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‘Firestone’ probes Liberian history

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    Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, took his forces to Buchanan, Liberia, in 1990. Responding to years of government corruption and oppression, Taylor and the NPFL launched a revolt in 1989 against President Samuel Doe, plunging the country into massive civil war until 1996. Taylor is the subject of a new “Frontline”?special on PBS.

With more than enough horror stories coming out of Africa lately, you might have little appetite for revisiting a gruesome chapter of Liberian history from a quarter-century ago. But "Firestone and the Warlord," a 90-minute "Frontline" special Tuesday on PBS, is an example of the reason we bother to scrutinize history. Its troubling questions are not easily answered, but merely examining them might be useful for anyone venturing into unstable areas today.

The program, made with ProPublica, looks at the actions taken by Firestone, which has a large rubber plantation in Liberia, when that country descended into civil war. People who worked there then describe a prewar life that is disturbing in itself, with white foreigners overseeing black local workers in a setting reminiscent of a Southern plantation.


10 p.m. Tuesday on PBS

"We actually had a nine-hole golf course," recalls Steve Raimo, a former senior accountant for Firestone. "The greens were oiled sand."

But the program’s real concern is what happened when Charles G. Taylor led a bloody revolution beginning in 1989. The company abandoned the plantation for a time but eventually struck a deal with Taylor, who is now imprisoned for war crimes.

"Why did we go back?" says Brad Pettit, a former Firestone controller. "Because we felt sorry for the people that were there? Probably not. We wanted to get the investment earning money again."

Taylor’s revolution left thousands dead and was infamous for its use of child soldiers. Did the company make a deal with the devil? And did its money finance Taylor’s atrocities?

Perhaps, but had the company left Liberia for good in 1989, a more recent headline, from an NPR report last month, would never have been written. "Firestone Did What Governments Have Not: Stopped Ebola in Its Tracks," it says.

By Neil Genzlinger, New York Times

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