Reporter’s notebook: Liberia: The untold stories

Mike Mullen

Editor’s note: “Reporter’s Notebook” is an occasional blog that will feature worthwhile content left out of a news story.  It will also give reporters an opportunity to talk about challenges they faced while working on a story.  


Reporter’s notebook: Liberia: The untold stories Links Here are links to important elements of the story: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia – The Advocates for Human Rights – Buduburam refugee camp – For information on the ongoing trial of Charles Taylor – The rest of Ahmed Sirleaf’s story Ahmed Sirleaf had spent too many nights hiding under the bed as bullets whistled by outside. When he and his uncle saw a crowd of thousands walking out of town one day, they joined it, with the plan to lay low in Sirleaf’s grandmother’s village, Makpouma. After only a few weeks there, Sirleaf was confronted by Taylor’s rebel troops. They accused Sirleaf of being a government soldier, or of being the same ethnic group as Samuel Doe, or of being a Muslim. The final accusation was true, but Sirleaf denied it. He had been traveling under his uncle’s name because he knew that the NPFL was killing Muslims. The troops let him go, but told him to warn the village that they would be back the next Thursday at 2:00 p.m. Right on time, they arrived and brought people into the town center. There, they assaulted and humiliated several men, and took food and other goods, though they killed no one. The NPFL continued to return, each time more aggressive. Finally, in October, Sireleaf’s grandmother told him that he and his cousin needed to get to Sierra Leone until things were safe. As they left she prayed for them, and asked that Sirleaf not forget his family and his country. It was the last time he saw his grandmother. Sirleaf and his cousin reached the border town of Bo Waterside, with its infamous checkpoint. In a search of Sirleaf’s bag, a rebel soldier found a high school term paper with a Muslim name on it. The soldier began to dance. He said he was going to kill a Mandingo — a Muslim ethnic group in Liberia — on that day, and that it had been so long since he had seen Mandingo blood. Just then the soldier’s general arrived, and called in all of his commanders. When the dancing soldier left, his assistant told Sirleaf and his cousin to run away before he came back. Sirleaf and his cousin needed to pass a final checkpoint before they could flee the country. A child soldier, a boy of about seven of eight years old, took Sirleaf’s sneakers and clothes from his bag, leaving Sirleaf with only the clothes he was wearing. Sirleaf protested having the things stolen from his bag. For this, he and his cousin were thrown in jail. Sirleaf resisted recruitment into the army, and begged for his release. Finally, on the third night, a local recruit came back. Putting his own life in great danger, the guard freed Ahmed and his cousin, and told them to run. Sirleaf spent five years in various refugee camps in Sierra Leone, eventually studying at the University of Freetown. Then, when rebels connected to Taylor sent threatening letters to the university, Sirleaf took money he had saved and bought a one-way ticket to Accra, Ghana, where his sister lived. When Liberia’s ceasefire held for a time, he took a job with the transitional Liberian government. Sirleaf visiting America when Taylor retook control and fired everyone in government. Sirleaf had to stay in United States. Eventually he attended Hamline University, before moving on to a United Nations school in Costa Rica. When he returned, he heard that the Liberian TRC would involve members of the diaspora. Sirleaf walked into the Minneapolis office of the Advocates for Human Rights, who had once represented him for free in his immigration case. The deputy director of the Advocates, Jennifer Prestholdt, told him that there was no budget to hire another staff member. “Well, then I will be your first volunteer,” Sirleaf said. Sirleaf now works there full-time. During the time of the public hearings in St. Paul, he began to find himself walking downtown and sweating profusely, suddenly needing to take off his jacket. A doctor diagnosed Sirleaf as having stress-related hot flashes. Sirleaf’s work was wreaking havoc on his body. “But it was also my therapy,” Sirleaf said. “I was so glued to it, almost addicted to it.” Liberia’s lost generation, and security TRC Chairman Jerome Verdier is not alone in facing threats for his role in the TRC. When Ahmed Sirleaf was back in Liberia in June of this year to hold public events on the TRC, he noticed a group of three men following him and another lawyer from Minneapolis, Jim O’Neal. On the last full day of a conference, the men came up and introduced themselvbes as leaders of a youth group. They presented Sirleaf with a letter, inviting him and O’Neal to a youth group meeting to discuss the TRC. Sirleaf was immediately suspicious. The cheap letterhead, and the spelling errors — referring to Sirleaf as “Ahmeh,” and stating its headquarters as a “Coca-Coal Factory” — were enough to convince him that these men were not who they claimed to be. The men called him throughout the day, as late as 10 p.m., saying that the children were all there and waiting for their presentation. Each time Sirleaf said that he and O’Neal were still coming, when in fact he had called a friend in the government and asked that an unmarked security guard watch their hotel and follow them to the airport. A Google search returns no results for the organization, the “National District Youth Development Council,” nor its purported executive director, “Dorma Garmie.” Later, Sirleaf had it virtually confirmed that