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Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Thursday, 24 December 2009

Grim legacy of Liberia's most isolated town

By Jonathan Paye-Layleh
BBC News, Butuo

On 24 December 1989, rebels loyal to Charles Taylor launched their first attack on Liberian territory. The raid plunged Liberia into more than a decade of civil conflict.

Liberians and Ivorians on the Cestos River
The Cestos River holds bitter memories for many in Butuo

Art teacher Roosevelt Myers still recalls the turmoil of the attack on Butuo, a once prosperous cocoa-growing border town on Liberia's border with Ivory Coast.

He and his family were in town when Mr Taylor's troops crossed the Cestos River from Ivory Coast.

"Butuo was fearful on that morning - dead bodies were all over the place and we all were scattered in the bushes when the town was under gunfire," he says.

Mr Taylor's forces were citizens from the Butuo region who had fled from ethnic reprisals under President Samuel Doe. Many were living in exile, longing for the opportunity to return home.

Mr Taylor himself had fled Liberia six years earlier after he was accused by the Doe regime of misappropriating state funds during his time as a senior government official.

He, too, was looking a way to return home without being arrested.

It is just like we are not part of Liberia
Annie Kwala

Mr Taylor was able to organise military training in Libya and Burkina Faso for his band of exiles, before he transported them back to Ivory Coast for the attack on Butuo.

"When shooting started in the town, we thought we could remain indoors until it was all over, but as firing intensified, we had to flee," says Mr Myers.

"Some of the fighters wanted to kill me, but God saved me."

Non-existent services

There were more than 100 Liberian soldiers in the town during the rebel incursion.

As they retreated, eyewitnesses say they set fire to more than 600 buildings and homes.

TAYLOR TIMELINE
Charles Taylor pictured in 1990
1989: Launches rebellion in Liberia
1991: RUF rebellion starts in Sierra Leone
1995: Peace deal signed
1997: Elected president
August 2003: Steps down, goes into exile in Nigeria
June 2007: Trial opens in The Hague

As a result, Butuo still has serious housing and accommodation problems.

Social services are almost non-existent, there are only two working hand-pumps for a population of more than 6,000, and only two police officers in the entire border district.

The authorities travel on foot or hire motorcycles to do official business.

The only high school, which has some former combatants attending, does not have library, laboratory or any basic teaching materials.

A recently-established FM radio station, Voice of Butuo, is off-air because there is no battery to power the transmitter.

To make matters worse, the signal from a mobile-phone network in neighbouring Ivory Coast blocks calls between Butuo and the rest of Liberia.

'We feel sick'

Annie Kwala, a spokeswoman for local women's groups, becomes emotional when explaining the extent of their isolation.

"We're suffering here. It is just like we are not part of Liberia," she says.

Liberia map

"If we go across to register in Ivory Coast to be recognised by the government as citizens, it will be an insult for Liberia.

"Our friends in Ivory Coast laugh at us. When we cross there, lights are shining, roads are shining, everything is correct; but when we come back and see our side, we feel sick."

Local government spokesman Zoyeagbander Gbeardeu agrees, saying that the post-war reconstruction process should have begun in Butuo because that is where the war began.

He laments that even international organisations undertaking projects in Liberia shy away from the town.

"They have abandoned this place. Nobody really wants to come. As soon as somebody hears the name Butuo, they say this is the place the war started," he says.

Butuo's virtual isolation is caused by damaged done to dozens of bridges on the stretch of road leading there.

"The government infrastructure that we had here are all in ruins, and nobody is really coming to recondition these areas," says Mr Gbeardeu.

"The road conditions are bad, people have their cash crops, their food that they want to take to the market to help their children go to school and sustain their family but they can't."

One positive point

Mr Taylor started the war in Butuo, but it was in the town of Gborplay, about two hours away by road, that he set up his base to recruit and train tens of thousands of young people into his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group.

Gborplay Mansion
The house where Charles Taylor lived is now dilapidated

His base in the town has become known as Gborplay Mansion because Mr Taylor resided in it.

Beside the house are eleven kola trees under which Mr Taylor sat to mount his satellite phone to call media groups to talk about the gains he had made against the demoralised army of Mr Doe.

Doris Diayou, a resident who lived in the town when Mr Taylor stayed there, can at least see one positive point to the area's grim legacy.

"Although Taylor did not do any development in this town, he did not build a single house - the good thing is, he did not torture anybody here," she says.



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