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Griner-Bout prisoner swap disappoints many on the African continent


Prisoner swap between Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for American basketball player Brittney Griner came as a disappointment to many on the African continent. The so-called merchant of death helped fuel several bloody conflicts by selling arms and munitions to oppressive regimes and rebel forces there. Joining me now is Massa Washington, a Liberian journalist who covered the Liberian civil war in the 1990s. She was threatened for criticizing the government and eventually sought asylum in the United States. Massa, welcome.

MASSA WASHINGTON: Good morning. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Massa, Viktor Bout sold weapons to regimes throughout the world and throughout Africa. What was his role in your home country of Liberia during its civil wars in the '90s and early 2000s?

WASHINGTON: Well, in Liberia, through the early years of our civil war, he was known for being the major arms dealer to the NPFL, the rebels of Mr. Charles Taylor, who is now incarcerated in a British prison...

SCHMITZ: And, of course, Charles Taylor was, of course, the Liberian warlord who then became...

WASHINGTON: Turned president.

SCHMITZ: Exactly. And was - became a notorious war criminal.

WASHINGTON: Yes. So Mr. Bout was his business partner and also arms supply and arms dealer that fueled the Liberian civil war in Liberia. And as a result of that war, Liberia has an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people that died in the Liberian civil war. And more than 20,000 child soldiers were forcibly conscripted and thrown into killing machines. Most of them were killed. And the vast majority of them are now - what? - street children. Well, they're men and women now, but what we call zogos. So they are now the outcasts of society. So Mr. Viktor Bout's role in the civil war in Liberia has left devastating impact for the people of Liberia, including myself.

So we are worried. And we are concerned now that he's been released. And our concern is that Liberia is a porous country in terms of governance. There's been no accountability for war crimes that took place in Liberia. And most of the warlords and rebel generals who fought the war in Liberia, they are in position of trust. They've rebranded themselves. They're in position of trust. Some of them are in the legislature and the senate. Some of them are in mainstream government. Some of them are now businessmen. They are millionaires.

So we are worried because former colleagues and partners of Mr. Viktor Bout are in Liberia. They're running Liberia. You know, they have political power. They have the economic strength. So we are worried what this portends for Liberia. Is he going to come back to Liberia? Is Mr. Viktor Bout going to rekindle his relationships with his former war partners, who are now the people who are running Liberia? This is very worrisome for us, for - we worry what it portends for the security, safety and stability of Liberia that is still struggling with the aftereffect of the civil war.

SCHMITZ: Massa, was Bout's role in these conflicts that you're talking about in the past well-known at the time that they were happening?

WASHINGTON: No. At the time, the people of Liberia really didn't know. Don't forget the war was going on. The war was vicious. We had - by the first year of the war, we had more than 1 million people who had fled externally into refugee camps in the subregion. We have another more - 1 million people internally displaced. So Liberians didn't know what role this guy was playing. But as the West African peacekeeping force came to Liberia, as the United Nations came and brokered peace, people began to hear this guy's name. And I also serve on the truth commission. Besides being a journalist, I serve on the truth commission. And we investigated what happened in Liberia. And his name came up. As a matter of fact, Mr. Viktor Bout is listed in a report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for further investigation in his role that he's played. He's named in our report.

SCHMITZ: That's Liberian journalist Massa Washington. Massa, thank you very much.

WASHINGTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.