 42 people were killed — none of them combatants. Perhaps another 200 were injured. Many people were buried among the rubber trees.
Weihe appeared in a televised interview after the attack. In his gray shirt and large, wire-framed glasses, he looked angry, puzzled, exhausted.
“It’s a devastating experience to witness something like this,” he said. “I would find it hard to think that what we are engaged in here would have any value other than something that would be for the well-being of the world.”
Nigerian Gen. Victor Malu, the commander of the West African forces, made no apology for targeting the plantation.
Richardson denied that Taylor’s use of the plantation had turned Firestone’s Liberian workers into human shields.
Today he lives in central Monrovia, in a light-filled home made of native woods on the banks of the St. Paul River. Funny, erudite, a charming raconteur, he spends many evenings with friends from the NPFL days, tossing back Heinekens on the sidewalk outside a local auto-body shop.
He insists that neither he nor Taylor did anything wrong — either under Liberian or international law.
Firestone decided it had had enough after the counterattack triggered by Operation Octopus. Enough bombing. Enough blood. Enough of everything.
On Nov. 18, Weihe wrote a letter to “His Excellency” Charles Taylor. Weihe said he had consulted with Firestone’s CEO Kaizaki, who was “very proud” of the work Firestone had done at its Liberian outpost. Nonetheless, Firestone had decided it was “impossible” to continue work on the plantation given the security conditions.
Weihe told Taylor that he had appointed the plantation’s doctor to run daily operations. Ramos, Taylor’s general, would become a member of the executive committee overseeing the plantation. William Cooper, a brother of one of Taylor’s close allies, would have overall control as general manager.
Firestone later calculated that it had made $1.1 million in profits in trying to restart the plantation between 1990 and 1993.
“I wish to personally thank you for your kind understanding,” Weihe wrote to Taylor. “I look forward to being able to quickly return to restart our operations.”
A month later, Firestone’s board of directors met again. Schremp proposed several future plans, including selling the plantation. Instead, Schremp said,
But for now, it was time to leave.
On the morning of Nov. 20, Weihe loaded 14 Firestone employees into cars and crossed Taylorland into neighboring Ivory Coast.
Once across the border, the men celebrated. They hit a local casino, boozing and gambling. Pettit won more than $1,000.
“I was unbelievably lucky,” he said.
Firestone’s gamble to keep its plantation active from 1990 to 1993 had failed.
Tens of thousands of Liberians were dead.
Hundreds of thousands had been driven from their homes.
Hundreds of children had been killed or turned into killers.
By March 1993, the West African forces had pushed Taylor’s fighters off most of the plantation. That month, Sawyer took an extraordinary step. For the first time since taking office two years earlier, the president of the interim government ventured outside his shell-pocked capital into areas previously under Taylor’s control.
A highlight of his tour was a stop at the Firestone plantation. There, with reporters jotting notes and senior government officials looking on, he declared that Firestone’s management had colluded with Taylor in attacks that nearly toppled his government.
Firestone’s plantation had served as the “command post and nerve center” for Operation Octopus, Sawyer said, according to a State Department cable.
“Firestone contributed to the war,” Sawyer said in an interview. “I went to Harbel Hills. I saw the operations.”
Today, Firestone calls Sawyer’s suggestion that it knew of Operation Octopus or colluded with Taylor “false and slanderous.”
In July 1993, Firestone answered Sawyer’s charges with a lengthy letter defending the company’s actions.
The letter, never previously reported, provides a candid articulation of the moral, economic and legal calculus conducted at the highest levels of a major American corporation.
In the letter to Sawyer, Schremp wrote that Firestone had faced a difficult decision when Taylor’s forces invaded the plantation in 1990.
Schremp acknowledged that the company had signed the memorandum of agreement with Taylor. It had paid taxes to Taylor’s government. It had abided by Taylor’s edicts. But, he said, the company never attempted to take sides in Liberia’s conflict. It simply had no other “practical alternative.”
Schremp’s letter was accompanied by a 10-page legal defense. It turned upon the idea that Firestone had done nothing wrong, since Taylor’s organization constituted a “de facto” government over the plantation.
Firestone cited a series of U.S. court cases which upheld this principle. Several stemmed from the American Civil War, where postbellum U.S. federal judges recognized the Confederacy as a “de facto” government which had authority to take certain actions.
Firestone compared itself to the Liberians living in Taylorland. The interim government would not hold citizens accountable for submitting to Taylor’s iron fist. As a corporation, Firestone deserved the same treatment.
Finally, the company denied Sawyer’s accusation that it had willingly allowed the NPFL to use its plantation militarily.
Firestone was innocent of any wrongdoing, the memo concluded.
Nothing ever came of Sawyer’s legal threats. In March 1994, his interim government was replaced by another interim government that contained representatives from Taylor’s NPFL and other warring factions.
The Firestone matter was dropped. The company kept a low profile, with a skeleton crew on site to maintain the plantation. Rebel factions battled among the rubber trees. Some 600 refugees were killed in a massacre in one housing camp.
Over the next four years, Taylor participated in a series of interim governments that gave him some semblance of legitimacy. In April 1996, he launched one last ferocious attack against Monrovia. When it failed, Taylor accepted the need for elections.
