Throughout Liberia’s 7-year civil war under the corrupt Charles Taylor regime, government soldiers and rebel fighters alike forced women into demeaning roles like sex slaves and cooks. It took a band of fierce, fly women wielding AK-47’s and wearing mini-skirts to fight for the rights of those who had no voices. Reporter Daimon Xanthopoulos spends time with legendary soldier Black Diamond and her women auxiliary commandos, the chicks who fought to topple a corrupt government and ended up empowering an entire people.
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Liberians have a tendency to describe their encounters with the celebrated warrior Black Diamond the way the Apostle Paul described his brush with God in the book of Acts. Or the way civil rights activists talk about the night Malcom X rescued Hinton Johnson. Ma Korpo Nanah is no different. She remembers with the awe of a child the day Black Diamond saved her life. “I was hungry and went to the Freeport of Monrovia to get food for my children. There was a lot of looting there,” says the single Liberian mother of seven. Her youngest is ten months old. “A general rounded me up with five other looters. We were placed in an empty building as the commander cocked his AK47 rifle to kill us,” she says while her kids play nearby. “Just as he turned his gun to me, I screamed. And then I heard a voice calling out of nowhere ‘Who is walking on my left foot?’ which is a popular LURD slogan. That was Black Diamond,” she recalls. “Black Diamond not only saved our lives, but took us to a spot where we could get enough goods to survive.”
Joseph Karpeh tells a similar story. He met Black Diamond when exiled president Charles Taylor’s men detained him at Bushrod Island, a commercial district. “I was stripped naked and a bandage was tightly tied across my face,” Karpeh says. “I yelled with all my power and voice, not knowing where I was. I began to feel a cold blade on my chest and back.” Before the blade made the slightest prick in his flesh, events took a turn for the unexpected. “I was surprised by how my tormentors so quickly and mysteriously took my place with their faces tied, and arms bound and prostrate on bare earth. Meanwhile I sat trembling in the van that my liberator set me in. That liberator was Black Diamond,” he says with pride and gratitude.
Indeed, Colonel Black Diamond is a strange rebel.
First of all, she’s a woman. The soldier is a tender 22-year-old to be exact. Hip hugger jeans and sexy tank tops are her wardrobe in battle. She loves “to dance and make friends” and enjoys listening to “religious music.” She’s also a master sharpshooter who will kill any man with her AK-47 who dares to disrespect her or her sister commandos. This makes her a walking paradox. Liberian civil war means rape, harassment and torture for women who are treated like second-class citizens. Throughout the years of rebel activities, warring parties only recruited women to play demeaning roles such as sex slaves and cooks or subordinate positions like reconnaissance agents. Rarely do Liberian female combatants rise to the rank of colonel or fight on the battlefront the way that Black Diamond has.
She leads an all-female group of fighters called the Women’s Artillery Commandos (WAC), which is a part of the controversial rebel organization Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). LURD was founded in opposition to Charles Taylor, a notorious warlord who became president in 1989 and his forces, known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. According to the New York Times, Taylor and the NPFL killed as many as 150,000 Liberians and forced hundreds of thousands into exile during his seven years in office. While LURD has been the principal opponent to Taylor’s corrupt regime, it has garnered a cruel reputation of its own, replete with rebels claiming to be “freedom fighters” only to torture and rape enemies and harmless Liberians. Black Diamond and her female guerillas, however, exist in sharp contrast to LURD’s male guerrillas. As a result, she and her comrades not only fight Taylor’s forces but some of LURD’s rebel groups as well. She is even rumored to have killed fellow troops for mistreating prisoners and civilians in battle. Both foes and friends in battle as well as civilians seem surprisingly unanimous in their high regard for Black Diamond as a fighter.
Locating the Liberian legend is laborious and exhausting to say the least. It took four rainy days and countless conversations with locals all over Monrovia to find the closely guarded woman. The search ends when her senior commander, Joe Gballah, agrees to reveal her location in Tubmanburg, the site of heavy rebel fighting 40 miles west of Monrovia. “This is your Black Diamond,” he says. “Black,” to put it bluntly, is for her rich, ebony complexion. “Diamond” underscores her value to LURD and the many Liberians who depend on her. “Hello, my name is Mariama Sesay,” she reveals for the first time after refusing to give her name to any other media outlets. She is quiet slim and beautiful, nowhere near as frightening in person as her reputation. She sits alone in a room that’s bare except for a television and a clock. It’s a home she has spent very little time in.
Joining LURD was the only thing left for Sesay to do after Taylor’s troops persecuted her tribe, the Mandingo. The bandits destroyed her hometown and murdered her family, including her mother and father who worked as a businessman. “Scores of women, young men, children, old and disabled were maimed, disfigured or raped. Entire villages, towns and businesses were burned and decimated triggering a mass exodus,” Black Diamond explains in a soft tone through a translator. She continues, “my mom and dad were hacked to death by Taylor’s forces as I helplessly looked on. Afterwards, a gang of rag-tag soldiers grounded me there and raped me on the spot one after another. I was just 15.” Decked out in gold jewelry, jeans and open toed shoes, she looks more like a child of the hip-hop generation than of a bloody civil war. Despite many years of hard battle, her face is surprisingly youthful and soft.
