Samuel Doe's grisly end was country's hottest video

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MONROVIA, Liberia - The production quality is terrible - a tangle of distorted voices, jerky angles, blurry images. But every once in a while a few words punch through the garble, and the video's sickening reality becomes clear.

"I will talk," pleads panic-stricken Liberian President Samuel Doe, half-naked and tied up on the floor of a nondescript office. "I will tell you something.... Please, please let me go. I beg you."

His captor, a militia leader named Prince Johnson, stares back drunkenly from behind a large desk, guarded by a dozen soldiers. The militia leader turns away from the just-ousted president, a barely literate man whose repressive regime savaged this West African country through the 1980s. A framed painting of Jesus watches over the scene.

Johnson looks bored. He waves his hand: "I say cut off one ear."

For years, this was the most-watched movie in this war-shattered nation - a Camcorded chronicle of bloodshed. Filmed in September 1990 by a friend of Johnson's, it is a horrific record of Doe's last hours, ending with an excruciatingly long close-up of his mutilated corpse.

Now, with Liberia trying to put the war behind it, the video has become an uncomfortable memory. The tape has been pulled from stores, thrown away, purposefully forgotten. The government banned its sale. Many Liberians, desperate for reconciliation, won't even discuss it.

Through much of the 1990s, while Liberia was being devastated by one of the most vicious civil wars in West African history - a seven-year nightmare that killed 150,000 people and destroyed nearly every city and town - the video was a hit.

In a country increasingly callous to violence, the movie celebrated a dictator's downfall with a surreal blend of documentary and horror. Liberians crowded into Monrovia's tiny, generator-powered theaters to watch it. Johnson distributed hundreds of copies. The movie circulated quickly throughout West Africa.

"People would come in and ask for it all the time," said Tony Hane, who works in a Monrovia video shop. "That movie gave a very bad name to the country."

But things have changed in Liberia. The civil war ended five years ago. If Liberia is trying to escape its past, however, it's not getting far.

A billboard, not far from Taylor's mansion, urges "Total Reconciliation by 2024."

Twenty-three years sounds likely to James Verdier Jr., director of the Justice and Peace Commission, Liberia's foremost rights group, who wonders if watching the movie could help Liberia. "Let people see what happened," he said. "They don't want to admit the atrocities they committed."

Ask quietly in the right places and the tape can still be bought. But these days, it's seldom Liberians doing the purchasing.

"Most of them are foreigners - Lebanese, Americans. One guy came from Europe," said a video store clerk who occasionally sells the tape and asked his name not be used. "They just want to see how he acts before he dies."

"Liberians are very good people. They're kind. They're intelligent," said Hane. "How can people who are so friendly be so bloody? I don't know."