The Vice Guide to Liberia
January 23, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

The Vice Guide to Liberia (trailer & parts 1-4 of 8).

Episode 1

Welcome to The Vice Guide to Liberia. In this eight-part series, VBS travels to West Africa to rummage through the messy remains of a country ravaged by 14 years of civil war. Despite the United Nation’s eventual intervention, most of Liberia’s young people continue to live in abject poverty, surrounded by filth, drug addiction, and teenage prostitution. The former child soldiers who were forced into war have been left to fend for themselves, the murderous warlords who once led them in cannibalistic rampages have taken up as so-called community leaders, and new militias are lying in wait for the opportunity to reclaim their country from a government they rightly mistrust. America’s one and only foray into African colonialism is keeping a very uneasy peace indeed. In Part 1, Vice’s own Shane Smith provides a brief history lesson and some essential context for understanding what caused Liberia’s civil war and how things got so bad. Liberia was originally planned and founded as a homeland for former slaves back in 1821. But fast forward a bunch of years and a military coup and you find the First Liberian Civil War in 1989: yet another third-world regime change in which the US-backed opposition, led by Charles Taylor, overthrows a government unfriendly to US interests. Once in power, Taylor’s corrupt, dysfunctional government quickly finds itself under attack by local warlords, leading to the Second Liberian Civil War ten years later. From there things go from bad to total shit.

Episode 2

While Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor’s trial for war crimes and sundry other atrocities continues at the Hague, the ex warlords of Liberia remain in their native country. Some are harassed by cops; others are hunted by vengeful gangs. The lucky few still maintain control over some territory.
In this chapter, VBS meets General bin Laden, so named to strike terror in the hearts of his enemies. After springing bin Laden from jail, VBS is invited back to his compound, where bin Laden leads us to his roof and tells us about his neighborhood improvement plans. Mid-interview, after a suspect group of men unfamiliar to bin Laden assembles in the courtyard down below, VBS is forced to flee.

Episode 3

Eager to see what the UN and Liberian government are actually doing, VBS meets up with a local journalist who plops us down in the center of West Point, the worst slum in Liberia. Without any modern plumbing, the people of West Point have taken to using the beach as a dump and giant outhouse. The area smells like, well, a dump and a giant outhouse, and it goes without saying that residents’ health suffers a whole host of issues. Here we also happen on a young Liberian rapper, who gives us a couple verses about the scourge of Africa: AIDS. From there it’s off the visit a heroin den, where we watch a twelve year-old smoke heroin and describes raping a woman at gunpoint. It gets worse.

Episode 4

Nearly 70 percent of Liberia’s female population has been raped, but that horrifying figure just begins to describe the depths of Liberia’s depravity. There’s also the not-minor issue of cannibalism—specifically, the devouring of one’s enemies. To learn more about these atrocities, we pick up General Rambo and take him to the compound where he once commanded his own rebel faction. Rambo convinces us that the Liberian rebels who lay in wait outside Monrovia could take over the city in two hours if the UN leaves the city. The UN is scheduled to begin pulling out next year.
posted by gman (56 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
a heavy vibe, indeed.
posted by molecicco at 3:02 PM on January 23, 2010


It's just too much. My heart doesn't even know where to begin breaking.
posted by hermitosis at 3:02 PM on January 23, 2010


Warlord, gangs, rape cannibalism! How tragic.
posted by Cranberry at 3:22 PM on January 23, 2010


Humans om nom nom, you may need many African unicorn chasers: Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Somalia, Lesotho, Sengal and Congo.
posted by Damienmce at 3:31 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Liberia fascinates me, in no small part because it's in many ways a US colony. I wish I understood more about the country's history and our special relationship to it.

