Liberia: Nine Months Later, Painful Road Back for Journalists Who Survived Presidential Convoy Crash
Plateau, Abidjan – Bed-ridden and lingering in pain, presidential photographer Gabriel Mills is still obsessed with his zooms and lenses.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Photography for him has been his only means of survival since he stumbled upon a career more than two decades ago, ironically as a refugee in the Ivory Coast.
“I’m no longer what I used to be, no longer able to do those things I did to feed my family,” Mills says from his hospital bed at the Polyclinic International Sainte-Anne-Marie Hospital in Lycee.
So, he laments: “It sometimes brings tears to me – you know, sitting one place. Imagine being the breadwinner for your family and you’re sitting here doing nothing, just sitting here, thinking that you will be improving but it’s not going anywhere. So, I am really missing my job and being able to provide for my family.”
To understand the gravity of Mills’ pain, a visitor cringes upon hearing, in the photographer’s own words, how he broke six ribs and rupture his intestines, as a result of the accident on Sunday, February 10, 2019, when the vehicle assigned to journalists covering the Liberian presidency, collided with another vehicle belonging to former Solicitor General Wilkins Wright, which reportedly intruded into the presidential motorcade near Gbarnga, Bong County.
“I think that was the good intention of the president, to have me back on my feet – that’s why I was brought here; but if I can’t get on my feet almost nine months now, then something wrong somewhere, you see. So, please convey that to the president so that maybe he could come in again and get involve and see whether they can carry me somewhere else to improve, if this treatment is not working. Because I can’t keep being here, sitting one place and lying in this bed and not getting anywhere.”– Gabriel Mills, Presidential photographer, February 10, 2019 Crash Survivor
Besides Mills, several staffers from the Department of Public Affairs at the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs including Samuel Zorh (driver), Mohammed S. Konneh (cameraman), and journalist Jerry Gaye of Prime FM were in the press car when the accident occurred.
The accident left two dead – Gabriel Wilson, commonly called Executive Horn, an employee of the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs, who was the traditional horn blower to the President and Victoria Wlue, a passenger riding in Justice Wright’s vehicle.
The President was on his way from the 180th Convention of the Methodist Annual Conference.
Both Mills and Gaye were admitted at the JFK Medical Center following the crash before President George Manneh Weah took a swift decision to have the pair airlifted to next-door Ivory Coast after doctors confirmed that both had sustained serious bone fractures.
‘My Only Regret’
Nine months later, Mills still on the bed he has been since February appears to be drowning in a sea of what ifs and regrets. What if the driver had listened to him to stop speeding? What if Cllr. Wright’s driver – or perhaps Wright himself had not been consumed by booze?
“The first thing that came to me when the accident happen was – first of all I regretted why I couldn’t get down from the car when I had advised the driver. Because the driver drove us from the Methodist Conference ground in such a reckless way I can say. He rushed the car out of there and I started questioning him, ‘my man, what happen, take time with the car before you come kill us; and he started arguing with me, telling me, ‘if you want to come take the steering, take the steering, come drive’.
Mills recalls that the late horn-blower interjected that he leaves the driver alone to concentrate on the road. “When he said that, peace be to his ashes, the old man, Executive Horn said, ‘Mills, leave the driver let him focus on his steering’. “I said ok. So, I just kept mute on that, we got on the paved road, the driver was speeding and all, we were just there.”
Holding back tears, Mills laments: “I regret why I didn’t get out of that car that day, I would have just told him, I want to urinate. Perhaps, things would have been different today.”
Mills recalls that when the accident was happening, the driver missed the first oncoming truck and that’s when he knew something bad was about to happen. “I looked at him and said, “you see what I was telling you… It didn’t leave my mouth when he said, ‘Mills, you see the other guy coming’ – I just saw the car dodging coming on the road like that, only to go see us bumping the car that intruded into the convoy. Cllr. Wilkins Wright driver, and they were drinking too. Cllr. Wright driver was drinking, all the liquor bottles were in the car.”
‘Who Will Take Care of My Children’?
As the team leader that day, Mills says he sat in the front passenger side by the driver which explains why he had the most impact of all the survivors. “I was sitting by him. So, you see the jeep at the scene of the accident, the side that is damaged, that was me, that’s how my I broke my legs; I saw myself lying down in the hole, I slid from the seat and saw myself in the ditch.”
Mills says he tried to get out of the wreckage but he just couldn’t. “I wanted to get up and move my hand, but I couldn’t, my feet couldn’t move – and my hands couldn’t either. So, I started hearing the sound of the car – and the SSS guys came in and helped me out of there.”
As he was being removed from the ditch, Mills, a father of six between the ages of four and twenty-one, says, the only thing running through his mind at the time was, “who will take care of my children, if I’m to die right now. That’s the first thing that came to me, because family members will be around but that kind of assistance for the children, most of them they are still under age.”
Last week, Mills’ wife called from Monrovia to say the kids were being put out of school because they could not pay their tuition. “I had to call the school to allow them in while I pay the fees small, small. So, that’s my situation.”
Unlike Mills, Gaye, a Prime FM journalist assigned at the Executive Mansion, is slowly on the verge of recovery – but like Mills, his life will never be the same again.
