For decades, Liberians have referred to the Armed Forces of Liberia as “soldiers them.”
As in, “soldiers them came and raped my daughter.” Or “soldiers them beat my husband at the checkpoint in Paynesville.”
Now, “soldiers them” — once responsible for toppling the government, killing civilians and setting the nation on a course toward a devastating civil war — have suddenly become a linchpin in the fight against the Ebola virus rampaging through their country.
Huddled with American military personnel in the capital, Monrovia, Liberian soldiers rehearsed their roles in the effort to build 18 Ebola treatment units across the country.
“At the Monrovia medical unit yesterday, over 100 citizens were out there watching the construction,” Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, noted pointedly. Be nice to them, he instructed the group.
Joseph F. Johnson, a deputy minister at Liberia’s Defense Ministry, nodded in agreement.
“We’re trying to rebrand the A.F.L. as a force for good,” he said. “Piggyback on this.”
That is no easy task. The room where the group was meeting is just a few yards from the beach where in 1980, drunken soldiers killed 13 top Liberian government officials after staging the coup — a chilling start to the military dictatorship under Samuel K. Doe.
One of the new treatment centers being built to fight Ebola is just a few miles from a refugee camp where uniformed soldiers wielding machine guns and cutlasses slaughtered 400 men and women and 200 children in 1993 — one of many atrocities committed during the civil war that began after rebels tried to oust Mr. Doe.
Replacing such images in the public consciousness with ones of Liberian soldiers working side by side with American troops and making nice with ordinary Liberians is a tough sell, even if the enemy now is a terrifying virus steamrolling through the country, killing more than 2,300 people in six months.