These Vice Guides are cool. I wish there were some easy way to watch them on my couch.
posted by Nelson at 3:39 PM on January 23, 2010


Despite all the hate I hear for Vice from hipsters, these Vice guides are always really interesting.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:45 PM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow, I remember reading about Gen. Butt Naked & Gen. Rambo back in the 90s. I cannot believe they are still alive.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:48 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jeez, I've been to some fairly sketchy places in Africa, but this guy has got balls.
One of the saddest and most unforgetable things I've ever seen on film was in the documentary Cry Freetown, when it was on CBC about a decade ago.
A boy, who the filmmaker said hadn't really done anything, pleads for his life before being shot dead in the street. By Nigerian 'peacekeepers.'
(I see it's on youtube but I wouldn't even link it here, even seeing the still there has kind of freaked me out)
posted by Flashman at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2010


Cry Freetown, part 1, part 2, part 3.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:36 PM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Sorry, Flashman, people should see it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:37 PM on January 23, 2010


Fair enough. The scene I describe is just the first few minutes, and it is an amazing piece of work that should be seen.
However, I realised just after I'd written that that Freetown is in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. whoops
posted by Flashman at 5:05 PM on January 23, 2010


Thanks for posting this, and for the Cry Freetown links. I always found it fascinating (though very sad) the way the violence would flow back and forth across borders in West Africa, and how the refugee camps in Guinea were used as both refuges and reservoirs of more violence, with the tacit support of that government.
posted by Forktine at 5:17 PM on January 23, 2010


Forget CNN, link directly to the Vice site. While the CNN coverage may help to spread the story to a wider audience, IMO, VICE's excellent docs only serve to highlight the weak news coverage provided by corporate media.
posted by limited slip at 5:52 PM on January 23, 2010


Whoops, here's a link directly to the VICE site
posted by limited slip at 5:55 PM on January 23, 2010


Despite all the hate I hear for Vice from hipsters

what

Vice is basically the hipster bible. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:20 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


You forget how hipster it is to hate hipsters.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:24 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really do.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:27 PM on January 23, 2010


(forget, that is)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:28 PM on January 23, 2010


Vice sucks. Vice produces some awesome shit like this and Heavy Metal Baghdad, but Vice is still also the reason for sites like Look At This Fucking Hipster. This is like the 5% excellent material that they publish. The rest is i'm-acknowledging-my-misogyny-so-it's-okay-right-wink-wink misogyny and streetwear. That's why people hate Vice.

Having said that... Heavy Metal Baghdad was the most humanizing film I've seen about Iraq so far.
posted by johnnybeggs at 7:55 PM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


psssh, also like, it was the hipster bible maybe three to five years ago but you won't catch any of us copping to that now.
posted by johnnybeggs at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


psssh, also like, it was the hipster bible maybe three to five years ago but you won't catch any of us copping to that now.

But that's when I stopped reading it! Could that mean...? Oh dear.

posted by Sys Rq at 8:06 PM on January 23, 2010


Liberia fascinates me, in no small part because it's in many ways a US colony. I wish I understood more about the country's history and our special relationship to it.

Black Colonialism: The Americo-Liberian Scramble For the Hinterland by Yekutiel Gershoni
posted by jason's_planet at 8:13 PM on January 23, 2010


Where are parts 5-8?
posted by Meatbomb at 10:27 PM on January 23, 2010



psssh, also like, it was the hipster bible maybe three to five years ago but you won't catch any of us copping to that now.


I remember it flaring up, in NYC at least, around 1999-2002 or so and kind of gaining backlash even then. Many friends, roomates even, ended up in the Do's and Don'ts. A few friends even took pictures for it - and it didn't seem like there was any rhyme or reason to the eventual categorization.

The problem with Vice is the douchey audacious posturing of the brand and the same attitude of a lot of the content. The amazing part of Vice is that occasionally that audaciousness really hits on greatness. But to me, most of the time it just feels forced. These "Vice Guides To..." always leave me with a funny feeling - they're so awesome and informative, and provide an insight we just don't see anywhere in the mainstream media without a heavy "mainstream media" filter. However, there's still a "filter" going on here - it's just a very subtle, "look how cool and fuckin' bad ass we are going to these dangerous places and showing you this fucking cool bad ass shit that no one else will show you" kind of filter. It's a subtle dilemma, for me, as a viewer - but in the end I'd prefer the access and information than not. So, Vice, keep it coming.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:38 PM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Basically, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, Firestone is one of the main reasons that Liberia is in the condition that it is today- the company planted tons of rubber trees there for tires and operated the facilities in a similar fashion to plantations. Ironically, the jobs in those rubber plantations are some of the highest paying and safest in the country, which is sad. Apparently in some of the wars, the safest places to be were the government facilities and the Firestone plantations.

