Liberia: Reminiscing The Path To Peace – The Extraordinary’ Role of UN Staff Mbaye Birome Diouf in Bringing Peace to Nimba County in 2003

Mr. Mbaye Birome- Diouf (with glasses) posed with former rival fighting groups following his successful mediation process in 2003

Monrovia – Liberia has experienced 15 years of civil war and violence that took the lives of more than 250,000 people and caused the displacement of approximately 900,000 others. The war destroyed the country and impacted the lives and security of the people of Liberia. Violence from war leads to Human rights violations, the destruction of the economy and distrust amongst people.

By Gerald C. Koinyeneh,

When historians write about the Liberian civil war and major factors that brought the war to an end, they will surely mention the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Accord in Accra, Ghana, the arrival of United Nations Peacekeepers to Liberia and the departure of former President Charles Taylor in 2003. 

However, there are unknown extraordinary stories of heroism and courage that brought belligerents together to lay down their arms and give peace a chance. 

One of these stories is recorded in the book “Lumieres Invisible” (“Invisible Lights”) written by M. Mbaye Birome Diouf, a Senegalese security officer. The book captured how Diouf, a lone security officer in 2003 used his instinct to launch a mediation process that did not only pave the way for the deployment of the first UN peacekeeping troop in Saclepea, Nimba County, but led to the rescue of over 5000 refugees from Ivory Coast who were left stranded ‘behind enemy line’ near the Ivorian-Liberian border. 

At that time, the author was a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) senior security officer assigned to Liberia in 2003, the moment that followed the departure of former President Charles Taylor to exile. 

FrontPage Africa came across Mr. Diouf when he was offering his book, written in French to his old friend, Marie Sonkarlay, former City Mayor of Saclepea for the souvenir of their friendship that started in 2003.

Saclepea is a major city in Nimba County that is known for harboring thousands of refugees and internally displaced people during Liberia’s second civil war.

In their recollections, they explained that the first time the two met was during the cease fire between the Pro-government militias and the MODEL [Movement for Democracy in Liberia] group in Saclepea. That historical event of new peace was celebrated by the rival warring factions along with the then City Mayor, Madam Sonkarlay and Diouf and his team in the central area of the town. 

Former Saclepea City Mayor, Marie Sonkarlay unites with her UN friend, Mbaye Birome- Diouf nearly 16 years after their extra-ordinary role in bringing peace to Nimba County

Road to peace

The cease fire allowed access to 5000 Ivorian refugees near the border, who needed assistance.  

While UNMIL was deploying progressively in-land, and peace mood was prevailing in Monrovia, there were still skirmishes between belligerents in parts of the country including the South of Saclepea.

A UNHCR security team that just touched the ground to assess the conditions for the reopening of their office in Saclepea noticed the evolving tension while receiving a report from NGOs about 5000 Ivorian refugees that were stranded at the border area, in the MODEL controlled zone. Mbaye Birome- Diouf, instinctively decided to engage in a mediation between the parties in conflict.

He managed to lower their arms and to speak to the commanding “Generals” Oldpa Zougbaye from the Government side, and Gabo of the Model group. He crossed the frontline many times within couple of days to mediate and then brought the two groups to agreement. The frontline was dismantled the same day the group came together. All the combatants, former enemies assembled in Saclepea as part of the agreement before they quitted the area. 

“When MODEL convoy first entered the city, the population became terrified and fled, then they were called back “Now is peace” by General Old Pa Zougbaye. They came back chanting “we want peace, we want peace,” Diouf recalled.

FrontPage Africa was able to speak to former General Oldpa Zougbaye who confirmed the above related story and the role he played to support the 2003 peace initiatives of Diouf. 

Zougbaye expressed hope that Liberia should never go back to those ‘ugly’ moments of violence and called on all Liberians to embrace ‘everlasting.’ He currently lives peacefully with his family in his village where he is surviving by farming.

Another eye witness, Isaac Mealor, then a college student who was forced to returned to Saclepea in 2003 when the war was raging to look after his family offered prayer of thanksgiving during the meeting between the two factions. Mealor recalls: “It was like a miracle. Many people including me thought that it was a dream. We had lived in fear for too long. We could feel death all around us.” 

“A Story is agreeable to tell when the witnesses are still alive,” said Mr. Mbaye in his book and this was validated on page 214 which gives testimony of the UNHCR Country Representative to Liberia between 2003 and 2005, Moses J. Okello.

