There was a moment, as I lay on the ground with the gun pointing at the base of my skull, when I did not know if I would live or die. The truth was that it did not matter. In that moment I came to a realization. It was a realization that was to change my life and – I hope, by sharing this story with you – it will change your life too.
The year was 1991. I was working in Liberia as a doctor with the international medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders – or as it is known in French, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). I had heard that MSF needed volunteers and I wanted to contribute to their cause. I wanted to use my capabilities as a doctor to help those in need in one of the most war-torn parts of the world.
Liberia is located in West Africa and was one of the first nations on the African continent to become an independent republic. It was founded by former slaves, freed from servitude in America and the Caribbean. Politically, the country was relatively stable until the 1980s then one president, called William Tolbert, was overthrown and the next, Samuel Doe, was executed. President Doe’s death was brutal and public: his capture and torture were captured on camera. In the power struggle that followed, a rebel leader called Charles Taylor came to the fore. He was the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL. The NPFL militia overran the country and eventually, in 1995, Charles Taylor became President of Liberia. By then the country had been decimated by the horrors of civil war.
I remember the day when I was briefed on the civil war, and the urgent need for doctors in Liberia, at the headquarters of MSF in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. The organization needed me to go to Lofa County, a district in the most northern part of Liberia, bordered by Guinea and Sierra Leone. The population of the district was collapsing and services were falling apart – in 1984 there were almost 200,000 people living in Lofa County, while twenty years later that number had dropped to less than 40,000. The District Hospital in the capital city, Voinjama, was severely affected. It had been established to service the entire county, and its scattered remote communities but its doctors and nurses had fled. It was a hospital in crisis, and I had to turn it around. I was there, as part of the MSF team, to establish some semblance of hope and normality in a country consumed by war.
My job, as a doctor with MSF, was to get the Lofa District Hospital back on its feet and coordinate health services in Lofa County. The hospital would be at the centre of our efforts with satellite clinics dotted around the countryside. I had to recruit local personnel and track down the doctors and nurses who had fled, then persuade them to return. It was not an easy task.
I took the job without hesitation. Doing this kind of work was my life; I had previously served as a humanitarian aid worker and doctor in southern Sudan and refugee camps in Pakistan. I had worked for the International Red Cross in Angola, coordinating a surgical unit that treated casualties of the Angolan Civil War. I was prepared to witness the horrors of violence and do whatever I could to help people in need. I was expecting to see destruction and displacement. I knew what I was taking on.
My training, as well as my experience as a humanitarian worker, had given me a foundation. At the age of 30, I completed my medical training at the State University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1985; I also studied tropical medicine at Antwerp in Belgium. I had received training in emergency medicine and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to large populations. I arrived in Liberia determined to put my experience to work, at the service of people devastated by war. When I arrived in Liberia in 1991, I was 36 years old.
I discovered a country in ruins. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and the fighting was ongoing. The health system had been destroyed and basic services were not functioning. The torture and murder of President Samuel Doe was still hitting the headlines, bootleg videotapes of his ordeal were available for sale in local marketplaces. It was a country that had lost its leader; it was a country that had lost its soul. I was entering a country in political and moral turmoil.
Not once, however, did I question my safety. As a doctor committed to humanitarian service, I have never felt in danger; not once have I felt at risk. To my way of thinking, my commitment to serving others and my commitment to my profession – as a humanitarian doctor – comes with protection. By putting my medical expertise at the service of humanity I have the freedom and the opportunity to fully trust life. I feel safe inside my commitment; it is a place of sanctuary and truth. By being true to myself and the life I am destined to lead, I have the freedom to know that I will be safe. I have learned to trust in life, by following my true path. By committing to a life of humanitarian service to others, I have the confidence that life will protect and care for me.
