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Turning terror into freedom Escaping the horrors of Liberia, truth-teller becomes a U.S. citizen

The gunshots shattered his legs and left him unconscious on the floor. His father, mother and sister lay dead around him. The night of Sept. 24, 1990, Emmanuel Johnson paid the price for being a truth-telling journalist in Liberia during the reign of terror of rebel leader Charles Taylor.

"They surrounded the house and opened fire with machine guns," Johnson told me recently, sitting in the kitchen of his East Side apartment.

Johnson's long journey from that night ended, in a sense, Tuesday morning. Wearing a beige cotton suit, white shirt and copper-colored tie, he -- along with 25 others at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site -- raised his right hand, uttered an oath of loyalty and became an American citizen.

"I am happy," he said a moment later, his grin as wide as a continent. "It's an exciting day."

Each of us has a story to tell. Few of us have a story as tragic and as triumphal as Emmanuel Johnson.

He was a young reporter for the Monrovia Daily Journal when Taylor, who went on to become Liberia's tyrannical dictator, rebelled against President Samuel K. Doe. Johnson saw Taylor's soldiers behead civilians with chain saws. He watched, he said, while two of them placed a bet on whether a pregnant village woman was carrying a boy or a girl. To determine the winner, they cut her open.

He told the story with the flat, matter-of-fact tone of someone whose eyes have seen too much. His only surviving family keepsake is a single photo of his mother.

There is no end to the horrors that human beings inflict on one another, often in the name of a "righteous" cause or ethnic "cleansing." Just as there are countless instances of human charity, mercy and kindness. Emmanuel Johnson, in his 39 years, has seen both extremes of human nature.

The day after the slaughter, he was found by aid workers. Transported to a refugee camp in Nigeria, he spent the next 13 years in a grim encampment pockmarked with disease and violence. He survived on a weekly portion of rice, cooking oil and sardines.

Sponsored by Catholic Charities as a political refugee, he resettled in Buffalo nine years ago. Furnishings in his sparse apartment near Broadway and Fillmore include an ancient box TV, an electric typewriter and a computer dating from the previous millennium.

Just as fire strengthens steel, living through horror can bind one's soul. Johnson uses a wheelchair. When he lifts himself on crutches, his bullet-shattered legs flop like a rag doll's. But there is no complaint on his lips, no self-pity in his voice. His high cheekbones and dark, depthless eyes are set off by an easy smile.

"What's the point of complaining?" he wondered, laughing. "Nobody will listen, anyway."

Each weekday, he wheels himself to the corner and catches the No. 6 bus downtown, then transfers to the No. 20 Elmwood to Buffalo State College. He is two semesters shy of the bachelor's degree he hopes will brighten his job prospects.

"Without education, you live on the fringe of society," he said. "With it, you can be successful."

Although his legs are useless, his mind and spirit are intact. It is a testament to the resilience of the human soul. There exist among us these anonymous heroes, unheralded and unrecognized, whose only reward is ultimately what -- in an existential sense -- constitutes the greatest achievement: survival.

Last year, he was laid off from a customer service job with an electronics installer. He supports himself making by jewelry from shell and rock shipped from Liberia, which he sells at flea markets. He supervises the community garden in his apartment complex.

"I believe in independence," he told me. "I do not want to rely on a welfare check."

Despite the occasional neighborhood gunshots, he found here a place far different from his native land.

"I am saved, I am protected," he said. "No one can come and get me. The opportunities I have, I did not have in Africa."

His story is a reminder of the rights and freedoms that many of us take for granted. America has its flaws, but political disputes are not settled in blood. Power is not taken at the point of a gun. Rulers are replaced by ballots, not bullets. Emmanuel Johnson, whose family was sacrificed on the altar of tyranny, understands how good we have it.

Tuesday morning, a man who has seen the best and the worst of human nature became a citizen. It was a great day for Emmanuel Johnson. And it was a great day for the United States of America.