Despite moments of domesticity, Taylor led a separate life outside the home. He partied and protested with other Liberian activists living along the East Coast. In 1980, he traveled back to Liberia just in time for a coup by a small band of army officers. In a volatile political climate, Taylor quickly proved to be a canny opportunist: He married the niece of a general, ingratiating himself with the new government. He called Emmanuel, asking her to move to Liberia, but she refused. "We weren't educated enough to know that Africa wasn't backward," she says.
From then on, Chucky's father became a transient presence in his childhood. Put in charge of the General Services Agency, Liberia's main procurement office, Taylor ran it as his own private kingdom. He proudly displayed his newfound wealth, chauffeured around Monrovia, surrounded by bodyguards, grasping a small dog. Within a few years, accusations that he had pilfered nearly $1 million in state money forced Taylor to flee back to America, where he shuttled between New Jersey, Staten Island and Boston. "Every year he came back twice to visit the kids," says Emmanuel. "He gave the kids everything they wanted." In 1984, when Chucky was seven, U.S. marshals arrested Taylor on an extradition request from the Liberian government. But Taylor conned a car thief into arranging his escape, breaking out of the Plymouth County Jail in Massachusetts and fleeing the country, never to return to the U.S. or his children again. "It destroyed our family," Emmanuel says.
Emmanuel moved on with her life. In the mid-1980s, she married a man named Roy Belfast and relocated the family to a two-story brick home on the corner of a quiet street in Orlando. Chucky slept in a small bedroom, barely big enough for his bed and dresser, but he made room for a turntable, a mixer and a massive set of speakers. As he grew from a boy into a teenager, his light complexion darkened. He began to strongly resemble his father, who was drifting in and out of prisons in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and into Muammar el-Qaddafi's paramilitary training camps in Libya. In 1989, on Christmas Eve, Taylor re-emerged as a self-styled revolutionary leader, invading Liberia with a small band of guerrillas. A month later, Chucky went with his mother to the Orange County Clerk's Office and changed his name to that of his stepfather, becoming Roy Belfast Jr. "I was his father at the time," Chucky's stepfather says simply.
A few years later, right around Christmas, Chucky answered the phone at home. Now in his early teens, he was a quiet kid, awkward and shy. The man on the line asked to speak to his mother. Emmanuel wasn't home at the time, but before Chucky hung up, the stranger explained that he was the boy's father.
"My dad called," Chucky announced when Emmanuel returned home a short while later. "I didn't want to talk to him."
Emmanuel was stunned. It had been so long since she had heard from Taylor, she couldn't understand what Chucky was telling her at first. "Who's your dad?" she asked, bewildered.
Taylor began to call frequently, eventually inviting the family to join him in Liberia. He seemed hurt by the separation and eager to reunite with his children. The next summer, Chucky traveled to Africa, where he, his mother and sister reconciled with Taylor after nearly a decade apart. The family arrived in Gbarnga, a small city in the Liberian bush outside Monrovia. From there, Taylor ruled over "Greater Liberia," the bush empire he had built over years of fighting in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Taylor arranged for Emmanuel and their daughter to stay at a separate residence, but insisted that Chucky stay with him.
At first, the boy from Orlando had trouble grasping that this imposing African warlord was his father. Taylor was surrounded by soldiers from his army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, some of whom went into battle in a sort of macabre burlesque, often cross-dressing in wigs and women's under wear, wearing amulets believed to make them impervious to bullets. The child soldiers called Chucky's dad "Papay" – Liberian slang for "Father."
The country that Taylor was fighting to control was conceived in America on December 21st, 1816, at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. A group of prominent judges, congressional leaders and clergymen had gathered to address what they saw as a growing problem: what to do with the increasing number of freed slaves. The group, which came to be called the American Colonization Society, engineered a novel solution: Send the free blacks back to Africa, in the hope that they would build their own country in the image of the new American republic. It became America's first experiment in nation building.
What followed remains an abject lesson in the perils of U.S. intervention. After securing a spit of land under the guns of an American naval escort, the settlers set about re-creating an almost exact replica of the society they had just left behind. The freed slaves quickly assumed the role of master, exploiting the new nation's wealth in rubber, timber and iron ore, and even selling the natives into slavery. After World War II, the U.S. began plying the small African nation with military aid and developing its infrastructure, even as Liberia's leaders became increasingly criminal in their disposition.