And meatbomb, it's still in production it looks like.
posted by cardern at 10:38 PM on January 23, 2010


This is like the 5% excellent material that they publish. The rest is i'm-acknowledging-my-misogyny-so-it's-okay-right-wink-wink misogyny and streetwear. That's why people hate Vice.

Yeah, I was going through their Do's and Don'ts and was constantly cringing. For everything they said that was funny, there was one thing that was misogynist and something else that was basically pointing and laughing at fat people on mobility scooters.

However, let's not let that detract from this series, which is downright awesome. It takes huge brass ones to go make a documentary like this- bigger than the network news has, that's for sure. And can you imagine Wolf Blitzer saying "Profoundly fucked up"?
I'm still boggling that they just went and talked to General Butt Naked.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:42 PM on January 23, 2010


I don't like Vice's methodology- but this almost justifies their existence.
posted by mrdaneri at 11:10 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to point out that one of my oldest friends shot this series. The emails I got from him while he was there were like breathtaking FPPs. Way go Matt! If you ask me, the eye behind the lens is a BIG reason some of these guides are more successful than others.
posted by matthewstopheles at 12:28 AM on January 24, 2010


was this most fascinating work really done by the same guys who gave us jerkfests like "gonorrhea isn't such a big deal blahblah" and "look at that buttcrack on my mom," among others? wow.
posted by krautland at 12:36 AM on January 24, 2010


Coincidentally, I just saw this:

I Built an African Army
In May 2004, I was hired for an unusual job: The U.S. State Department contracted DynCorp International, a private military company, to build Liberia's army. I was tapped as an architect of this new force. Previously I had worked for both the U.S. military and Amnesty International. I was a rare bird -- an ex-paratrooper and human rights defender -- and thus a good fit for this unprecedented task.

When I arrived in Liberia in 2004, the country's army was, at best, a mess. After decades of civil war, soldiers' hands were as bloodied as any rebels'. The troops were undisciplined, unpaid, and undertrained. They were a motley crew that protected no one in a country where pretty much everyone was vulnerable to violence. And it was our job to turn them into a professional military.
posted by mekanic at 1:25 AM on January 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


The Vice series on North Korea was engaging and insightful. I will watch the series on Liberia.
posted by eccnineten at 7:29 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Part 5
Part 6
posted by davey_darling at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks davey_darling. Apparently the final two (7) and (8) will be available in just over 12 hours and 60 hours respectively.

Having now watched the 5th episode, I can tell you firsthand that UN (amongst others who are there to help) SUVs are perpetually parked outside brothels.
posted by gman at 8:15 AM on January 24, 2010


Having now watched the 5th episode, I can tell you firsthand...

You were there and can tell us firsthand or you've watched it an can tell us second (or third) hand?
posted by ahughey at 9:03 AM on January 24, 2010


I just finished 1-4. Good fucking christ. Now I am watching the North Korean series, which, oddly, is refreshingly light in comparison.
posted by molecicco at 9:13 AM on January 24, 2010


Interesting that CNN decided to feature it. Future of news, right here.
posted by mediareport at 9:53 AM on January 24, 2010


Parts 5 and 6 are pretty good. Well, the brothel section felt exploitative and too much "look how cool we Vice guys are" to me, but I think that's unavoidable. The story of General Butt Naked's conversion and ministry in part 6 is really amazing. Wikipedia has a decent article about him which references an autobiography he wrote. It's published in Nigeria, can't find it anywhere on the Internet. Not in Worldcat.

"From Priesthood to Royal Priesthood"
Milton-Blahyi, Joshua (June 2006)
(Formerly known as "General Butt Naked")
Lagos: C.R.M. Press. ISBN 978-072-683-7
posted by Nelson at 10:01 AM on January 24, 2010


I'm waiting for all 8 parts before I start watching, but a few folks asked for more info, so I've listed a couple suggestions below.

A few accessible books on Liberia include Blue Clay People by William Powers, The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper, and Redemption Road by Elma Shaw. Other than a recent re-election timed autobiography by the current president, there are few other books worth reading that aren't aimed at academics. (Except for that one that I'm sure I've forgotten and someone will mention in a later comment.)

