- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

MONROVIA, Liberia The production quality is terrible a tangle of distorted voices, jerky angles, blurry images. But every once in a while a few words punch through the garble, and the video's sickening reality becomes clear.
"I will talk," pleads panic-stricken Liberian President Samuel K. Doe, half-naked and tied up on the floor. "I will tell you something … Please, please let me go. I beg you."
His captor, a militia leader named Prince Johnson, stares back drunkenly from behind a large desk, guarded by a dozen soldiers. The militia leader turns away from the just-ousted president, a barely literate man whose repressive regime savaged this West African country through the 1980s. A framed painting of Jesus watches over the scene.
Mr. Johnson looks bored. He waves his hand: "I say cut off one ear."
For years, this was the most-watched movie in this war-shattered nation a camcorder chronicle of bloodshed. Filmed in September 1990 by a friend of Mr. Johnson, it is a horrific record of Mr. Doe's last hours, ending with an excruciatingly long close-up of his mutilated corpse.
Now, with Liberia trying put the war behind it, the video has become an uncomfortable memory. The tape has been pulled from stores, thrown away, purposefully forgotten. The government banned its sale. Many Liberians, desperate for reconciliation, won't even discuss it.
"I hate that movie," said Kekura Kamara, a struggling filmmaker who was, before the war, Liberia's biggest TV star. "I don't want to hear about war, I don't want to see it."
Many people already have seen it.
Through much of the 1990s, while Liberia was being devastated by one of the most vicious civil wars in West African history a seven-year nightmare that killed 150,000 people and destroyed nearly every city and town the video was a hit.
In a country increasingly callous to violence, the movie celebrated a dictator's downfall with a surreal blend of documentary and horror. Liberians crowded into Monrovia's tiny, generator-powered theaters to watch it. Mr. Johnson distributed hundreds of copies. The movie circulated quickly throughout West Africa.
"People would come in and ask for it all the time," said Tony Hane, who works in a Monrovia video shop. "That movie gave a very bad name to the country."
But things have changed in Liberia. The civil war ended five years ago with one final spasm as feuding warlords fought for supremacy. In 1997, the most powerful of those warlords, Charles Taylor, was elected president.
If Liberia is trying to escape its past, however, it is not getting far.
"The country remains divided," said James Verdier Jr., director of the Justice and Peace Commission, Liberia's foremost human-rights group. "National reconciliation is a farce."
Years after the war's end, members of Mr. Taylor's old militia dominate the government. The security forces, a thuggish collection of ex-fighters, harass ordinary civilians for money and frighten government critics into silence.
Diplomats say Mr. Taylor and his inner circle have grown rich while the country remains mired in 80 percent unemployment and widespread poverty. Few Liberians have seen a working electrical outlet or water faucet for 11 years.
For more than a year, the country has faced a rebellion along its border with Guinea. Paranoia runs high; officials warn of infiltrators and Mr. Taylor doesn't move without an army of soldiers around him.
A billboard, not far from Mr. Taylor's mansion, urges "Total Reconciliation by 2024."
Twenty-three years sounds likely to Mr. Verdier, who wonders if watching the movie could help Liberia.
"Let people see what happened," he said. "They don't want to admit the atrocities they committed."
Ask quietly in the right places and the tape still can be bought. But these days, it's seldom Liberians doing the purchasing.
"Most of them are foreigners Lebanese, Americans. One guy came from Europe," said a video store clerk who occasionally sold the tape and asked that his name not be used. "They just want to see how he acts before he dies."

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