By the time Charles Taylor emerged from the bush in the early 1990s, he was able to take advantage of long-festering tribal animosities, building his empire from the ashes of civil war. Unencumbered by ideology, Taylor took whatever position served him best. To curry favor with tribal elders, he became a shaman. To win the sympathies of American religious leaders like Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, he became a Baptist minister. As his troops closed in on Monrovia, he also briefly gained acceptance from the U.S. government, in the words of former ambassador to Ghana and the Ivory Coast Kenneth Brown, as the "lesser evil for the greater good."
"He was calm," recalls Brown, who slipped across the border of the Ivory Coast to meet Taylor in June 1990. "He was impressive. He had lived in the U.S. He looked like he was someone who was in control." Never mind that his bodyguards wore pearl necklaces and had painted nails – he seemed like the kind of warlord America could work with.
Chucky couldn't help but be impressed by his father's power and by the brutality of the civil war raging around him. After the reunion in Liberia, Chucky returned home changed. He was defiant; he began to drink, smoke pot and carry weapons, getting into confrontations with the police. In letters from prison, he dismisses the impact that exposure to Liberia's civil war had on him. "My story is a deep and complex one that encompasses different regions of this globe," he says. "My childhood is but a fraction of my makeup."
Lynn Henderson, Chucky's high school sweetheart, recalls him as "mean-looking" and "intimidating," even as a teenager. Around her, Chucky had a serious manner, and he rarely partied to excess. But with his friends, he became a different person. "He was a bad boy," she says. "But he was always nice to me. I was totally, totally in love with him."
At 16, Chucky was arrested for obstruction of justice after he interfered with an arrest of one of his friends, but no charges were filed. Then, on February 25th, 1994, Chucky and two accomplices attempted to mug another teenager. When the victim ran home, the crew followed. There, according to police, Chucky pointed a pistol in the face of the boy's father. "Shoot him!" one of his friends urged. The boys fled but were soon arrested; Chucky was charged with four felonies. If convicted, he faced a minimum of three years in prison.
Following the arrest, a mental-health assessment suggested that Chucky had problems with drugs and alcohol, and noted his possible suicidal urges and his difficulty controlling his anger. His stepfather says that Chucky was "tough" but insists that he was a "normal kid." His mother chalks his behavior up to Chucky running with the wrong crowd. But one afternoon, Chucky did something that stunned his parents: He climbed into a bathtub and slit his wrist.
With her son facing years in jail, Emmanuel called Taylor in Liberia.
"I've had him until he's 17," she told Taylor. "Now it's your turn."
Emmanuel sent her son to live with Taylor. Like the founding fathers of the American Colonization Society, she saw a solution in Africa. And in 1994, as his father had a decade before him, Chucky Taylor fled the United States a fugitive from justice.
It's hard to explain the situation over here," Chucky wrote to his girlfriend Henderson after his arrival. "All I can say is this I'm in a place called Gbarnga, Bong County, Liberia, on the West African side of the continent. There are several warring factions in the country. It's a complex issue that needs a lot of research which I want you to do, because I want you to know what's going on over here, you look up L.I.B.E.R.I.A, and N.P.F.L. Leader Charles Ghankay Taylor my father it will shed light on what the fuck I'm going through."
By the time Chucky arrived, the civil war in Liberia had metastasized into a half-dozen warring ethnic factions, among whom Taylor's NPFL remained the most powerful. Chucky's father had also launched a war in neighboring Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front, the rebel group in Sierra Leone that Taylor armed and traded diamonds with, soon became known for its signature act of terror: the amputation of hands, arms and feet. What united both conflicts was Taylor's ambition to become the region's reigning power. "Everybody is scared of my father," Chucky wrote Henderson. "They say he wants to destabilize the whole of West Africa."