There are a fair number of blogs devoted to Liberia, many run by ex-pats working in the country. I've highlighted a couple here, but you can follow their links to most of the others.

Miles Estey, one of the producers of Vice Guide to Liberia, has an excellent blog on things Liberian: The Esteyonage. Especially good is his Gettin By series.

Glenna Gordon is a photojournalist in Liberia. Her blog, Scarlett Lion runs counter to the African rape and lions stereotype: less on warlords, gangs, and cannibalism and more on the business of living: schools, markets, and beauty pageants.

Also of interest is a site following the ins and outs of Charles Taylor's trial at the Hague. Updated every day the trial is in session, it's both hilarious and exasperating.
posted by ahughey at 11:43 AM on January 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


And for you General Butt Naked fans, there's a documentary in production: Redemption of General Butt Naked.
posted by ahughey at 11:44 AM on January 24, 2010


Thanks for those links, ahughey! I particularly like those Gettin By posts.
posted by Nelson at 12:19 PM on January 24, 2010


I mentioned this in a previous FPP about Gen. Butt Naked; there was a great article in Granta (in 1994) about being a white, western woman in Monrovia at the time all this craziness went down. It was written by Lynda Schuster and it's in Granta number 48 (edited by the mighty mighty Bill Buford - the man-who-should-have-had-Remnick's-job...)
posted by From Bklyn at 1:33 PM on January 24, 2010


You were there and can tell us firsthand or you've watched it an can tell us second (or third) hand?

I spent a fair bit of time in Central Africa and pretty much only stayed in brothels due to the UN's presence driving up the prices of other more savoury guest houses.
posted by gman at 1:59 PM on January 24, 2010


And for something completely different in tone, the surf culture in Liberia.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:20 PM on January 24, 2010


Really difficult. I do not think there should be the chance for atonement, that Joshua Blahyi should get the chance to make his daughter proud.

"Since there is still time, go back, and see if you can repair some of these things. The time will come when someone will tell her what Butt Naked did. And then she will have the opportunity to tell them what Joshua Blahyi did, so there will be a monument built for him, a monument that she can be proud of, so that is how I take the challenge."

In this story Joshua gets to be the hero. He drives an SUV, he leads the mission, and the boys that he corrupted with heroin and cannibalism sing his praises for saving them. Still the Big Man, but these are peaceful times so now he is the Big Man with Jesus.

After drinking the blood of innocents he should not be allowed to turn the page. Why is he not in the Hague right now?
posted by Meatbomb at 10:43 PM on January 24, 2010


Why is he not in the Hague right now?

They bought that his conversion was genuine, so they didn't send him to the Hague, so far as I understand. I can see an argument for it: he is but one of 1000s of people (mostly men) who have done horrendous things. These people need to come back into society (you can't just imprison or execute half the country). So when possible, I assume they are trying to accomodate ex-soldiers who are making genuine efforts to return to a peaceful society.

That said, I find something mighty suspicious about a bunch of ex-soldiers in a hard-to-reach compound way outside the city meeting to just praise the lord. Seems more like a front for a group that is getting ready for the UN withdrawl. That quote about how Joshua thinks they will build a monument to him shows that he has no comprehension of how heinous his actions were, and that he is still eying for "glory" in whatever way he can find it.
posted by molecicco at 2:34 AM on January 25, 2010


(ack, I don't mean to imply Liberia is a country of 2000 people, just that a significant fraction of adult men in the country took part in the awfulness)
posted by molecicco at 3:09 AM on January 25, 2010


I wonder if Blahyi would accept a deal whereby he could live a normal life but could not be a Big Man, just had to work in a crap little job for someone else, without a bunch of followers singing his praises?

Going to the Hague would send a strong signal to the youth of his country that what he did was wrong - wouldn't his personal sacrifice be the real Christian thing to do?

Your comments about the remote compound ring true to me as well, molecicco, and I see guns and power in Blahyi's future.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:23 AM on January 25, 2010


Those who want to send Blahyi to the Hague, who would you have prosecute him and for what crimes?

