- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

WHITE PLAINS, Liberia Sarah Andrews is clipping the legs off a half-dozen crawdads snatched from a river beside her house, filtering through memories of her American ancestry and her troubled country's remarkable past.

Mrs. Andrews' forebears were among freed American slaves who returned in the mid-1800s to help found this West African nation, named Liberia for "liberty."

"My great-grandmother used to put me in her lap when I was a child and tell me how it took them six months to cross the deep blue sea," the frail 62-year-old recalls on her porch in White Plains, about 20 miles northwest of the capital, Monrovia.

"She was just a girl herself then, from Kentucky," Mrs. Andrews said, smiling at the memory.

But the smiles quickly fade and an interview comes to an abrupt end when questions are asked about another part of Liberia's history one in which freed slaves and their descendants often forced indigenous tribes to work for them and treated locals as second-class citizens, and worse.

Liberia's past embodies the many contradictions on the issue of slavery.

Activists call for the trans-Atlantic slave trade which saw as many as 15 million Africans shipped off to Europe and the Americas to be declared a crime against humanity. They also seek an apology and reparations.

But in Liberia, where the descendants of freed slaves held power for a century and a half and often colluded with local chiefs to exploit natives, few people see the need.

"Nobody owes us an apology. My own ancestors were slaves who took indigenous people and forced them to work on our plantations and farms," said Romeo Bass, 47, whose forefathers came to Liberia in 1827 from Pennsylvania.

"Frankly, we have to set things right here before we start talking about anything else. We have to apologize to each other."

Freed American slaves, sponsored by the U.S. government, first settled on Liberia's coast in 1822, landing in Monrovia named for the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe. In 1847, they declared independence.

But the settlers, who came to be known as Americo-Liberians, were foreigners in Africa and frequently battled indigenous tribes.

"It was a checkered history. They wanted to import their experience in America with them," said Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis. "They didn't want to do manual labor because it reminded them of plantation life. So they forced indigenous people to do it instead."

Human-rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe recalls his own uncles being taken away to work on farms without pay. Those who refused were flogged. Others were incarcerated.

"They would come to the chiefs and tell them they wanted 20 workers to work on a farm and you had to go. There was a thin line between slavery and forced labor."

In 1930, President Charles King and his vice president resigned after they were accused of shipping thousands of natives to work on rubber plantations in what is now Equatorial Guinea.

Americo-Liberians' hold on power came to an end in a 1980 coup that saw the president disemboweled, government soldiers executed on a Monrovia beach and Sgt. Samuel Doe become Liberia's first indigenous head of state.

The coup paved the way for a 1989 to 1996 civil war that killed 200,000 people, devastated the country and brought ethnic rivalries into the open.

Many Americo-Liberians have since fled. A few remained in settlements their ancestors founded places like Virginia, Harrisburg and White Plains.

Liberia's current leaders favor reparations.

"We feel very strongly that slavery was a great injustice to mankind and for anyone to say there shouldn't be reparations or argue against an apology is insensitive," said Information Minister Reginald Goodridge.

"Why don't you erase the crippling debt burden on Africa? At the end of the day, reparations will have to be paid."

For most Liberians though, the debate itself is a luxury.

"It's a discussion among the elites of society, the intellectuals," said Mr. Gongloe, the human-rights lawyer. "Ordinary Africans, ordinary Liberians, are more concerned with trying to survive, to find their daily bread and butter."

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