Gambia vs. Liberia

In preparation for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, The Liberian Lonestars played The Gambia as part of the qualification process. The game was sponsored by Comium, Liberia’s 3rd largest GSM provider. To make sure I had the full experience I purchased a 200LD, A-Field, ticket. These are the cheapest seats. I was warned that there would be pandemonium in such sections, but I threw caution to the wind.  I had survived the Akon concert in the cheap seats, how could this be any worse? The game started at 3. I heard people say that we should get their by 10. Due to some logistical complications we didn’t leave till 11.

In my company this fine day were Sean and Brenna from the Carter Center and Jeremy and Kaleb from Harvard. Both Jeremy and Kaleb had been in country less than 24 hours. I was wearing my Lonestar 2010 t-shirt that I had bought the day before for 175LD.

At 11:30am Traffic was already at a standstill a mile from the stadium.  Small sedans were filled with 2 people in the front (following the new law that only one person can sit in the passenger seat) 7 in the rear seat and 4 in the trunk. Larger trucks easily carried 30 people each. We got out of the car, sent the driver off for the next batch of football fans, and began to walk. Not a moment later it began to rain. We bought plastic bags to put our cell phones in and continued down the road. By the time we arrived at the stadium we were soaked, though the rain did stop by then.

As we approached the stadium we found ourselves walking past a lined that probably stretched on for half a mile. This is where I noticed the first problem with this game, the lack of proper signage. There was nothing to indicate where you should go. We found another line for another gate that was far shorter and stood there.

The line was super tight. To keep skippers out of line each person was pressed up against the person in front of them. Soaking wet, we all got a little closer to each other. The line would lurch forward at times.  Each time you’d have to waddle in order not to trip because you couldn’t move your legs as you were sandwiched between two people.  Up ahead in line we could see security guards and UNMIL peace keepers beating people with night sticks and tree limbs as they tried to scale the gate and push their way through.  Minus the beatings, it kind of reminded me of concerts at the Warp Tour when I was in high school and college.

It was at this point that Sean looks at me and says, “It’s too dangerous, I’m outa here.” That was the last I saw of Sean that day. I had my ticket, had waited in line, and was determined to get in. Brenna, Jeremy, Kaleb, and I pressed on. As we got to the front of the line things became very, very chaotic. The line turned into a more of a mob it would surge forward, people would slip through the gate, peace keepers would beat them, and then push the gate shut again. I was still feeling rather optimistic at this point that some order would be restored. I mean somehow, they must have a way of checking tickets and letting people in right? They can’t expect to let the whole stadium fill up in such a way?

Then another surge came, the gate opened as bodies poured between the steel doors. I looked through the opening and saw UN blue helmets and falling sticks. I wrapped my left arm around Brenna’s waist, planted my right foot and right arm against the gate, and leaned back as far as I could. I felt like I was leaned really far back, but I wasn’t falling. The peace keepers slammed the gate and the surge fell back. We had escaped a beating. At this point Brenna decided it was time to leave. She made a b-line for the side of the crowd but then discovered there was a concrete wall in her way. The crowd was such that we weren’t moving in any direction unless we moved along with the crowd. Unfortunately, they were moving toward the gate and peace keepers with clubs. I told her we just needed to get through the gate somehow and we’d be fine. Looking back I’m not sure where all this confidence in the security at the Samuel Kyan Doe Sports Complex was coming from.

Another surge came. All I remember was ducking, putting my hands over my head, and then standing on the other side of the gate as people ran passed me. I just remember thinking, “I hadn’t been beat!” I was knocked around as people ran past me, fleeing the security. I looked for Brenna. She was to my left, picking herself off the ground. A security guard ran up and grabbed her. He was like a loan rock amidst a river of rapids as people flooded by. I ran over to her but was constantly knocked back by the torrent of people coming through the gate.

Finally the guards regained control of the gate and I made it to Brenna. Her right leg was badly scraped up and bloody, both her feat had scrapes and she had lost her sandals. Immediately more security personnel and police officer showed up, apologizing and trying to assist. The police officer asked what her sandals looked like. Neither one of us could put together more of a description than to say they were black. To my amazement the officer came back 30 seconds later with her shoes. At this point Kaleb and Jeremy found us. They had a bottle of water that we used to clean the dirt and grime off of Brenna’s legs.

I was fairly certain that at this point Brenna would have had enough and want nothing more than to go home. But she was a trooper and wanted to press on. After this it was pretty easy. Jeremy and I had Brenna put her arms over our shoulders to help her walk. People were very helpful and apologetic when you’re carrying a white girl with a bloody leg. It was kinda weird how people would say, “I’m sorry”, as we walked by. It was as if they were personally apologizing for the incident, and not just conveying their empathy.

Once we got to our seats I went to find some first aid. Unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be any. I asked some Nigerian peace keepers where the doctors were and they said they didn’t know. So we made do with what we had. I cut the bottom few inches off of my “Liberia dream team 2010” shirt and used that as a bandage. About that time someone came by selling gin in ketchup packet like satchels. So I bought one and used it to disinfect. Not the best option, but it got the job done.

After we had the leg taken care of, things went pretty well for our little group. Thou there were still a few small problems. For instance they managed to get a fire truck stuck in the infield. They were driving it around spraying down the crowd. I was later told that this was to help with the overheating problem that a lot of people were experiencing. It was a hot day, and a little water would feel good, but not full blast from a fire hose when the spray is focused in one little point. That’s what you use for crowd control in riot situations, not to fight heat stroke. They could have used it outside of the stadium, not inside, but anyway… They were driving the truck around and drove through some grass that was soaked from all the rain. The truck got stuck. So they pulled an ambulance in front of it to pull it out. Of course the ambulance got stuck too. Finally they figured that they had to have a vehicle on solid ground to pull the fire truck out. After an hour they had a Toyota Land Cruiser pull out the fire truck with a little tow cable that snapped 4 times. It was kinda funny to watch this little bitty SUV pull out a huge fire truck.

The game itself was alright. Liberia played pretty well for a post-conflict team. They need to learn to pass the ball a little bit more, and to run the ball up the sides and not down the middle of the field. Gambia played well too; both teams were pretty equally matched. In the end the score was 1-1. All told this was probably the best thing that could happen from a crowd control standpoint. They didn’t lose, and they didn’t win.

The next day I found out in the papers that 8 people had died from heat stroke and being crushed by the mob of people who tried to rush the gates. I couldn’t believe that I was at an event that 8 people died at for no good reason. I was also surprised by the lack of complete outrage over this. Had 8 people died at the Super bowl there would be investigations, law suites, and criminal cases. Here there were a few articles in the news papers, a moment of silence was observed, and that was about it.

After the Akon concert debacle I would have thought that Liberia would have learned what to expect and would have planned accordingly. Now they’re under investigation by FIFA and might lose the right to hold world cup qualifier games here. It’s a big blow to this little country when they can’t even host their favorite sporting event without people dying. I really hope they get all this straightened out before the next game.

John
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