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Opinion

My final phone call with warlord Charles Taylor

Former president of Liberia Charles Taylor called me regularly in the early 1990s when I was the director of Voice of America's English-to-Africa broadcasts. I'll never forget one strange phone call from him. Unfortunately, my hunch about Taylor's connection to Sierra Leone would prove correct.

By Gregory Alonso Pirio / May 31, 2012

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of his sentencing judgement in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone near The Hague May 30. Taylor will serve his 50-year sentence for crimes against humanity in a British prison. Op-ed contributor Gregory Alonso Pirio recalls the phone interviews he conducted with Taylor as a Voice of America journalist in Africa.

Toussaint Kluiters/AP

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Rockville, Md.

Charles Taylor would call me on regular basis in the early 1990s. It’s not that I was a friend of the former Liberian rebel leader and later president, whom the International Criminal Court sentenced to 50 years in prison on Wednesday for his role in the bloody Sierra Leone civil war. Rather, Mr. Taylor needed me.

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I was a media gatekeeper who could give him access to an audience of millions of African listeners, including Liberians. These were the days before the advent of independent FM radio in Africa, and millions of Africans had no recourse but to tune to international broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America as credible news alternatives to the government-monopolized radio stations.

For my part, as the director of VOA’s English-to-Africa broadcasts, I pursued newsmakers like Taylor to enrich the news offerings to our listeners. The advent of satellite telephone in the 1980s revolutionized our coverage of African civil conflicts. Rebel leaders were no longer isolated in faraway bush headquarters awaiting the occasional Western reporter to arrive to get their stories out.

With the advent of direct dial, we could talk directly to murky figures within seconds, and my Rolodex quickly came to read like a Who’s Who of cold war and post-cold war warriors: UNITA leader and one-time US ally, Jonas Savimbi of Angola; Renamo leader, Afonso Dlakama, of Mozambique; Rwandan Patriotic Front leader, Paul Kagame; Somali warlords, and more.

These phone relationships were professional but intense, and these leaders made strong impressions, both in person or just over the phone. Savimbi was brilliant, personally imposing, and ruthless. Dlakama appeared meek and unprepared for media scrutiny. Kagame was highly intelligent and calculating. And Taylor seemed coarse and shifty to me over the phone.

Taylor would call me weekly or biweekly to give me updates on battlefield accomplishments or peace overtures. Sometimes I would interview him myself, but as our stable of top-notch reporters with intimate knowledge of African reality grew, I would hand Taylor over to them for interviews.

One day, I received a call with an unfamiliar voice on the other end. My memory tells me that his voice was somewhat shrill as he announced, “I am Corporal Foday Sankoh, and I am leader of the Revolutionary United Front, which has launched the liberation of Sierra Leone. I am calling you on satellite phone from RUF-liberated territory inside Sierra Leone.” Sankoh proposed an interview.

My mind raced: “The only one who could have given Sankoh my phone number was Charles Taylor,” and I imagined Foday Sankoh speaking on Taylor’s satellite phone somewhere in neighboring Liberia with the shifty Taylor at his side.

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