Liberia helped me to reach this realization. Being there, working there and serving there gave me the opportunity to trust in myself and, at the same time, trust in life. I was waking up. There was more to me than my name, my identity and who other people said I was. There was more to me than I knew myself. I was experiencing an emerging sense of self that was beyond any label; it was beyond the bounds of nationality and identity. I was reaching a better understanding of my own true nature and destiny – a destiny that was inextricably bound to others. I understood that at some fundamental level we human beings are profoundly related. This awareness let me truly care for others, and gave me strength unexpected in common hours.
This realization did not make me irresponsible. The only risks I would take were those required to carry out my service as a doctor and as a humanitarian. By remaining true to my destiny, I had a sense that something would protect me; I felt that circumstances would favor my safety even if I found myself in an unsafe situation. It was a realization beyond the physical, the concrete and the intellectual. To this day, I hold life to be sacred; I honor life in all its forms. As Einstein once said, “you have to decide whether the universe is benevolent or not.” I made a choice. I held the universe to be benevolent.
It was a choice that may have saved my life.
I remember the day in detail. I was with my driver, called Peter, and we were driving back to Lofa. Peter was not just my driver; he was my cook and my security guard. He was also my translator and local guide. Peter was my lifeline, in many ways. He knew the country, he knew the culture and he knew how to keep me out of trouble.
Once a month, Peter would drive me from Lofa to our supply and logistics depot in the city of Ganta, six hours’ drive away. It took twelve hours to drive there and back. We would drive down there; we would stay a few days and we would load up with supplies including food. We would obtain a security update and then we would drive back. It was a long drive and as the months went by, I got to know the journey by heart.
The road is winding in parts and the ground is a deep red. It is the same color as the red ochre earth of Australia’s desert Outback, the country where I live and work now. Twice a month, I travel by plane from Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, to work as a doctor in the Outback Australian town of Broken Hill, in the neighboring state of New South Wales. Six generations of Australian miners have dug a livelihood out of the red ochre dirt of Broken Hill. Literally, they have ‘broken’ the ground in search of silver, lead and zinc, leaving mountains of rocks in their path. Every time I make the journey to Broken Hill across the vast Australian Outback I am reminded of Liberia – the color of the ground is much the same.
It was a hot day as Peter and I drove through the desert country of northern Liberia. I was looking forward to getting home – there would be a hot meal and staff to help me load the equipment we had picked up. I would able to wash my clothes and take a shower. I felt relaxed as our vehicle rolled over the dirt road: I was sitting in the front, next to Peter, and my head rocked back and forth, calmed by the monotony. I saw flashes of the red earth and the robust vegetation. I was half asleep. I felt comfortable.
“Oh no,” said Peter suddenly, swearing as he spoke.
“What is it?” I replied.
I looked down the road. A few minutes before we had turned a slight corner and caught up with a line of vehicles. Moving at speed, I had not thought much of it, but now I understood. It was a convoy of military vehicles and they were more organized than usual. There were soldiers inside who were heavily armed with weapons. We were driving past them, it was too late to stop.
I looked at Peter’s face. He knew this country well. He also knew the danger.
“Peter, what’s happening?” I asked.
“Dr Louis,” he began – he always called me Dr Louis. “Dr Louis -that is Charles Taylor.”
I knew who Charles Taylor was. Taylor’s path of destruction was not limited to Liberia – he was to make his indelible mark on the history of neighboring Sierra Leone. His name is now synonymous with extreme violence, terror and crimes and against humanity.
In 2012, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his part in masterminding a campaign of terror, rape and murder during the Sierra Leone Civil War from 1991 to 2002. He conscripted child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone and was found guilty of a number of crimes against humanity including enslavement, sexual violence, murder and acts of terrorism. “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history,” said the Presiding Judge at Taylor’s trial for war crimes in The Hague. Today, Charles Taylor is serving his sentence in a British prison.
Back then, in 1991, Charles Taylor was well known as a dangerous and determined leader of guerrilla fighters. And we were driving past his convoy.
I looked at Peter. “OK..?” I replied, still trying to make sense of what was happening.
