Jack the Rebel came calling in May of that year, as the rainy season began and the civil war spun into endgame. The streets of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, bore the latest bad fruit of Charles Taylor's seven-year drive for power: boy soldiers killing for fun, 3,000 dead within the previous two months, U.S. Marines evacuating thousands of foreigners, and warlords and their armies looting the city in a final spasm of greed. Jack the Rebel pulled up at George Weah's house in a convoy consisting of one military transport and five pickup trucks, some 70 men spilling out the sides. Jack the Rebel stood with a piece of paper in hand and shouted, "Everybody out! Get your asses out!" When the dozen or so men and 17 women in the house—friends, relatives and employees of Weah's—emerged and saw the waiting troops, they began to tremble like leaves in a howling wind, because they assumed it was time to die.
The men were told to line up with their hands on a wall that shielded the house from the street. The women were sent back inside. Jack the Rebel waved the piece of paper and said, " George Weah has written a letter saying he wants to be president of this country. He doesn't want to play football anymore. He's getting into politics." Then the troops began beating the men.
One soldier proclaimed, "Each woman will receive seven men here tonight! If anybody shakes, we'll kill every one of you!" The air echoed with the cocking of automatic weapons. A pack of soldiers went into the house. The screams began not long after, and sometime later a soldier came out and said to the troops guarding the men, "If you stay there, you'll miss everything we're enjoying!"
That is how the soldiers came to leave the men with their hands on the wall, and the men took the opportunity to flee. The troops began sacking Weah's home, emptying it of everything of value: furniture, clothing, crockery, spoons, doors, cameras, someone's pet crocodile, a prized album of photos from Weah's brilliant career. The soldiers also took two of Weah's cars: a Mercedes and a Land Rover. "If they couldn't carry it," says one witness, "they destroyed it." Then they splashed the house with gasoline and set it on fire.
Weah was in Italy, starring for the European soccer power AC Milan, when he heard that his house had been burned and that all the women inside, including two of his teenage cousins, had been raped. Only four months earlier the international soccer federation ( FIFA) had named Weah World Player of the Year for 1995; he was the greatest soccer talent Africa had produced, Liberia's proudest export. Being a national hero, however, did not make him untouchable. On May 20, 1996, three days before the assault on his house and family, The New York Times had quoted Weah as saying the U.N. should move into Liberia, supplant the battling warlords and teach his country democratic ways.
Later Taylor, a former government minister who would be elected president of Liberia in July 1997, insisted that he had not ordered the attack on Weah's house, but who believed him? Taylor had assured Weah that his belongings would be safe. He had, in fact, charged Jack the Rebel—the nom de guerre of Taylor's loyal lieutenant George Dwannah—with protecting Weah's home. Nonetheless, the day before the troops surrounded the place, Jack the Rebel had told Weah by telephone that the arrangement was over. The soccer player was now seen as a political threat.
In the ensuing days Taylor declared that those responsible for the attack would be found and punished, but nothing of the kind happened. Today Jack the Rebel is a colonel in President Taylor's personal army, the Special Security Service. Immediately after the attack Taylor's longtime aide Reginald Goodrich, now his press secretary, took possession of Weah's Mercedes and drove it proudly through the city.
When Weah and his wife, Clar, returned to Liberia for the first time after the attack, in the spring of 1997, they attended a gathering at the home of Alhaji Kromah, who had been an ally of Taylor's during the citywide carnage of the spring of '96. Clar gasped, and George hissed at her not to say a word. There, according to a witness, was the table that had sat in the Weahs' living room.
Friends had advised Weah not to return that spring. Clar had implored him to stay away until peace returned. Even today, with Liberia relatively calm and Weah's stature further enhanced by his stewardship of the potent national team, the Lone Star, Clar fears the worst. "Whenever George goes to Liberia, I'm afraid," she says in their house in Queens, N.Y. "The country's happy because the Lone Star is winning, but I still tell him, 'George, call me as soon as you get there.' I was afraid they were going to kill George."
Weah doesn't listen. He has returned to Liberia time and again in the last five years, even though Taylor has retooled his brutal rebellion into brutal rule. Weah, 34, has always believed that a man who burns the bridge to his past is lost. If someone else does the burning, "you build a bridge and go across," he says. "You always have to come back."