The ICC, the go to court for war crimes, has no jurisdiction in the case of Blahyi. The ICC is only concerned with crimes that occur after July 1 2002. Blahyi's crimes reportedly ended with the first phase of the Liberian civil war in 1996.

Although Charles Taylor is in the Hague, he is not being tried by the ICC. His trial is part of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Although the SCSL is based in Freetown, Taylor is being tried in the Hague due to security concerns. There is no Special Court for Liberia. So who do you want to try the warlords?

For that matter, sending the warlords to a court might not send the "strong signal" you're looking for. Taylor still has plenty of supporters in Liberia, many who feel he's being used as a scapegoat by the west.

What about his ex-wife, Jewel Taylor, now a senator? Or Prince Johnson, also a senator, who you can see on video participating in the torture and murder of a Liberian president? Or countless others who participated on one side or another during nearly two decades of civil war?

The Liberians have gone down a Truth & Reconciliation path. The Liberian TRC's final report, in addition to recommendations for reparations, commerations, and reforms, has a few recommendations for prosecution including establishing an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia and public sanctions.

These are only recommendations and will require the government and people of Liberia to implement them, not to mention find a way to pay for them. Of course, the implementors are among those singled out for prosecution and sanctions....
posted by ahughey at 7:13 AM on January 25, 2010


And for something completely different in tone, the surf culture in Liberia. ()

Sliding Liberia is a documentary that covers surfing in Liberia (and is available from netflix and Amazon). Helene Cooper, the author of that NYT article also wrote the House at Sugar Beach that I mentioned above and has a few other Liberia articles in the NYT like this one on returning to Liberia after two decades. As you can imagine, some Liberians who didn't or couldn't leave often have a lot to say about "part-time" Liberians like Cooper.

I spent a fair bit of time in Central Africa and pretty much only stayed in brothels due to the UN's presence driving up the prices of other more savoury guest houses. ()

Sorry, gman. I wasn't trying to call you out so much as seek clarification. I can't imagine anyone staying overnight in a Liberian brothel. But the guest houses are just as ridiculously priced as you saw in Central Africa. The surfing article that misterpatrick linked to (in the NYT Travel section of all places) included $200 room rates for "luxury" hotels in Monrovia.
posted by ahughey at 7:29 AM on January 25, 2010


Oh dude, they're pretty fuckin' gross. Usually no locks on the doors, one to two toilets total (6 - 12 rooms) with shit piled higher than your ass, and the occasional used condom on the bathroom floor. I'd always get up around the same time the ladies were going to bed (7 am) and I'd more often than not share a sink with them while we brushed our teeth. Inevitably, they'd try to convince me to come smoke some weed with them and offer up their services.
posted by gman at 7:58 AM on January 25, 2010


I continue to be torn.

On the one hand, Vice still feels that the so-called ironic racism and sexism has an audience, and that they feel it necessary to employ Liz Armstrong--which, I suppose, makes sense as her presence there is, as Triumph once said, "much like poop, returning up into the butthole."

On the other hand, VBS.tv has some astounding pieces of video journalism, such as their extensive examination of "donk" music and culture, true Norwegian black metal (the last scene with Gogoroth is scarier than most horror films), Ranferi (I'm not even going to attempt to describe him), and the shock of what "killing me softly" chicken is.
posted by stannate at 6:11 PM on January 25, 2010


Let the backlash begin!
1, 2, 3, 4...
posted by Sys Rq at 2:57 PM on January 30, 2010


Those are very thoughtful criticism, SysRq. Thanks. Personally I was disappointed by parts 5-8. They spend a whole lot of time with Blahyi, giving him more and more credibility, and then toss off a quick "but maybe he's just building his army for when the UN leaves!" at the end. Copped out on the complicated story they were telling.
posted by Nelson at 3:34 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


thanks, Sys Rq
posted by From Bklyn at 12:40 AM on January 31, 2010


The journalist in Liberia who wrote the (fantastic) Gettin' By posts linked above, now has his comments on Vice's video. He helped scout for the project. Long and complex post, but tl;dr: he's disappointed.
posted by Nelson at 8:52 AM on February 1, 2010


And Vice has responded with their own letter.
posted by ahughey at 8:49 AM on February 3, 2010


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