Since 2011, one topic has consistently dominated headlines in the news: The war in Syria has now been going for over half a decade and is widely recognized as one of the most shameful and bloody civil conflicts in recent history.
Yet, as horrible as it is, Syria is not unique. Since humans first devised nation states, we’ve engaged in civil wars marked by their utter brutality. When it comes to post–World War II history, few civil conflicts have come close to the inhumanity of the following:
10. The Algerian Civil War
At rush hour on July 25, 1995, a bomb exploded on the Paris subway, killing eight people and injuring 150. Prior to the Charlie Hebdo and ISIS attacks, it was one of the worst terrorist incidents that the French capital had seen. But the perpetrators weren’t dissatisfied French or European nationals; they were Algerian agents. The bombing was simply the spillover from one of North Africa’s deadliest civil wars.
Like the current conflict in Syria, the war started when a government refused to step down. In this case, the military canceled an election when it began to look like an Islamist party would win. The preemptive coup sent protestors out onto the streets, and the situation soon morphed into a deadly battle between government forces and out-of-control jihadists. In a chilling echo of ISIS in Syria, the Islamists first targeted Algerian civilians, and then French civilians, living in Paris using improvised bombs. At the hands of the fanatics, teachers, artists, journalists, and judges were disappeared. Even now, nearly 15 years later, 8,000 innocent people are still missing.
On the other side of the coin, Algeria’s army was equally bad. Just as Assad drops barrel bombs on his own people, the Algerian authorities burned down entire villages looking for terrorists (who had frequently fled weeks beforehand). At the height of the “black decade,” both sides were committing war crimes, including the murder of newborn babies. By the time the dust settled in 2002, 200,000 civilians were dead. For comparison, the infamous Sri Lankan civil war against the Tamil Tigers killed about half that many in more than double the time.
9. Liberia’s Double Civil War
Throughout the 1980s, Liberia was a boiling pot of simmering ethnic resentment. The indigenous president Samuel Doe had finally overthrown the political stranglehold that the Americo-Liberians, a group descended from freed American slaves, had held since the country’s formation. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to promote his own ethnic group over all others. It was into this volatile situation that Charles Taylor stepped in 1989.
A former preacher, Taylor had fled to Libya after being indicted by Doe’s government for embezzlement. He trained a guerilla army, came back, and overthrew his old enemy. Most of Liberia welcomed him with open arms . . . until a group allied with Taylor executed Doe in 1990. At that point, Taylor turned on his allies, sparking a war that engulfed the entire country.
Over the next decade or so, Taylor would end one civil war, start another, and make a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone much worse. He even managed to become president of Liberia, running under the slogan, “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” During the two wars, over 250,000 Liberians died—around 7.5 percent of the entire population. In addition, 25,000 people were raped.
What made Taylor’s wars stand out wasn’t how brutal they were, but how disturbingly surreal. Taylor liked to rule through fear, using units like his Butt Naked Battalion to freak people out. Despite the weird name, the Battalion was far from amusing. Children were fed amphetamines, shot full of hallucinogens, given guns, and told to kill anyone who crossed their path. They went into battle either naked or wearing lurid women’s wigs and ball gowns.
8. Sierra Leone Civil War
Sierra Leone shares a long border with Liberia—a hot, swampy stretch of wetland that unfurls for nearly 300 kilometers (200 mi). Politically, the two countries are also intertwined. This was especially the case in the 1990s. Thanks to Charles Taylor’s intervention, an insurgency that could have been quashed erupted into a merciless decade-long war.
The spark that lit the fuse was the frighteningly incompetent reign of President Joseph Momoh, a guy so corrupt he’d make Putin look like Lincoln. When his regime stopped paying even the army, ex-Corporal Foday Sankoh whipped up a rebellion and seized towns along the Liberian border. Backed by Charles Taylor, they were initially considered heroes. That didn’t last.
Before a year had passed, Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was accused of raping and mutilating civilians. Unfortunately for ordinary people, the army was just as bad. With its low rations and lack of pay, the army found it impossible to keep soldiers in line. Like Iraqi troops defecting to ISIS, many of Sierra Leone’s soldiers became “sobels”—soldiers by day, rebels by night. In effect, the two sides in the conflict wound up blurring into a single force that did nothing but terrorize civilians.
Sobels were later found to have tortured civilians in hideous ways during the conflict. Some forced their victims into committing cannibalism. Thanks to Taylor’s funding of the rebels and the proxy resource wars being fought over the country’s diamonds, the war reached a point where it had no end in sight. It wasn’t until the UN sent in 17,000 troops backed by the British army that the endless terror finally stopped. By then, 50,000 people were dead. Even today, girls who were sold into sex slavery during the conflict are still waiting for assistance or justice.
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