A little more than a year later, he stood before adoring crowds, the legitimate ruler of a legitimate country. His dream had come to pass.
“I will not be a wicked president,” he promised.
Back in the United States, Firestone was engaged in its own war — albeit in a courtroom.
Firestone told U.S. Embassy officials that the company had lost more than $200 million between 1990 and 1994 in Liberia. But Firestone’s insurance claims had been rejected. The company’s policies did not cover losses sustained in war.
In 1994, Firestone filed suit based on a bold legal theory: What had happened in Liberia was not a war. It had been a civil conflict. Thus, the insurance companies, AIG and Cigna, had unfairly denied Firestone’s claims.
AIG settled the case. But Cigna fought.
Cigna lawyers subpoenaed scores of internal Firestone documents, which showed that the company repeatedly referred to the situation in Liberia as a war. They deposed Firestone managers who described the conflict as a war. They even showed that Firestone had protected itself from lawsuits by saying that the war in Liberia had prevented it from fulfilling rubber supply contracts.
From Liberia, Taylor and his cronies did their best to bolster Firestone’s legal case. Taylor pressured his own Supreme Court to declare that Liberian law required payment of damages that arose from wartime looting, as Firestone was claiming.
Three months after Taylor launched his final attack to capture Monrovia in April 1996, Firestone’s attorneys filed an affidavit from Woewiyu, Taylor’s defense minister. He swore that the NPFL “never intended” to overthrow the government of Liberia.
Firestone’s attorney’s even made the argument that Cigna’s refusal to pay was preventing Liberia from healing from the war that Firestone claimed had not happened.
Liberia’s government was begging for Firestone to return. But Firestone did not have enough capital to rebuild because
In the end, Cigna and Firestone agreed to a settlement that limited the potential losses for each side. The companies would submit their arguments to a trial judge. If the judge decided against Firestone, Cigna would have to pay $15 million. If the judge decided for Firestone, Cigna would have to pay $45 million.
The outcome of the March 1996 agreement has never been made public. But in April, Firestone hired workers to begin clearing weeds at the plantation and to prepare for renewed production, according to cables and press accounts.
In March 1997, Schremp announced Firestone’s first export of rubber from Liberia in years — 370,000 gallons of latex to France, one of Taylor’s early backers.
Since the end of the war in 2003, Firestone says it has invested more than $146.9 million in the country. It currently employs 8,000 Liberians — in some of the best paying jobs in the rubber industry, according to the company and union officials. It educates more than 15,000 children in 27 schools on the plantation, recently adding a high school on the rubber farm. It has renovated more than 3,600 worker homes.
Its hospital is one of the best in the country. Indeed, Firestone has kept its plantation largely protected from the Ebola virus that has ravaged the rest of the country.
Firestone graduates populate the country’s political, educational and economic institutions. Firestone sends Liberian children to college each year on scholarship. Firestone’s managerial ranks are now mostly filled by Liberians.
For Firestone, these accomplishments are proof that it made the right decisions in some of the country’s darkest hours.
“We are proud of that,” the company said.
Padmore was even more emphatic.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won Liberia’s presidency in 2005, she campaigned on a promise to move the country forward.
Issues involving Firestone’s Liberian concession provided an early test of her ability to deliver. The company had been accused of rushing a favorable new deal through the weak interim government that followed Taylor’s exit in 2003.
Environmental groups complained that the company’s discharge was polluting the river that Taylor’s rebels had first crossed so long ago. There were complaints about child labor, substandard living conditions and the exploitation of workers.
Johnson Sirleaf rose to the challenge by demanding a new contract between the company and the government. She reduced the number of years in the company’s lease on its plantation. She improved the system that Firestone used to pay independent farmers for their rubber. She convinced the company to invest in a plan to recycle old rubber trees into building material. And she got it to improve worker housing.
For its part, Firestone adopted a zero-tolerance child labor policy, and even union leaders acknowledge its success. The company also says it no longer discharges wastewater into the river bordering the plantation.
Johnson Sirleaf has not been inclined, however, to hold the U.S. rubber giant accountable for its long-ago support for Taylor.
We interviewed Johnson Sirleaf one rainy day in July on the top floor of Liberia’s foreign ministry. A tropical rain pounded the roof and windows. She was coping with a new emergency, the Ebola outbreak. Johnson Sirleaf’s health ministry was beginning to broadcast public service announcements about the disease. Soon, the crisis would overwhelm the nation.
She was well aware that Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended further investigation into Firestone as one of the companies that aided Taylor during the civil war.
But when we presented her with documents that showed that Firestone had paid taxes to Taylor, she seemed reluctant to examine them.
She had not seen them before, she said. But she already knew the company, its history, its economic, cultural and political power. She already knew the company had survived labor strikes and lawsuits, coups and killers, renegades and reformers. She already knew that Firestone had wrapped itself around Liberia like a creeper vine around a tree.
Firestone had been part of Liberia for years. It would be part of it forever.
What was the use of looking back?
“Some of what happened in the past, we knew of. Some of this, we don’t,” Johnson Sirleaf said. “Quite frankly, we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t even want to know.
Additional reporting by Marcela Gaviria and Will Cohen of Frontline