“When Charles Taylor is on the road with his convoy, you have to pull over,” explained Peter “You have to stop the car, you have to go to the side of the road and you have to turn the engine off.”
I looked out at the road again. We were still passing the convoy and it was too late to stop.
“We’re not doing that, Peter. So, what now?” I asked.
“All kinds of things can happen,” he replied.
Peter was distressed: I could see it on his face. We had driven into something that neither of us were ready for. We had not seen the convoy; we couldn’t because of the bend in the road. I had to think quickly.
“Keep on driving,” I said.
I looked out of the back window. There were soldiers waving their weapons at us; they were shouting at us to stop. There was an excitement among the soldiers as if something important had just happened, and we were part of it. We pulled up on the side of the road, turned the engine off and waited. The convoy came to a stop behind us and soldiers jumped out. Some were walking, some were running towards us. There was chaos; it was impossible to know what was happening or why.
“Dr Louis,” said Peter firmly. “Dr Louis, just sit still and don’t do anything.”
One of the soldiers came up to the car. He was in his early 20s, wearing a green uniform like the others. He was shouting and I could see the black outline of his weapon. He threw open the car door and grabbed me by the shoulder. I felt my clothes rip. I did not feel any pain, just the grit of the pavement pushing into my head. He had thrown me onto the ground and I could feel his boot on my face. His gun was piercing my neck at the base of my skull.
It was only later that I realized how much force he had used. I did not panic; I felt no pain. There was a rush of adrenalin and for a moment I was in the moment – I was fully present to what was happening. I felt discomfort; I was in a very awkward position, lying there, held under his boot on the dirt and gravel. I did not resist; I let it happen. I was in a state of alertness, but calm. I was waiting to see what would unfold next.
I was aware I could be killed. He had jammed his gun into my skull and there was no escape, lying there on the middle of the road. Despite the chaos around me – the shouting, the anger, the confusion and the heat – I had a clear understanding of my situation. I felt no fear, I only knew clarity. There was fear all around me but I was not experiencing it. I was in the presence of fear, but I was not present to it. I had postponed all judgment as I made sense of my situation.
Suddenly, I knew. In a moment, I had clarity and knew what to do. There was still no fear, only outrage. I felt my connection with the people of Liberia. “I am here to be at service,” I thought. I was there to serve the people of Liberia and that included Charles Taylor’s territory. I was there to serve his people, as a doctor and a humanitarian aid worker. I had the right to demand not to be treated in this way.
“Get off me,” I said, speaking in commanding voice. “Do you know who I am? Bring me to your leader!”
In that moment, I was not my feelings or judgment. A shift took place in how I saw myself and it was a shift that was to change my life. In that moment I became my destiny.
Who I am – and who we are – is not limited to identity or profession. I was my commitment; I was my service as a humanitarian worker and everything that requires. I had made a commitment to be in Liberia and I had made a commitment to humanitarian work and to the people of Liberia. My destiny was to prevail and nothing would prevent me from pursuing my truth.
As part of the team with MSF we were rebuilding hospitals. We were providing medical supplies to small clinics that had been forgotten due to the civil war. We were treating patients; we were offering hope. Suddenly, I felt the soldier lift his boot off my face and I rose to my feet.
My first thought was for Peter. Where was he? Was he safe? The soldier took me to his leader, but I had no idea who that would be. I had not put all the information together; I had no idea what to expect.
”Where’s Peter?” I asked again. Where was my driver, my cook, my mechanic, my lifeline? The soldier did not respond. Then I saw him. He was sitting with his back to me on the grass along the road with a soldier who was pointing a gun at his head. The dryness in my throat was clearing up. Fortunately, he was still alive.
We passed a number of cars as we walked up the road. Suddenly a door opened, and a man got out wearing a white uniform. It was Charles Taylor himself – warlord, guerrilla fighter and, as the Presiding Judge would later rule in The Hague, war criminal. That day in 1991, he was standing in front of me. Charles Taylor and I confronted each other on a remote stretch of road in northern Liberia.
