Monday, April 03, 2006

Gunfire in the Night

Renita’s folks are here and are experiencing all of Liberia. I’ll give a full report of their visit with images in a few days, and it has been going very well, but Sunday the 2nd we were all reminded of how bad things can go very quickly.

We were awakened at 1:30am Sunday with a series of perhaps seven or more gunshots in rapid succession, followed two or three more, followed by a single shot a few minutes later. The gunfire was coming from our neighbor’s house, a businessman with the largest house in the area. We have heard shooting coming from his house before, when rogues were attempting to enter his property, and he would fire a pistol a few times to scare them off. It worked in the past.

This time was different. Apparently nine men entered the property, one armed with a powerful assault-type weapon, and gained access into the house. Our neighbor’s wife was cut with a machete, and our neighbor went into action. He wrestled the gun away from the leader and began firing. In the space of ten seconds, two intruders were dead, another seriously wounded and later captured by police, and the rest vanished into the night.

Within a half hour, UNMIL and Liberian police were on the scene and secured the area. By 9:00am, there was a large crowd gathered around the property. They were waiting for information, and waiting to see the bodies of the rogues still inside the walled house. They wanted to know if these were men from the community or from elsewhere. At around 10:00am the police brought the bodies out in the bed of a pickup truck. They allowed every person in the crowd to look at the two dead men. As I watched our neighbors slowly make their way single file around the pickup, I had a viewpoint that allowed me to see our neighbor’s faces, each as they viewed the dead men. Many appeared initially excited about viewing the bodies, laughing and chatting, but as they rounded the bed of the truck, and looked at the two lifeless faces, their manner changed. Some looked visibly surprised, some looked repelled, some troubled, but everyone that looked was changed. For that moment, it was no longer a “We Gotcha” party.

After everyone had viewed the dead men, Deacon Reeves and I were still standing a few yards in from of the truck when a couple policemen invited me—actually urged me with a smile--to take my turn and view the bodies. I asked Deacon Reeves if he wanted to, and he said yes. So we did. It was as unsettling and sad as I thought it would be. I looked into the faces of these men, displayed like trophy objects on the bed of this pickup. Both had terrible wounds. I found, as everyone else had, that there was no joy, no victory in the bed of this truck. These were two men whose lives were forever over, violently, without dignity. I know these men were responsible for the events that led to their deaths. I know they preyed upon innocent people, and left fear and grief in their wake. I know my neighbors thought the rogues got what they deserved, and I can even appreciate the sentiment. Maybe they did. But it made me sick just the same.

I wonder about the meaninglessness of their deaths, and the legacy they leave. I wonder about the people of this community, what hearing automatic gunfire again in their neighborhood does to their souls. I wonder about my neighbor, how his life may be forever changed by this. It is ironic that he attended a community meeting we hosted just last week and he told us how he believed these rogues were just “youth from the neighborhood that just needed something to do.” Now he has killed two of them. In a conversation with Renita later Sunday, he said he felt completely fine about it, but that he might not sleep too well for a while. Really.

His wife was not seriously wounded, and will recover quickly from her wounds. Our community has a new hero. The neighborhood will likely not be bothered for a little while now. The wounded rogue is in a hospital, naming names and preparing to face the Liberian criminal justice system. The newspapers this morning featured grisly photos of the two dead men on their front pages. And for everyone else, life goes on.

UPDATE April 5: The third shot man, a man who actually worked for our neighbor, died of his wounds on Tuesday. This brings the total fatalities in the incident to three.

About a hundred yards away.