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Minneapolis, Minn. — In his eighth floor office at the University of Minnesota, African Studies Professor Wynfred Russell frantically types an email to a friend in Liberia. He says downed phone lines in his war-torn homeland make it doubtful the message will get there.
But at this point, he says, he's desperate.
He lost contact with his father and sister last week. He later discovered the family was taken prisoner by the LURD rebel faction. All Russell can do now is call a cell phone that is never answered.
"There's no humanitarian organization working in the rebel-held areas," he says. "There's no food, there's no water, there's nothing there. What concerns us the most is there's a lot of female relatives there that I have. My sister, my nieces, my cousins, in the group. I know for a fact that my dad and my uncle will not stand and see them being raped by these rebels." Liberia has been under the thumb of president Charles Taylor for 14 years. He took the country by force from the previous dictator, Samuel Doe. Many Liberians see Taylor as a despotic dictator who has murdered thousands of his own people. But Professor Russell says the rebel groups aren't any better.
"These guys are just as ruthless as Taylor; as the guy they're trying to replace. It's the same old people that are recycling and prostituting themselves from one rebel group to another since 1989," says Russell.
But there's something else that makes Russell even angrier. He says Liberians in the Twin Cities are major financial backers of LURD rebels. He says the LURD leadership is spread out over the world. But, he says, many of them have made several fundraising visits to the Twin Cities over the past year.
"Whenever they come to America, they have to visit Minnesota, because you have a very strong financial base here. To know that you have people in your midst here contributing to severe hardship and wonton destruction of the country is maddening," says Russell.
Several Liberians who spoke to MPR about the fundraising refused to go on tape. They were concerned about possible reprisals to family members still in Liberia.
According to Russell and others, well-known Liberians Joe Wylie and Alhaji Kromah have visited Minneapolis several times in the past year for fundraising events. Wylie is currently in Liberia, working as the LURD rebel group's main spokesperson. Kromah is an exiled Liberian warlord who publicly supports LURD and is considering a run for the presidency of an interim government.
George Wuo is the president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota. Wuo says the fundraising events usually take place at private residences in Brooklyn Park, where most of Minnesota's estimated 25,000 Liberians live. Wuo says the events aren't widely publicized and usually take the form of a party or a barbeque.
"They may have a barbeque that they'll invite you to come to and charge you to appear at those things, but indirectly, they're raising funds for the rebel group. And when the money is collected and sent over to the military leaders, they have no contact or direct control over the rebel group or its activities," says Wuo.
Wuo says he's talked to the organizers of these events to try and persuade them to stop raising money for LURD. He says they've ignored him. Since then, he's distributed a flyer publicly condemning their activities. Wuo says the majority of rebel sympathizers in the United States live in Minneapolis and Philadelphia's Liberian communities. These communities have the highest percentage of tribal groups who are identified as supportive of LURD.
One Liberian who's been accused of fundraising for the LURD rebels is Brooklyn Park resident Matthew Zarzar.
Zarzar says he's been wrongly accused. He's a member of the Sapo tribe. He says his accusers are Americo-Liberians, the descendants of American slaves who returned to Liberia in the 19th century to establish the country. Historically, Americo-Liberians have been the ruling class in Liberia. Zarzar says Americo-Liberians have always oppressed the country's tribal groups. Zarzar says he supports the LURD rebels' goal in overthrowing president Charles Taylor, but his support isn't financial.
"If I tell you I'm against LURD, I would be lying, frankly speaking. But I never raised a dime to give to anybody and that is the issue. What these American Liberians and their supporters have been doing is to bury the natives alive," says Zarzar.
Zarzar admits to meeting LURD spokesperson Joe Wylie when Wylie makes visits to the Twin Cities. However, he says the money they collect isn't for guns. He says they're buying food and supplies for native Liberians suffering in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
"What we normally do, we meet and collect money to buy rice, we always buy, like, medicine, or sometimes, we send money to them to buy water, like in Ghana," says Zarzar.
"I would say 'be careful,' Becuase if you're fundraising, and I can guarantee you if you fundraise and send money over to kill my family, while you've got your family in a safehaven, that's totally wrong. You're not helping to resolve the issue, you're just creating more problems."
Jackson George disagrees. He's another Liberian living in Minneapolis. He says those who accept invitations to these fundraisers know their money will help buy weapons.
"They all know why they gather together, they all know where the money is going. We've heard that some people have refinanced their houses to send money to these very groups, so people are strongly convicted in their belief that what they are doing is right," says George.
But according to George, their activities are very wrong. Recently, LURD rebels attacked the port city of Buchanan. Last Sunday, George's aunt was shot and killed by people he thinks were LURD rebel soldiers. George says he has one message for Liberians in his community who are sending money to the LURD group:
"I would say 'be careful.' Because if you're fundraising, and I can guarantee you if you fundraise and send money over to kill my family, while you've got your family in a safehaven, that's totally wrong. You're not helping to resolve the issue, you're just creating more problems," says George.
George says the issue has caused a rift in the Twin Cities Liberian community between rebel sympathizers and families who have lost loved ones to rebel fighting.
University of Minnesota Professor Wynfred Russell says this division represents the political tensions that gave birth to the civil war 14 years ago.
"For a Westerner, it may be difficult to understand, but the whole tribalism thing, to an extent, is overblown and is used by politicians to manipulate the population," says Russell.
Russell says he would like to see an FBI investigation of financial ties between Liberian-Americans and the LURD rebel group. He's doubtful this will happen though. The LURD rebels are pushing to remove president Charles Taylor, and the Bush Administration wants Taylor to step down. Russell also points out close U.S. ties with Guinea, a country that houses the LURD leadership.
For Jackson George, the man who recently lost his aunt, an investigation is secondary to improving relations among Liberians here in the US. George says Liberians have to learn to settle their conflicts peacefully. Until they learn this, he says, they'll continue to suffer.
"The wider community is totally confused as to who's the good guys and who are the bad guys. As far as I'm concerned, there's no good guys," says George.
Like many Liberians in Minnesota, George wants to go back to his homeland. He hopes when he does, it'll be to a democratic country, not a society run by gunmen.