- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

PAYNESVILLE, Liberia

Soon after the sun sets into the calm blue of Liberia’s western coast, Archie Guncarnue rises with 20 other men in a neighborhood militia to guard this suburb of the capital, Monrovia, against gangs of robbers.

“Something you love, you don’t allow another man to take it away from you,” Mr. Guncarnue said.

Mr. Guncarnue, 19, recently joined his community’s vigilante group to defend his family.

His father often is away during the week, driving trucks to make a living. As the eldest man, he is duty-bound to protect the 12 people living in his family’s small, white concrete house.

Vigilante justice has become a way of life in much of Liberia five years after a series of civil wars that killed at least 200,000 and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing.

Since 2003, the nation has enjoyed a measure of stability that culminated with the democratic election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, in 2005.

But it remains desperately poor, and with little available electricity, dark neighborhoods at night provide inviting targets for criminal gangs.

Neighborhood vigilantes armed with machetes and clubs find safety in numbers to fight back against gun-toting gangs, many armed with old weapons from previous wars. If caught, criminals often are beaten to death.

Lewis Norman, deputy chief for press and public affairs for the Liberian National Police (LNP), said mob violence is the very reason that the LNP discourages vigilante groups from forming.

About two years go, the LNP began its own neighborhood watch groups to encourage residents to apprehend robbers instead of killing them. Today, there are 152 communities with the police-sponsored groups.

The LNP gives the members whistles and the commanders cell phones. Members join with the expectation that they won’t carry weapons or kill intruders.

Mr. Norman said he hopes the groups will make a difference, despite the distrust of police.

Nevertheless, residents of many neighborhoods find it difficult to trust Liberia’s meager police force of 3,650 officers.

Across Monrovia, taxi drivers commonly slip police officers a few bills — presumably bribes to fend off harassment or to buy a measure of protection.

Police officers don’t carry guns. Many don’t have flashlights to navigate a dark city with a war-ravaged power grid. Only about 60 cars are available to patrol all of Monrovia, a city of about 1 million.

Like the vigilantes, the police also must hide in the shadows and apprehend robbers with their bare hands.

“It’s risky,” Mr. Norman said. “We have no alternative.”

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf recently signed legislation that makes armed robbery a capital offense, punishable by hanging or life imprisonment if a victim is killed in the process.

It also prohibits robbers involved in less severe cases from being bailed out of jail, a routine practice under the old law.

Mr. Guncarnue, like many of his neighbors in Paynesville, hides in the shadows, watching and listening until daybreak.

The patrol duty is taxing. Mr. Guncarnue, who is in the 10th grade, doesn’t get regular sleep. Most men work during the day and patrol all night.

Not far from Mr. Guncarnue’s neighborhood, a group of 150 men in another community recently formed a neighborhood militia, called Youth to Protect Community Against Crimes, after a note demanding money arrived.

The note promised an attack if the community could not produce the cash. Many thought the note was a joke. But after the robbers attacked the neighborhood, resident Fred Payne took a stand.

“If you don’t do this, nobody will do this for you,” Mr. Payne told other men as he recruited the neighborhood militia.

So every night, the men gather in a central clubhouse.

Here Mr. Payne dispenses rice and weapons — mostly strong sticks and slingshots. He deploys the men to six different zones, where they patrol until daybreak.

The neighborhood’s residents are paying to sustain the operation.

Each week, the volunteer soldiers live off donations from the community that range from $30 to $100 for the entire group.

This sum pays for nightly meals and packs of cigarettes. It also pays for bottles of hard liquor, like brandy and gin, which Mr. Payne insists he limits to two bottles for every 50 men.

The liquor keeps them alert; some think it makes them brave. Without the comfort of guns in their hands, the drink, prayers and the numbers needed to overwhelm gun-toting robbers are the closest these men can come to an anodyne to the fear.

Vigilantes aren’t afraid to take justice into their own hands.

“We will find a way to kill them,” said Oldpa Kpeu, a member of one militia. “We live in fear. That means we have to protect our people.”

When night falls, Mr. Kpeu ceases his carpentry work but keeps out his toolbox. As the commander of a meager neighborhood army, Mr. Kpeu arms himself with the sharp saws and wood clamps that he uses to make furniture.

Swaree Kennedy, a troubled 22-year-old, was recently beaten to death by vigilantes who accused him of robbery.

The gruesome evidence of mob violence was on Mr. Kennedy’s mauled face and body, which lay beside the road for days before someone came to bury him.

On a recent afternoon, Sayku Kennedy, the father of the slain man, sat outside his house just down the road from where his son was killed. When the grieving father heard that his son was dead, he wouldn’t go to see the body.

And for now, he can’t bring himself to talk about his son.

He said there was nothing left in his heart.

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