“My name is Dr Koster,“ I said. “I’m here to help your people. I do not tolerate being treated like this.”
He looked at me for a moment, trying to figure out who I was. There was a silence, and everything around me was frozen in time. I was not wearing an MSF uniform; it was not obvious that I was a humanitarian worker or a qualified doctor. My presence was all I had; it was my foundation and my future.
“I apologize to you for being treated this way,” he replied. “Thank you for doing your work.” I was free to go.
Peter and I returned to our base in Lofa and continued our work. I told our MSF colleagues that we had passed a convoy, but I chose not to share the rest of the story. It had been a deeply personal experience that I knew my colleagues would struggle to understand. The only mark on me that was testimony of the experience was a bruise in my neck, where the soldier’s gun had pointed. I felt the mark as a reminder of the extraordinary experience, but choose not to talk about it. They might misinterpret my actions: they might misunderstand and think I had tried to be a hero. That could cause antagonism. Collaboration and constructive relations were more important to me, in achieving my objectives. My priority, above all, was my commitment to my work as a doctor and a humanitarian worker. My encounter with Charles Taylor’s militia and my moment of self-realization were not relevant, what mattered were my day-to-day duties and responsibilities: we had a hospital to maintain and people to care for.
I never forgot the encounter, however. And today, after so many years of silence, I want to share my experience with you. I believe I had a moment of self-realization that day: I experienced a transformation and entered another dimension of awareness – it was a day that changed my life. There were so many thoughts I could have entertained; there were so many choices I could have made. Yet in that moment I chose to trust myself, listen to my intuition and trust my destiny. It gave me strength and power that I did not know I had.
I felt no fear. It was around me, no doubt about that, it was evident in the actions of the soldiers and the weapons in their hands. I was in the presence of fear, but it was not present in me. Instead I felt a sense of commitment, fueled by outrage, and determination. I was committed to my work as a humanitarian and I was committed to serving the people of Liberia as a doctor. In my true sense of caring, I felt I could do no other. I was committed to my destiny.
Amid the chaos and confusion I experienced truth. I felt my truth – my destiny and a sense of my true nature – present within me and I felt it driving my actions. It made me strong in the face of danger: it made me command respect – as a man committed to humanitarian work – from those who had lost their morality. Living, breathing and speaking my truth protected me and offered sanctuary, even when confronted by one of the most dangerous men in one of the most terrorized parts of the world.
That day, I discovered my true nature. Our true nature is beyond life and death, it is beyond identity. Our true nature resides in another dimension, beyond the inner chatter that we use to define us. My true nature is a commitment to service and humanitarian work; it is not vulnerable or threatened, it prevails, even in the face of death. It is beyond any concern that I, or others, might have about my mortality. It is my spirit and it is indestructible. In Liberia, I discovered my spirit – my true nature – and I became aligned with it totally.
In that moment, when I was held down by the boot of a soldier, in a country brutalized by war and terror, I made a choice. It was a moment of life and death, a moment when one false move would have fired a bullet through my head. I choose to align myself with my destiny – with what was right and good and true in me. I chose my true nature, knowing that it was sacred; knowing that it was beyond this life. I had faith without fear. Aligning myself with my destiny made me indestructible in that moment; it also made me safe from harm.
Many of you reading this will understand the importance and relevance of what I am saying. You may feel lost or in danger. You may know you live in fear. My message to you is that you have a choice. You can be trapped and immobilized by your fear; you can feel lost in confusion, chaos and anger. You can succumb to the boot on your head and the gun pointing at the base of your skull. Or you can align yourself with your true nature and recognize your own power. You can feel destiny in every choice you make and every word you speak when you listen to your own truth.
Every one of you reading this will follow a different path. Like the facets of a diamond, there are a multitude of ways in which being true to yourself will change your life, your words and your actions. Every one of you has the capacity to shine brightly and brilliantly by pursuing your truth. I urge you to do so and be present to a new way of living and being. I urge you to be true to yourself.