“Taylor’s pleasure for murder knows no borders. I wish I was killed once and for all. No father. No mom. No dignity. No security,” Black Diamond says, her voice now cracked with emotion. Those vulnerabilities, Black Diamond confesses, have driven young Liberian children, particularly girls to take up arms with WAC against their tormentors. Most members of WAC, if not all, are victims of rape, have lost their parents, or been taken captive by Taylor’s regime. “When a female soldier was captured by the government forces, which were our enemies at the time, it’s no joke–she will be raped,” says Black Diamond. Take 23-year-old Marie Teah, a muscular woman who goes by the moniker Road Crossing. She joined WAC after government soldiers raped her. Then there’s 17-year-old Disgruntle (she declines to give her real name). “I joined because a man will only respect me when I have a gun in my hands,” she says gruffly. Fatuma Kamara, 32, joined after she survived an attack by Taylor’s troops. “They hit my feet with an iron stick and then made me walk to prison. I was raped multiple times by the prison guards,” she says pointing out the cigarette wounds burned into her arms during her three years in prison. “When WAC attacked the prison hold in June Black Diamond freed me and took me to Tubmanburg,” she adds.
Matusu Dukuly, 19, is respected for her military power but she says her strength on the battlefield is fueled by a bitter memory of Taylor’s violence against her family. The oldest of the WAC, General Fastuomata Kamara, 31, was also raped after being captured by Taylor’s forces in Lofa county. “I was mishandled, even in the presence of Charles Taylor, who himself ordered my detention in Monrovia. My parents were killed. This kind of nightmare accounts for my success in battle,” General Kamara explains. “When the enemy appeared stronger; a recollection of that nightmare propelled me to fight to finish. However, my fellow LURD fighters who fought harder and overran the National Bureau of Investigation where I was
detained freed me from the hands of Taylor’s forces,” she explains.
Mamuyan Korleh, also known as Pepper and Salt, is a muscular 21-year-old who wears blue airbrushed finger and toenails; Alice Dieh, WAC’s 20-year-old company commander and Koala, the fierce 17-year-old who’s “called Koala because she’s always hanging on to everybody” round out the group of women warriors. They’re gathered at Black Diamond’s rundown house in Tubmanburg, an old devastated town. Her stone and wood house is painted blue and protected by a small group of male bodyguards stationed outside her door (security is provided by LURD for all generals and colonels).
The influence Black Diamond has on the women and men who have assembled at her hut is amazing. Her power over them is so strong it borders on cult-like. “I control the women and demonstrate actions that I expect them to repeat after me. When we are given a mission, we ensure that the mission is successful. And this was our goal with our motto: No Monkey Tries It,” says the Colonel proudly. The other WAC members won’t even answer interview questions without permission from the Colonel and finish each thought with the phrase “respect for Black Diamond. She is my superior.”
The men who fight in LURD respect and fear Black Diamond and her women commandos just as much as they do each other. “I fought with Black Diamond in Viata. She is very strong. She never retreats or surrenders. I respect her,” says Rebel Baby, a soldier stationed on Tubmanburg Road. “Black Diamond and her auxiliary commandos hardly stopped for drink or meals, much less for love or beauty during battles,” adds General Dragon Master, LURD’s battlefield commander. Although he views men and women equally on the battlefield, Master does admit that women soldiers tend to be more compassionate. “They care for civilians and are less inclined to loot compared to the men fighters,” he explains.
Black Diamond and her soldiers won’t reveal how they prepare for battle because of “security reasons” but admit that they undergo the same training as their male counterparts. “Our experiences as women on the battlefront are the same.Who dares to not show respect for women in LURD? We were the forerunners and were respected just as the men. Feel free to ask the men or even the little child-soldiers,” Black Diamond says. “During active battle, our Women Auxiliary Commandos are like green snakes in the grass, they never retreat and never surrender,” says Master. “When truce prevails, they become humans and real women again. They do all other things that all ordinary women do,” he adds. This includes raising kids. Black Diamond is revered for her awesome fighting skills but few know that she is also a mother. “I have a daughter who is now one year and seven months. I am married to my fellow LURD fighter,” she reveals publicly for the first time. The Colonel was so dedicated to the cause that she stayed on the battlefront eight months into her pregnancy before begrudgingly taking a break to give birth.
Like their commander, many other LURD female fighters are young mothers. Majaydeh Johnson, 18, became pregnant with her daughter Wendy after guerilla soldiers raped her and sexually tortured her with a piece of cassava. “I noticed with bitterness that I was pregnant. This is a child I did not need; a child of my tormentors,” Majaydeh says. “But when herbs failed to abort the pregnancy, I had no choice but to keep her.” Since LURD declared a ceasefire in early August, Black Diamond, Majaydeh and their allies have had more time to spend with family. They’ve also had the opportunity to make amends with old rivals. “I knew once that enemy was gone [LURD] and the fighters on his side would mingle and play together. Liberia is a small country and we know one another,” she says smiling. “My plan now is to go to school and to take care of my daughter. My ultimate desire in life is to be peaceful and I will do everything possible to have peace with my husband.”
Despite surviving seven years of harsh war conditions-the United Nations reports that 85% of Liberians live below the poverty line and for the first time a nation has a younger generation that is less educated than their parents-Black Diamond has managed to remain upbeat about her future. “War has had no negative impact on my life. All that I do now is to eat and sleep well, regaining my beauty washed away by war. I fought for many reasons: The most important ones are to free my country, Liberia, from the hands of fire [referring to the figutive, Charles Taylor.] Also, I fought for my rights and the rights of women of Liberia who were targeted by Taylor’s forces. Let the girls enjoy. It is time for them to celebrate. Their common enemy is defeated.” She does not distinguish whether or not the enemy is Charles Taylor or the men who have tried to violate their rights as women. In a way it doesn’t matter, because Black Diamond and her commandos have defeated both.