I. Warlord on the Rise

(Matt Rota for ProPublica)

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.

Charles Taylor in 1990 (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

(Samuel Velasco/Special to ProPublica)

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's fighters threatened civilians. (Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

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. 

Skeletons were used as scarecrows and intestines as roadblocks in Liberia's grisly conflict. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

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. 

An Old Southern Plantation

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.

Workers on the Firestone plantation (Frederick McEvoy, courtesy of the Indiana University Liberian Collections)

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.

The War Machine

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. 

“Due to the current unstable political situation in Liberia, we believe it is prudent to plan for the worst case scenario,” he wrote. The memo instructed expats to pack emergency supplies, gas up cars and meet at secret rally points in case of an evacuation. “The information contained in this memo — even the very existence of this memo — should not be discussed with persons not covered by it,” he wrote. By May, the company had sent home expat wives and children. 

To the persons not covered by the memo — the Liberian workers and their families — Ensminger projected confidence as the maelstrom drew closer. 

Taylor's improvised army included children and civilians. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

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, “Our responsibility as an American company is to the expats. I told them, this is your country, you should take whatever action jointly or individually that you can take.”

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.

Vendettas, Violence and Church-Robe Killers

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. “They had been stitched, riddled with bullets from AK-47s straight up and down their bodies,” he said. They were left in the street, their bodies swelling in the sun.

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.”

Reprisal and random killings were features of the war's initial stages. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

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.

“It was terrifying. They had the AK-47s. The guns are pointed straight at you,” recalled Welwean, who now works as a bank examiner in the United States. “They’re like, ‘If you lie, we’re gonna kill you.’ And you are trembling, shaking.”

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.

“Upon God and man, I never one day thought of holding what they called gun,” Chipley said. “Because of the ill-treatment, I was forced to join.” 

“They were plenty that joined,” he said. 

The Obligation

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.

“Very awkward and potentially dangerous for us, our people and our assets,” Ensminger scribbled as the battle for Firestone raged. “Will there be confrontations? Who will control? How to deal with changing hands/demands?”

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.

A relic from Firestone’s early years in Liberia. (John Chuckman)

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.

“We’re all in this together. We have no way to protect you or ourselves. We’re as scared as you,” Vispo recalled telling the people. “There’s nothing we can do to protect you. It’s better off if you go to your villages.”

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. 

“Some of the Firestone staff said, ‘Well, if the expatriates are going out to Ensminger’s house and it’s safe, the rebels are not going there to bother anyone,’” said Welwean, who joined the stream of refuge seekers. “There should be a sanctuary for everyone.”

This time, Ensminger stood on the porch and delivered the response: There was nothing the company could do for them.

“We recognized a responsibility to our employees. But what could we do? Our position got so untenable. There was nothing I could do about 1,000 or 1,500 or 40 or 50 Liberians,” Ensminger said in the interview.

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. 

“You know when Jesus were taken and the disciples were left alone? That how we felt,” Knuckles said. “Because we had a belief, as long as the Americans are on the plantation, we had a little hope. But now the Americans are gone, what gonna happen to us?”

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 expats headed home.

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.

“I personally … have an obligation to the many thousands of employees in Harbel,” Ensminger told reporters.

Everybody Run Away

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.

“When you want cry, they beat you. They say, ‘You want die? You want die? You will die right now,’” Pollee said. “They hard, that day. They were not easy.”

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.”

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