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  • Jacob and Azariah
  • Jonny Steinberg (bio)

"Jacob and Azariah" is an excerpt from Jonny Steinberg's forthcoming book about Liberian émigrés in the United States. The book's working title is The Arkoi Castle.

It was sometime during that window of relative peace in 1993 and 1994 when Monrovia, the capital city of the West African nation of Liberia, was ruled by a fragile coalition of warlords. Jacob D. Massaquoi was crossing a busy road near his brother's house in the eastern suburbs; he saw a face he hadn't laid eyes upon in years.

"His name is Nassa Jabal," Jacob told me. "He was several years ahead of me at high school in Sanniquellie. He had been a mentor to me. We were student militants together. He was from a wealthy business family, his father Lebanese, his mother Mano. When the war started, he went to live in Europe, in Switzerland. Now he was back. He had many, many business ideas for wartime Liberia. He wanted to do this; he wanted to do that. I don't think that any of his ideas ever materialized.

"We hooked up. We moved together. We started discussing politics. You know how I am, Jonny. I find someone. I move with him for a time. Nassa hated Taylor. He had many terrible things to say about Charles Taylor. We discussed politics until we were exhausted. [End Page 45]

"He invited me to come and live at his house with his mother. That's how it was; we were moving together. His mother adored me, she really adored me; I became like a foster son to her. I have happy memories of living in that house. I was there for two or three months, I think."

Late one night in early October 1994, close to midnight, as he recalled, Jacob was sitting alone outside Nassa's mother's house. In the distance, he heard the agitated voices of a group of men. He sat. Their talk grew louder. They seemed to be making their way to the house.

He went out to confront them. As he walked briskly through the night, something stopped him in his tracks: the glint of metal, he thought he recalled; they were armed.

He rushed inside, locked the front door, and ran through the house shouting at the top of his voice, dragging all from their beds.

"Everyone in the house woke up. We tried to prevent them from opening the door. We all stood at the door and pushed against it. There was an ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) checkpoint right around the corner. It was right there, so close. We thought they would never shoot. They would be arrested straight away. But that did not deter them. One of them put the barrel of his gun in the gap between the floor and the door and opened fire."

The surgeon who attended to Jacob later that night, Dr. Horatius Brown, counted seven entry wounds in his right leg, the lowest just above the ankle, the highest just below the knee. None of the other occupants of the house was hit.

"It felt as if they had cut me in two," Jacob told me. "I dragged myself to the other end of the house. There was a large closet in the furthest room. I was in the closet by the time they entered the house."

From the menacing commands of the invaders and the replies of his housemates, Jacob understood that these were robbers, that they had come to take what they could.

But then, from his position in the cupboard, he heard this:

"'Where is Jacob!'

"'He is not here. He slept out.'

"'I am warning you; where is Jacob?' [End Page 46]

"'I said he's not here.'

"Ba! Ba! They shot Nassa's mother in the feet.

"'I told you Jacob is not here. Do you want to kill me?'"

He paused.

"If they were robbers," he said, "why were they asking for Jacob? How did they know Jacob? When I confronted them outside, they did not recognize me. Somebody had told them that this Jacob man lived in...


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pp. 45-60
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