By John Schelp
John Schelp of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences -- a former Peace Corps volunteer -- was invited by the Carter Center to be an official international observer of the legitimacy of Liberia's first free election, which occurred on July 19. Here are his impressions from his recent stay in Africa from July 12 to 23. The First Person column is an occasional feature to which all NIH'ers are invited to contribute.
We drove into the village and it looked like many I had known as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire -- a dozen earthen huts covered with grass roofs surrounded by forest. In front of the largest house, citizens were quietly waiting in line to vote in Liberia's first free election. Those holding flashlights had walked up to 5 hours during the night. Now, still an hour before the polls opened, more than 200 were patiently waiting. Waiting to do something that we often take for granted.
The forest begins just behind the polling station. As I looked into the vegetation, I was stunned to see the ruins of an entire town. Before the war, this tiny village was a commercial center with stores, hospital, churches, and a post office. I was told that thousands of people lived in the town. Many were killed in the war, others are now living in refugee camps or deeper in the bush. Some had returned to vote for peace.
Former President Jimmy Carter led a 40-person delegation to Liberia to observe that country's first free election -- an important step in a peace process for a nation that was devastated by 7 years of civil war. The Carter Center sent two-person teams to every county to observe the process and report if the election was free and fair. Brooks, a banker from New York who had monitored the Cambodian elections, and I were deployed to Bomi County. We were excited about our assignment because Bomi County was a key point on the line between two fighting warlords. Bomi experienced some of the war's most vicious battles -- we did not see one structure that was not pockmarked by bullet holes in its walls. Located near the refugee camps along the Sierra Leone border, Bomi had the least successful disarmament program in Liberia and was the only county that the leading candidate did not campaign in for fear of his life. If the elections were going to bring Liberia closer to peace, Bomi County would be a good test.
Brooks and I spent election day driving to 23 polling stations. Some were in large towns, others were in rural settings. (We skipped three stations in the old rubber plantation after the local UN commander said groups of young fighters were still hiding out in that area.) After getting their thumbs stained with indelible ink, voters would mark their ballots with either a thumbprint or "X" near their candidate's image. The ballot boxes were large, clear plastic bins with snap-on tops that were sealed with numbered clips.
At our last polling station, we observed the vote count. The peacekeeping soldiers stood at the perimeter to keep away curious onlookers. They became quite nervous when they heard a truck coming down the dirt road and were relieved when they saw it was a local businessman. It quickly became evident that Charles Taylor, a former warlord who never campaigned in the county, was taking a commanding lead in this small village 20 kilometers off the main road. He would go on to win the election with 75 percent of the vote.
Overall, we felt that the election process in Bomi County was free and fair -- a conclusion that was repeated by Carter Center delegates returning from other parts of Liberia. The main reason for this was the outstanding efforts of the West African peacekeeping forces who were posted at each polling station to maintain order.
The day after the election, we drove back to the capital of Monrovia. What we saw along the way was inspiring. A young couple had just married in one of the few remaining churches. A ribbon-covered caravan of wedding guests snaked through the county seat celebrating their new lives together. Church bells were ringing. Farther down the road, a man felt secure enough to start building a new house. Perhaps the elections would indeed bring peace to a troubled nation.
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