THE LAST DAYS OF BONG

Most of this story is from a personal letter from Wolfgang Jacobs to James V. Thompson dated Dec. 17, 1990. "In November 1989 together with a group of Bong´s European board members, I (Jacobs) went to the Nimba region to see what was going on at the old LAMCO mine -already at this time there was a rumor about rebels in the Nimba region in towns along the Ivory Coast border, but nobody really paid any attention. Even after the rebels, nobody knew who they were, had taken a few towns along the LAMCO railroad- and the Liberian army got beaten in a few battles, our people at Bong felt safe. They did not even understand our concern. Bong had good telephone and shortwave radio communication with Düsseldorf.

When the rebels moved in direction of Robertsfield (airport) in April of 1990, on advice from their embassies, about 300 expatriates, of which 200 were Bong people,mostly familiy members, left Liberia by a chartered Swissair flight on May 5, 1990.

About the same time a US armada arrived off the Liberian pepper coast. [Operation Sharp Edge] We learned from the Pentagon that Bong could not expect assistance from them, as their only job was to protect US citizens. -They kept very much away and flew only a few rescue missions to Monrovia and Buchanan (LAMCO port) by helicopter. [There´s news coverage of US Marines training a landing but actually doing fishing from their landing boat]

At the end of May 1990, the Bong railroad became unsafe and Bong hat to stop production on May 26, 1990. On June 10 the last vessel, the MS Caspian Trader, left Monrovia taking our port crew and a load of 80,000mt of concentrates and pellets to Germany. A few days later the first rebels arrived at Bong. They were mostly very young people 16 to 18 years old and dressed like Carnival. Nearly all of them were gun crazy and if their supperiors wouldn´t have kept discipline among them by the most brutal methods, things would have gotten out of hand." The management of Bong established some kind of communication with their headquarters at Kakata, and also some kind of relationship.

" At the time there were still 260 expatriates at Bong, among them 15 wives. In the meantime, we in Düsseldorf had developed an evacuation plan in which we were very effectively assisted by the German Embassy, the German Government and the State Department (US) for they had some communication with the rebel leader Charles Taylor.

Finally on June 12, 1990, a German Airforce plane, a Transall transporter hired by E+B, touched down on the main haulage road in the Zaweah II pit and in three consecutive flights about 230 people were flown to Freetown and, from there the following day, by Lufthansa to Frankfurt. A The German transall takes of from Zaweah II mine road. caretaker crew of 37 expatriates was left behind. Before the rescue could take place a ten day pow-wow with the local and higher up rebels had to take place. Finally they agreed to the rescue after it was agreed that the flights would take four of them to Freetown for a " Peace Conference".

Things became worse on June 30, 1990, when a rival rebel force attacked Taylor´s people at Bong killing about 20 of them. It was during this action that one European staff member [Mr. Hermes] got hit in cross fire. He survived and was flown to Germany by a special rescue plane after being brought to Freetown, Sierra Leone, by a Bong Aero Club´s plane. Shortly thereafter the rival group under Prince Johnson left Bong and the Taylor group returned.

At the time, our still optimistic Bong people expected that Taylor would take Monrovia pretty soon and shortly after that production could be resumed at Bong. There was reason to believe this because the rebels of neither group had looted any Bong property. They took a few motor vehicles after signing for them and promised to return them at the end of the hostilities. In time the rebels and the remaining Bong staff adjusted to each other. They filled out proper requisitions for supplies they took and waited patiently at the Bong hospital for medical treatment. There were invitations to dinner."

In spite of the cozy relationships, things were going from bad to worse. Many Liberians got killed around Bong, mostly tribesmen of the former president´s Krahn tribe, as well as Mandingos from the Mando tribe of Sudanese origin who control much of West Africa´s small businesses. The Bong people had to dispose of the bodies. On Aug. 30, 1990, Bong Mining Co. declared force majeure as it became clear that it would not be possible to resume production at a forseeable time. Bong was becoming overrun with refugees because it was a relatively safe area to some extent and they were occupying the houses of those who had left.

It was the German ambassador, Dr. Jürgen Gohl, who, with the help of the US Embassy officials, organized the final exodus which took place on Aug. 19, 1990, by automobile over a 300 mile trip to the Ivory Coast border at Nimba County. Even after Taylor had agreed, and a rebel escort was provided, many checkpoints had to be passed, many local commanders had to be bribed (a well known Liberian ceremony) and many hours of palaver had to be expended.

All of the German expatriates are now home and satisfied with the financial settlement the Bong made and most have found new jobs. "In the meantime E+B is keeping a number of German and American lawyers to find out whom to report to that Bong is bankrupt. There is no Liberian government, no Liberian board members and no Liberian court. In Liberia (1990) there is no communication, no commercial air service, no power, food or water supply -just nothing. The European partners of Bong are still supporting a gfroup of Liberian employees who attempt to preserve plants and equipment and to provide electric and water supplies and medical services within Bong Town.

There is a government of sorts (1990) under Amos Sawyer, a decent type, supported by the ´multinational force´ of troops from West African countries, but his authority does not go much beyond the city limits of Monrovia. Two main rebel groups control most of the country."

Wolfgang Jacobs said in a later letter (April 18, 1994) "that during all of the years of our involvement in Liberia there was avery good relationship between the European and Liberian partner at all levels and the Liberian and expatriate employees. Also E+B staff in Düsseldorf always considered their assignment with Bong as achallenge and a privilege. For most of E+B staff Bong was more than just a company that paid their wages, there was a bond of comradeship extending from Germany to Liberia, which helped solve difficult problems. Indeed, all felt a sense of grief over the tragic end of what had been the largest commercial oversees German project in history. They felt especially sorry for the Liberfian employees and their families who had contributed so much to the everyday operation of the facilities. Tey were truly the ones who have lost everything."

The German and Italian partner are not about to spend any more mony in Liberia. A new philosophy has developed among European steel companies which says we do not want to be in the iron ore business; let others take that risk and we will buy on the open market.

Wolfgang [Jacobs] concluded his letter of Dec. 17, 1990 by saying -"Well, Jim [J. Thompson], this we did not expect when we both started working for Bong 30 years ago. But you will remember Bong, right from the beginning, was an unusual enterprise, and so was its end. "

We have no opinions as to justification or lack thereof for the Liberian civil war, but we can observe its total destruction of what was one of the more stable African countries. The latest press reports (March 1994) say that a new government is in the process of being formed with the encouragement of the US and the UN backing of "ECOMOG" troops, the previously mentioned multinational force of several West African countries. This force has been in Liberia almost from the beginning of the civil war and has been mostly ineffective. The several armed factions have agreed to beind disarmed and to participate in the government. The Ecomog troops can disarm only those who want to be disarmed. There is a lot of back country in Liberia and armed bands can hold out for years, especially when they can hop freely across the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast where the rebels seem to have come from in the first place.


Acknowledgments

James V. Thompson in Africa 1966 L to R: Dr. E. Glatzel, chairman of E+B; C.N.A. Siebel, president of E+B and chairman of BMC Wolfgang Jacobs, managing director (technical) of E+B in 1982 The authors [James V. Thomson and Wolfgang Jacob]wish to thank Claus N.A. Siebel, chief executive officer of Exploration and Bergbau GmbH for permission to publish this article. Wolfgang Jacobs has provided almost all of the technical data and the account of the last days of Bong for ths article. Lames V. Thompson has provided the narrative and the selection of photographs and other graphics from sources provided by Wolfgang Jacobs.

These Essays were taken from Skillings Mining Review, Vol. 83 No. 22, from May 28, 1994.



© James V. Thomson and Wolfgang Jacobs