The first time I flew out of Robertsfield outside of Monrovia was in June 2007.
The airport routines most Americans are familiar with—checking-in to a flight, receiving a boarding pass, passing through security—all had a vaguely theatrical quality. It was as if observing the rituals of air travel was the first, crucial step to making it a reality. This point was driven home with terrifying absurdity when I passed through what I thought was a metal detector, but upon closer inspection realized was simply a free-standing door frame. It was a gateway into a world I had yet to visit: that of unregulated, insecure air travel. While I waited for my flight, a shitfaced security officer pitched me a business deal: if I could round up money for a jeep and digging machinery, he’d lead me to a white witch living in Sinoe County who would cast a spell that would lead us to diamonds and gold.
He apparently detected some skepticism on my part and qualified the pitch by saying, “There will be no human sacrifice required.”
That flight never showed up, by the way.
But, that was a different time. Robertsfield improved significantly over my subsequent trips—with some credit to the TSA who oversaw the implementation of security measures there as Delta resumed direct U.S. to Liberia flights. Yet the airport continued to have problems.
In February of 2013, a Guinean military flight—which included that country’s chief of staff—went down on approach killing all ten people aboard. Shortly thereafter, the American-Liberian Managing Director of the Liberian Airport Authority became embroiled in a political conflict over repairs to the runway with the Executive Mansion that, by her account, forced her to flee over land through Sierra Leone. The affair, which was dubbed Corkrum-Gate—after Ellen Corkrum, a U.S. army aviator who took the LAA job, was difficult to track with secret recordings, indictments and sweeping allegations. The big takeaway as the occasional customer of Roberts International Airport was a smooth take off and landing there are not to be taken for granted.
Which brings us to the question: How is it that two Liberians have evaded the systems put in place to stop Ebola from leaving the country? (Patrick Sawyer departed Spriggs Payne.) The answer is simple: the system relied on the honesty of each passenger.
Now we’re hearing Liberian officials clamoring to put Duncan on trial (should he pull through). From a political culture and leadership that rejected and buried the truth and reconciliation process, the notion that being dishonest on a travel form is “unpardonable” requires some consideration. While values like honesty, self-reflection and personal sacrifice for the public good are far from absent in Liberian society— the nation’s leadership in the last quarter century has been (with notable exceptions) bereft of these.
There’s a human cost to dishonesty, lying, and the lack of accountability—there always has been. But, Ebola makes it nearly impossible to obscure or spin it. Or stop it at the border.