“«… Mbaye was one of the first, if not the first UN staff member to negotiate a truce between the former Government fighters and the MODEL when they continued their skirmishes in Tappita and Graie in Nimba County, long after the ceasefire had been declared and as we desperately tried to deploy to the field, starting with Saclepea.…»”

As detailed in his book, Diouf noted that news of the truce between the two rival forces was delivered to General Daniel Opande, the first Force Commander of the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL) by Oldpa Zougbaye and a certain M. Swai Fidelis who confirmed to General Opande the Swahili language.

He could not believe at first as reports on his desk suggested that fighting was ongoing. He decided to send military observers the following days, and they confirmed the new situation. Later on, UNMIL started deploying in the area, from Saclepea towards the south through Graie to Tappita and onward to Grand Gedeh and Maryland Counties.

After that peace momentum was launched, Madam Sonkarlay narrated that she traveled to Graie, Tappita and Yourpea in Nimba County to speak to MODEL commanders who were left behind to bring them to Saclepea.

“We used the UN chopper and flew to Yourpea where we met the soldiers and sensitized the population about the end of the war. We told them that people must stop killing each other. We brought out of the bush women that were hiding for fear of death,” reminisced madam Sonkarlay, who served as Mayor of Saclepea from 1997 to 2018. 

In addition, she organized convoys of cars to bring hundreds of Ivorian refugees to Saclepea to provide them with emergency assistance such as food and water before the aid agencies took over few days later. 

“Lumieres Invisible” (Invisible Light) authored by Mbaye Birome Diouf captures how Mbaye Birome Diouf, a lone security officer in 2003, used his instincts to launch a mediation process that did not only pave the way for the deployment of the first UN peacekeeping troop in Saclepea, Nimba County, but led to the rescue of over 5000 refugees from Ivory Coast who were left stranded ‘behind enemy line’ near the Ivorian-Liberian border.   

Hope for the Future 

As Birome-Diouf puts it, “Destroying is an easy thing, but reconstructing is a very long process. Peace has no price. Every step to peace must be valued no matter who takes the initiative and in which circumstances.”

These courageous initiatives in risky contexts could only be of these man and woman whose human engagements and professionalisms make them put their personal interests behind the interest of peace for the community.

This story is part of the unknown peace history of Saclepea. Thanks to Mayor Sonkarlay and her guest, Mbaye Birome Diouf and to the book “Invisible Light” that has immortalized this history. 

Mr.Diouf is doctor in security leadership with a lot of experience in security and management. He revealed that plans are underway for the complete translation of his book to English.

He has written other books. The last of his record “Ivoirian Moon”, is a novel that talks about violence during the 2011 civil war in Ivory Coast, refugee life, peace and reconciliation in Cote d’Ivoire. The book is prefaced by the Mariatou Kone, Minister of Solidarity.

Peace is a Human Right. Every single person, every community has the right to live in security and peace. There is no small action to contribute to this goal.

Sixteen years have passed, Liberia and Saclepea in particular have come a long way. The city is blooming, former combatants are no longer enemies; some of them are farmers, others are students, or in other business, where they perform with dignity.

For Mr. Birome Diouf, he is buoyant of the country’s postwar progress as he stated it is up to Liberians to come together to uphold the peace and rebuild their country.

“The International community has played its role to make Liberia a young democracy. The people of Liberia should learn from 15 years of violence and look ahead for the stability of the country and for the forgiveness and reconciliation of its people to build together the new Liberia away from Poverty,” he averred.

Isaac Mealor, the Chaplain went back to school and got his degree. He currently lives in Saclepea as a successful businessman. He planned to write a book about his experience during the war and wants all Liberians to forget the past and build the future together. 

For former Mayor Marie Sonkarlay, Liberia has had enough and it’s time to continue on the path of peace. However, for that to happen, she wants the total implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations including the establishment of the War Crimes Court to make those who contributed to the greater portion of the war, as outlined in the TRC report face justice.

This, she believes will serve as deterrent to future occurrence of such ‘senseless’ blood bath that claimed the lives of about 250,000 people, displaced thousands and left behind wounds, that to many seem impossible to heal.

The more the people are united, the more the country is strong. The country remains fragile and it is up to the leadership to pave the road for a definitive change to cure wounds, promote humanity and development.

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