Chucky's reunion with his father was not always a happy one. Taylor enrolled Chucky in Accra Academy, an elite boarding school in Ghana. But before long, Chucky was arrested by authorities and expelled from school, reportedly for possessing drugs and weapons. Chucky explained the incident differently to Henderson. "Yea muthafuckers for no reason arrested me a locked my ass up for 5 days not knowing it was a plot to kill me for political reasons," he wrote. "When they set me free I bounced. I guess they thought I wanted to overthrow the country or something."
Taylor might have been a feared African warlord, but he didn't have any experience raising an American teenager. Father and son fought often; at one point Chucky took a razor blade to a photo of Taylor, slashing it repeatedly. "I'm firmly in control of my Destiny," Chucky insists in one letter from prison, sounding like any child determined to form a separate identity from his famous parent. "Not even my father could influence my independent thinking."
A few years into his exile, homesick and eager for companionship, Chucky invited Henderson to visit Liberia. She accepted, but when she landed in Monrovia in 1997, it was nothing like the fairy tale she had envisioned. "They had just gotten out of war," she recalls. "There was no electricity. No running water. You had to bathe out of a bucket. Even living with the president's son was never extravagant."
After eight years of fighting, Taylor had finally been elected president, sweeping into power with 75 percent of the vote. His campaign slogan was a bizarre mixture of honesty and thinly veiled threat: "He Killed My Ma, He Killed My Pa, But I Will Vote for Him." The Taylors moved to Monrovia, and Chucky began attending the College of West Africa, a sort of prep school in the capital. When he accompanied his father, Chucky donned traditional dress and adopted the distinct syntax of Liberian English. "Nobody would notice that he was an American," says Koisee Garmo, a cousin of Chucky's who attended school with him. "He was a very kind person. He was generous." Yet Chucky also held onto the gangsta swagger from his Orlando days, twisting his hair into cornrows, suiting up in Kevlar, and moving nowhere without his walkie-talkie and pistol. Not long after Chucky enrolled: in the College of West. Africa, the principal asked him to leave.
Henderson celebrated her 18th birthday in Monrovia, and two years later she became pregnant with Chucky's child. In January 2000, the president hosted a lavish state wedding in Monrovia for the couple. "My people shall be your people," he told Henderson. The newlyweds flew off to Trinidad for their honeymoon and settled into a two-story oceanfront home in Monrovia. President Taylor helped oat with expenses at first, but he expected his son to make his own living.
Initially, Chucky pursued the timber trade, but he didn't show much of a knack for business. Before long, though, the 23-year-old found something he wanted to pursue. "Security," says Garmo. "The protection and Well-being of himself and his father." Despite their fractious relationship, Taylor and his son now found a common cause. Afresh insurgency, intent on unseating Taylor, had crossed over the Guinean border. The threat focused Chucky's attention on the family business: war.
Chucky set up the training facility for the Anti-Terrorist Unit in Gbatala, a small town several hours outside of Monrovia in Bong County, which had served as a base of operations for his father during the long civil war that brought him to power. The facility, also known as Cobra Base, was among the most feared locations in Liberia. Today it sits vacant, slowly disintegrating as the jungle reclaims it. On a nearby hilltop stands the "College of Knowledge," a roofless, five-room cinder-block structure painted in a cartoonish camouflage pattern, which once served as a training center and interrogation facility. On a ridge below are a handful of similar buildings; on one, where Chucky slept when he stayed at the base, faded, hand-painted letters read EXECUTIVE MANSION. The site had been a gravel quarry, and several deep pits are dug into the rock. Conscripts once filed through the base for training, many of them illiterate teenagers who had served in Taylor's Small Boys Unit throughout their adolescence.
Jackson Mulbah, a former conscript in the Anti-Terrorist Unit, remembers Chucky from the base. "He was the chief of staff," says Mulbah. "He was bad, I will tell you that." The ATU trainers were mercenaries from the Gambia, Burkina Faso, Ukraine and Libya – some had been recruited by Taylor from el-Qaddafi's camps in the mid-1980s. Like other former child soldiers, Mulbah was put through "Zero Week," a brutal hazing that combined intense physical training with starvation: Trainees were sometimes mowed down in live-fire exercises; others were burned alive during rope drills over flaming barrels of gasoline. Mulbah recites a grim list of a few of the conscripts who didn't survive the training: "Moses Sumo. Roland Garwein. Sengbe Mulbah."
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