By Gabriel Williams | Special To The Observer

OPINION – I am a former Liberian diplomat, who served from 2010 to 2019 at the Embassy of the Republic of Liberia in the United States. Prior to my diplomatic posting, I served as a deputy minister at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism during the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first democratically-elected female president and Nobel Laureate. A career journalist and an author, I have also served as head of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), the journalists umbrella organization, which was a leading national organization that advocated for free speech and democratic governance during military rule and the brutal civil war in Liberia.

I am also the father of a son who is serving as a Sergeant in the United States military. We consider it a matter of great pride for my son to put his life on the line to defend this great country, which has provided our family sanctuary and the opportunity to aspire to the highest levels of our capabilities, since we fled the Liberian civil war in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed, more than half the population displaced, and almost the entire country destroyed. Because of my role as a journalist speaking truth to power, I could have been killed in Liberia if the United States, this great land of freedom and liberty, did not encourage and support advocacy for democratic governance in various parts of the world, including my native country Liberia, which was founded in the early 1800s by freed men and women of color from the United States.

This is why I view with great trepidation recent developments in Afghanistan where the Taliban, the primitive and barbaric islamic movement that is opposed to girls’ education, has returned to power.  I woke up on Sunday morning, August 15, 2021 and turned on my phone radio to WAMU public radio in Washington, D.C. as usual to get fresh local and international news. WAMU was broadcasting a special presentation of its Weekend Edition program on the rapid and shocking fall of Kabul to the Taliban. I then switched the television on to CNN to watch the horrifying images that were beamed around the world from Kabul.    

According to media reports, the scene of helicopters and planes taking off amid the chaos and pandemonium that erupted as Taliban forces entered Kabul have evoked memories of the 1975 fall of Saigon, capital of South Vietnam to Communist forces. More disturbing to watch  were images of terrified people desperate to get away, who were hanging onto moving planes and some of them falling off in midair. 

Watching the fall of Kabul to the Taliban live on CNN filled me with horror and sadness as it also evoked my own memories of the horror that I personally experienced during the Liberian civil war, which lasted from December 1989 to August 2002. Following the failure of peace talks involving the warring factions, in late 1992 the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the largest rebel movement led by Charles Taylor – which controlled about 90 percent of Liberia’s territory besides the capital Monrovia – launched an attack on Monrovia for Taylor to seize power. As its fighters overran parts of the capital, the notorious NPFL announced the names of individuals residing in Monrovia, mostly opposition politicians, journalists, and rights activists, who would be killed, if captured, as enemies of the NPFL “revolution.”

As editor of the leading independent daily newspaper, The Inquirer, and head of the PUL, I was one of those listed for elimination by the rebels if captured. During that period, The Inquirer, which once had the building housing its offices burned to the ground by anti-media elements, and the PUL were relentless in drawing attention to the widespread abuses perpetrated by the various armed factions that were involved in the civil war. Our only crime was advocating for respect for human rights, free speech, and adherence to democratic governance. It is the same advocacy for the tenets of democracy for which Afghan journalists and rights activists have been killed and are facing death at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

I recall the panic that I suffered upon hearing that I was targeted by the murderous armed gang to be eliminated –  a similar situation obviously being faced by Afghan journalists, rights activists and former government officials who have been declared wanted by the Taliban. At that time, there was complete pandemonium in war-ravaged Monrovia, which was overcrowded with internally displaced people from various parts of Liberia. As NPFL rebels encircled the city, the only way out was by air through a small domestic airport in the capital. 

Consumed by fear, I decided to make my way to the airport to see if I could hop on one of the last few flights leaving the country before the airport’s possible closure because of the fighting. When I got to the airport with my office assistant after crossing numerous military checkpoints, there was only one flight scheduled to leave. The airport was overcrowded with hundreds of panic-stricken people, mostly foreign nationals, desperate to leave the country before the last flight. after which the airport was attacked. Amid the chaos, I was squeezed on that last flight out of the war zone because my office assistant was a friend of the airline manager. We were packed like canned sardines in that little plane that was supposed to take no less than a hundred passengers. And what a great relief it was when the plane finally took off. I was nervous and wrecked but grateful to God for getting out alive.

Thanks to the gallantry of the West African peacekeeping force called ECOMOG, led by regional power Nigeria, the NPFL invasion was repelled, after thousands of lives lost, and the war-ravaged city further destroyed. During that period of the Liberian civil upheaval, ECOMOG maintained a corridor around Monrovia as a safe haven for civilians – a similar arrangement that could have been put in place for Kabul to save lives that have been put at risk and to prevent Afghanistan from collapse. For his part, Mr. Taylor, who later became President of Liberia through elections following an internationally-brokered peace agreement, is serving a prison sentence after he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is why watching the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan has evoked memories of my own traumatic past from Liberia’s brutal and barbaric civil war. I was so disturbed by the unfolding developments in Afghanistan that when I called my sister for us to conduct our weekly Sunday morning family prayers, I asked her to pray with me for the people of Afghanistan, especially for Afghan Christians and for girls. I was in tears as she led the prayers, beseeching the Lord to be with the Afghan people during this very tragic period. 

My heart bleeds for the Afghan people – especially for the journalists, rights activists, civil society leaders and many others who put their lives on the line over the past 20 years for peace and progress in Afghanistan. My heart bleeds for girls and young women whose future has been hijacked by a religious sect that is bent on imposing primitive religious rules to enslave females such as banning them from getting an education and a career. My heart and prayers go to Afghan Christians who face certain death and other forms of persecution under the Taliban because of their faith. Yes, my heart really bleeds for an Afghanistan that will suffer massive brain drain and the hopes and aspirations of millions of Afghans crushed after 20 year of tangible progress to transform their lives and their country as a whole. 

As the world anxiously waits to see what moves the Taliban will make regarding human rights and democratic governance, there is an urgency to build strong international solidarity in support of Afghan journalists and rights activists. I am more than ready to volunteer my time and provide financial resources to help bring relief to our Afghan colleagues in distress. It is my hope that organizations like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International, which have laudably been in the vanguard in the advocacy for press freedom globally, would intensify effort to support our Afghan colleagues  

After 20 years of very strong international support to build Afghanistan, the country’s sudden collapse like a house of cards is a serious blow to the cause of democracy worldwide. We can only hope that Islamic jihadist movements around the world, expecially in Africa with its fragile security systems, are not emboldened by the Taliban’s shocking success in Afghanistan. The August 26 suicide bomb attacks at Kabul International Airport that killed more than 170 people, including 13 U.S. service members, is yet another reminder of the unintended consequences.

Watching the human tragedy unfold in next door Afghanistan, I’m wondering what’s going through the minds of the people of Iraq, where the withdrawal of American troops would also come into effect at some point.   

Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that the Afghan crisis would not distract from the agenda of President Joe Biden for full U.S. global engagement and leadership. Like it or not, America’s international image suffers whenever those heartbreaking news from Afghanistan are broadcast. 

Finally, my thoughts and prayers are to the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan to ensure the security of the United States, especially the 13 Americans who lost their lives in the Kabul Airport suicide bomb attack.