Geographic Correspondent on Evacuation From Liberia

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2003

National Geographic News recently spoke with Ultimate Explorer television correspondent Michael Davie in Freetown, Sierra Leone, shortly after his evacuation from the chaotic Liberian capital of Monrovia. Together with producer Scott Bronstein and cameraperson Neil Barrett, Davie had been filming a documentary about the war-torn country. As violence escalated, the trio filed reports for NBC and MSNBC news before they were ordered to leave the country. They hope to return to Liberia shortly to continue their work. Davie described his experiences amid the country's despair.

What is the focus of your documentary?

The original assignment was to do a documentary about America's historical connection to Liberia and to these people who have been struggling to survive in this place since the foundation of the country. One hundred and fifty-six years ago, some Americans sent freed slaves back to Africa where they established Liberia. Within that, it's really a story about Liberians' long-standing connections to the United States and their efforts to make something out of this impoverished part of the world.

What was the scene upon your arrival in Liberia?

We flew in to Monrovia about two weeks ago. That evening there was heavy shelling as the rebels were trying to take Monrovia. They started shelling the city, and we essentially flew right into a battle. It was extremely tense. It was quite a mission just to get from the airport to the hotel. For four days, we were running around just trying to get a sense of the danger, find out who was doing the fighting, and determine what was going on. MSNBC and NBC News asked us to file news reports for them about the developing situation and the fighting. At the same time…we were gathering material for the documentary.

Then, I believe it was two Mondays ago, we had the heaviest shelling in the city in I think about six years. A mortar round landed just outside of our hotel, another in the American compound, and another in a refugee camp close to the hotel. That shell killed about 25 refugees in the camp.

When we heard about the camp, we came racing back into the city because we had been shooting elsewhere. As we approached the [impact site], the crowd was very agitated. There were some rocks hurled at us and people were screaming; "Why are we being abandoned? Why haven't Americans come? They could have prevented this!" It was touch and go for while. They were taking their anger out on us.

They brought about 17 dead bodies down and they piled them on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. embassy. It was a surreal situation. They piled them immediately in front of a bulletproof glass widow. They were literally only inches away from were American officials and soldiers were standing behind the glass. They were only inches away but also removed from this crowd who was screaming and crying and throwing rocks. People were pushing and shoving. They were trying to grab our money and camera equipment. At times they would become agitated toward us and push us towards the dead bodies and sort of demand that we would film the atrocity.

But fortunately none of us were injured. So over the next few days we were out on the street filming, trying to cover the human impact of the situation. There are refugees, people without food, without shelter. They are sleeping in the street. We were trying to tell the story of this city under siege.

You were told to evacuate the country?

We were ordered out of the country by National Geographic Television. They wanted us to leave by the earliest means possible. We went to the [U.S.] Embassy in an absolute downpour with our 17 cases of equipment and we had to dump about 95 percent of our equipment and basically run for the helicopter. As these three helicopters came swooping in across the sea from Sierra Leone, the Marines at the embassy detonated a smoke bomb to create a smokescreen so that none of the unfriendlies on the streets could take potshots. The whole embassy was shrouded in smoke and these Marines were yelling, "Get on the helicopter, get on the helicopter!"

We shuttled over the ocean to a remote soccer field somewhere in the interior of Sierra Leone. Then we had to get on another helicopter, a Russian helicopter, which shuttled us to Freetown. There we were met by U.S. and British officials who set up a little table and stamped us in and said, "Welcome to Sierra Leone."

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