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Saturday, February 16, 2008

A most frightening arrival in Liberia

Now safe in a hotel in Monrovia, capital of war-torn Liberia. We arrived at Roberts International Airport four hours ago, at 8:20pm – this was not the best timing to arrive in one of the most dangerous cities in the world but we had no choice due to the lack of flights. Luggage clearance took more than 1 hour and we were very concerned about not having transport to go to Monrovia city centre, which was 60km away. The hotel we reserved via email had refused to send any pickup and we could not contact any other hotel with vacancy.
Roberts Airport was more a primitive airfield with a one storey terminal building with a few bare rooms. No luggage system. Complete chaos outside terminal. Our arrival in Monrovia was perhaps one of the scariest moments in our many years of travels. The way at which the local taxi gang, as I understood later to be disarmed former child soldiers, trapped us was quite traumatic.
These young men, some of them dressed in dirty, semi-tattered clothing, were quick to realize that unlike other passengers who had people to pick them up at the airport, we were on our own. They told us they were official taxi reps and even before we could decide what to do, quickly surrounded us and maneuvered us into one corner of the airport car park. Rival gangs argued loudly in local language probably on which gang we should belong to. They even shouted loudly to discourage me from trying to return to the airport terminal. Then they quickly got us together with our luggage into a vehicle that came along.
One of them stretched out his arm to ask me for US$10 while another asked for US$20. We were in a state of shock but as a few of them tried to squeeze into the vehicle as well, I realized we had to do something. I pushed them out gently and pondered for a second– two possibilities: One, they were going to bring us somewhere to rob us; two: we were too paranoid and would lose the chance to get downtown quickly at an already late hour.
At this moment, a lady immigration officer, alerted to the commotion caused at the vehicle, came over and said, "Come out please. Do you know what's happening?" Ignoring the shouts and angry screams of the taxi gang surrounding the vehicle, I told Gordon, "let's get out," and then dragged my heavy luggage out of the vehicle with me. Gordon followed though his bag was briefly trapped in the back compartment of the vehicle. The taxi gang, angry, but couldn't lay a finger on us due to the presence of the officer. She waved her official ID card at everybody. "I am official here. I am official here," she spoke sternly to them. A few of her colleagues came over as well. "I will bring you to Monrovia," she told us. As she got into the vehicle with us, the taxi gang shouted loudly at the driver too, probably warning him there would be trouble for him... it was scary!
Together with the helpful immigration officer, we got into a vehicle and drove 1.5 hours to Monrovia, to find most hotels full, including the one we had made reservation and some other obvious slum-holes that cost over US$100. Thanks to George W Bush who is expected to visit Monrovia any day this week (nobody knows exactly which day – state secret), the town is full of journalists. Eventually, we found a basic hotel that cost US$110. No choice. From our car, we could see the ruins of many huge buildings in the city centre. We are indeed in a war torn country.
Once certain that we were in safe hands (the hotel has many armed security guards), the immigration officer bade us farewell. Shame on us that we did not ask her name, but we were in a state of shock from the episode. Just before she left in the vehicle, I thrust into her palm a fridge magnet of Singapore.
What a day!
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By the way, M1 Mobile does not roam in Liberia. Email is the way to reach me.

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