His left leg was broken as a result of the February 10 accident and although he has been making some progress, reality is setting in – even as he struggles to accept his fate. “Right now, what I’m going through is rehabilitation and to see how I can be like I was before. But it’s a kind of difficult process because the left leg I did the operation on, is shorter than the right leg. So, when you see me moving, I’m not moving straight – resigned to the conclusion that I will walk with a limp for the rest of my life.”
Doctors say in order for Gaye to come anything close to what he was before, he would require special shoes to balance his steps. “My left foot is two centimeters shorter than my right, so I will need special shoes to keep my balance. When I’m walking, I know that my leg is short, so, they are advising that I have special shoes made, with pads so I can have a balance.”
The challenge for Gaye is money. “I need money right now to get those special shoes because my physical therapist has advised that if I don’t get them soon, I will eventually develop serious back problems. I will always have back pain and it will not be good for me. But right now, I don’t have the money.”
Greenlight for Prime FM’s Gaye, But…
Gaye was in a state of daze for nearly a week after the accident. In addition to breaking his left leg, blood was pumping into his head and he also had internal bleeding. To make it even worse, he couldn’t remember anything. “I was unconscious and never remembered anything that happened at the accident scene to JFK, even how I got here, I didn’t know.”
When he finally came through, Gaye says he was told that he had been talking to himself by those around him. “When I came out of it, I saw tubes on my side stomach and the doctors came and told me I had internal bleeding and they told me that they had worked on me and had a successful operation on the 21st of February.”
The good news for Gaye is doctors at PISAM could soon give him the greenlight to return home. But he says he’s unsure what he’s returning to. “One of the worries now I have is my family back home. This accident and what we are going through alone has psychological problems, it comes with emotions, because I will not be like myself again. My family, one of my kids is just two years, it’s not easy on them. It has been very much difficult.”
His rent is due at the end of November and his family could be on the streets. “My children are not in school. My wife just called me two weeks ago to tell me the kids will not be in school. I’m hearing news that in two weeks, I should be going back to Liberia – I’m going back to Liberia very empty, going to start from zero, where do I start from? That’s my next worry.”
Doctors expect Gaye to return to Abidjan in five months for further evaluations. But his main concern for now is his family. “It is really worrying me right now. Although I’m not employed by the government, I am appealing to the President, to see need to help me and my family. I’m very grateful to him for my health, that is very important, he brought me to the hospital, I will not be one hundred percent like before but these are scars that I am going to live with for the rest of my life. But that’s life, I will accept it but am appealing to the government to come to my aid because I’m not going to Liberia as a strong man again.”
“Right now, what I’m going through is rehabilitation and to see how I can be like before; but it’s a kind of difficult process because the left leg I did the operation on, is shorter than the right leg. So, when you see me moving, I’m not moving straight – I have accepted the fact that I will walk with a limp for the rest of my life.”– Jerry Gaye, Prime FM journalist assigned at the Executive Mansion, February 10, 2019 Crash Survivor
Mills’ Fears of the Unknown
With Gaye on the verge of returning home, Mills could see himself staring at the four walls in the hospital room the pair have shared since February, all alone.
The loneliness, depression and lingering questions regarding his fate and his future are just too much to bear – or even think about.
His prayer is for President Weah to intervene – again. “My message to the President is first to appreciate him. He moved in swiftly – and in time, to act and I was brought here. These parts of my body, I never thought that it would be joined back together again. Today, it’s being put back. But I’m appealing to him that if there’s something else that can be done, I’m asking him to kindly come in and assist – if I can be transferred further to somewhere that will make me to get back on my feet, I will highly appreciate.”
For Mills, the fear of the unknown is becoming unbearable as his situation deteriorates and he ponders whether he will ever walk again – or even get back to the life he once knew. Depression, stress and a sense of neglect and abandonment, has him having doubts about his future. “My situation is deteriorating; my two feet were broken and the doctors reconnected them. But the right foot, just when I thought I would start walking again, the right foot had problem, it was not consolidating, then my hand was not consolidating. So, the doctors wanted to go back to perform another operation. So, I said, well, you all are the doctors, whatever your say that’s it. So, we went there, we did the operation, blood came from the right foot – over two weeks, my blood was just wasting here. The doctor just started giving different medications but no way. Until another doctor came and said we will bring another medicine and if that medicine come and there is no way then we will carry you back to the operation room.”
That has been Mills’ story. Some days good, some days bad, some days hopeful and other days, just simply depressing.
Like on a recent day when he informed his boss, Press Secretary, Isaac Solo Kelgbeh about his deteriorating condition. “He said to me, ‘what do I want them to do?’ So, I said but do you want to hear my death news before you know what to do?”
Both Kelgbeh and his deputy, Smith Toby did not return inquiries seeking comments on the Executive Mansion’s position on the fate of the two recovering journalists.
All Mills says he wants is attention, fearing the worst if things do not improve while hoping that Kelgbeh can prevail on his behalf to the President, to once again come to his aid before it gets too late. “If I can’t walk from February up to now, I think you can intervene and see whether you can carry me somewhere else and maybe through transfer, it will help me get off my feet. Because I think that was the good intention of the president, to have me back on my feet – that’s why I was brought here; but if I can’t get on my feet almost nine months now, then something wrong somewhere, you see. So, please convey that to the president so that maybe he could come in again and get involve and see whether they can carry me somewhere to improve, if the treatment here is not working. Because I can’t keep being here, sitting one place and lying in this bed and not getting anywhere.”