- Listen To Your Own Truth.
You know what feels right for you. Take a moment of silence, and listen to your own truth. What does your heart tell you is your dream? What could you be living as your own truth?
- Trust Yourself.
You can and will prevail. Take time to think clearly and gather information. Do not feel the need to react immediately or respond impetuously. You can trust yourself to make the right choices and speak the right words. Gather yourself; align yourself with your values and beliefs. Hold humanity to be sacred. As the Dalai Lama, said, “Treat each human being you meet as a member of your family.” Speak your truth.
- Know Your Strength.
You are stronger than you think. When you are aligned with your true nature, you have more than mere physical strength on your side – you draw strength from your destiny and your life’s purpose. To live is to be strong: but only if your life is aligned with your own truth.
- Commit To Service.
The reason why you are here is far greater than your own needs. You are more than just yourself; you are more than living and dying. When you commit to serving others, you give your strength to others and their strength supports you. Your life embodies meaning that has the capacity to touch humanity. Through service, you can be saved from harm.
- Know Your True Nature.
Your true nature resides in another dimension, beyond the random inner voice that your life often is a response to. Aligning with your true nature is to live a life other than reacting to your circumstances. Your true nature is infinite. Your true voice is beauty, happiness, love, joy and peace. Your true nature has the capacity to touch others and serve others in ways that honor and preserve life. Life is sacred and humanity – when it honors and preserves life – is to be treated with reverence.
- Be True To Yourself
Being true to yourself is having the courage to act on what feels right for you. You may be concerned about other people’s opinions. You may be trapped and immobilized by your fear. You do have a choice. The American author Corra Harris said, “The bravest thing you can do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly.”
- Live a Humanitarian Life.
Honor humanity by living your truth. Living a humanitarian life does not mean that you have to train as a doctor or work in a war zone. It does not matter where you live or where you have come from. Honor yourself, and the life you are destined to lead, by honoring your truth. By choosing to honor yourself, in the service of others, you can lead a truly fulfilling and meaningful humanitarian life. You can live a life of humanitarian values. You can live a life of magic. You can be true to yourself.
Reading my story, you may have started to think about your own life. Where in your life do you feel trapped by fear, or lost in confusion and chaos? Realizing that you have a choice, what feels true for you? In aligning yourself with your true nature, what could you be living as your own truth?
Yes, there will be challenges as you try to find ways to follow your true path. In Liberia, I struggled with a scarcity of resources and I had to be inventive. Being true to myself – as a doctor working in a war zone – forced me to be inventive and resourceful. It forced me to find the equipment and support that I needed; it forced me to be resilient and determined in providing my medical skills in the service of others.
Yes, there will be frustrations as you commit to your journey. Do not worry about the views and opinions of others or what they might say. Trust yourself to be true and know what is right. Once you wake up to your true nature, and make the choice to pursue it, you will experience transformation.
And yes, you have the capacity to find happiness, joy and opportunity. By committing to your true nature and by committing to serving others, in your own unique way, you will encounter the sacred. By aligning yourself with your destiny you will experience the community of humanity. You will find sanctuary in truth.
Your life is in your hands; you have the choice and the power to live your truth and create magic in your life. You have the power to be true to yourself.
You have the opportunity to live a humanitarian life.
I would like to leave you with this beautiful quote that I find inspiring and uplifting: “Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.” ~Rabindranath Tagore
ABOUT LOUIS KOSTER
Hi, Louis here, author of the inspiring book “A New Language for Life, Happy No Matter What!” Click here to get a free download of the book. Thanks for checking out my blog posts. If you really want to test your spiritual beliefs, try being a medical doctor in war zones. I’ve been involved as a spiritual teacher, medical doctor and coach in the self-help industry for over 25 years and have developed a number of skills in helping people to awaken to their true nature and live inspired lives. Here Is Who I am & What I Believe.
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