these men were former child soldiers, and were still working for a warlord who was angered by the TRC’s findings. Sirleaf does not know whether the men meant to kill him, or only intimidate him. But he said those former boy soldiers are part of a lost generation of Liberian men who never attended school, cannot read or write, and whose formative years were filled with rape and murder. For these former child soldiers, he feels more sympathy than anger. “They too were victimized,” Sirleaf said. Still, security concerns pervade in Liberia. In August of 2006, President Johnson-Sirleaf replaced her national security minister and minister of state for presidential affairs after a mysterious fire in her office. In July 2007, former armed forces chief Charle Julu — who staged a coup attempt in 1994 — and former speaker of the National Assembly George Koukou were among five arrested for attempting to smuggle weapons into Liberia. Earlier this month, Keith Jubah, Liberia’s top official tasked with fighting corruption, was found shot to death outside of his house. Verdier said that he thinks the country will become safer when prosecutions of those named in the TRC report begin. Whomever is tasked with carrying out the prosecutions would do well to contact David Crane. After his role with the Special Court for Sierra Leone ended, Crane formed what he calls “The Liberian Working Group,” which compiled information that could be used to try those responsible for Liberia’s war crimes. Using news reports, UN research, and depositions of relevant persons, Crane and a number of other lawyers and academics have produced a disc which contains the names and alleged crimes of those whom they felt should face justice. Crane would not confirm whether his list of potential prosecution targets matches that of the TRC, but he did say that there were similarities. Regardless of who takes up the case, and which of the alleged perpetrators stand trial, Crane said that international justice is an inherently dangerous job. He was under tight security while he built his case against Charles Taylor. “You’re dancing with the devil out there,” Crane said. Lords of war Liberia is an Ohio-sized wedge on the chin of West Africa. Touching Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire, each of which edured its own civil war in the last 15 years, it seems that these countries make up the powder keg of the continent. David Crane, the international prosecutor who filed the indictment against Charles Taylor, said this is not the case: many of the region’s problems, he said, are traceable to Muammar Qaddafi’s attempt to steal power throughout Africa. Among those whom Crane listed as partipants are Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, still in power, and Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh, who died before he could stand trial for his crimes in Sierra Leone. It was Sankoh whose men sent threatening letters to the University of Freetown, driving Ahmed Sirleaf to buy a one-way ticket to Ghana. Taylor’s training in Libya, by Qaddafi means that he is connected to two of the world’s most notorious international troublemakers, the other being the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose work is detailed in this extensive New York Times profile. Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008, but earlier this year, the Thai government refused to extradite him. That decision was appealed, and Bout is still being held in a Thai jail, awaiting a ruling. The relationship between Bout and Charles Taylor is widely credited as the inspiration for the vastly underrated Nicolas Cage movie, “Lord of War.” Filling the shelves Ahmed Sirleaf’s passion to see an improved system of justice in Liberia is inestimable, and both his work and personal story of survival can be credited with inspiring an international effort to improve the way the law is taught throughout Africa. Lane Ayres, a retired senior attorney in the Hennepin County juvenile division, had worked as a volunteer with the Books for Africa charity for most of the organization’s 20 years, and is now on the board there. For most of its existence, BfA sent primary, secondary, and university textbooks to various African countries, including Liberia. But for several years during the civil war, Monrovia was an inaccessible port, and could not receive books. Ayres said that in 2007 and 2008 Liberia was BfA’s top recipient, in an effort to help the resettling country gain ground, having lost so much. Sirleaf laments Liberia’s educational woes as he considers how Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa have advanced. “[Liberia] had the best medical school, the best law school, some of the best business schools [before the war],” Sirleaf said. “Our country was a leader on the continent. So, how did we leave from that to nothingness?” Ayres met Sirleaf through their mutual work for the Advocates. Once, when Sirleaf was about to leave for a trip to Liberia, Ayres asked him if he could make contact with someone at the University of Liberia Law School. “He just took that on,” Ayres said. “When he wants to do something, and when he sees that it’s gonna’ really help his people and his country, he does it.” Sirleaf met with the school’s dean, who, he said, was skeptical. The dean, David Jallah, said he had heard many promises of assistance, and had little to show for it. Early on, Ayres realized how dire was the need at the law school: Jallah was using a Yahoo! e-mail account, and had no computer in his office, trekking to an internet café to answer his e-mails. When Sirleaf showed Ayres pictures of the “library,” Ayres was stunned. He saw empty shelf after empty shelf, save a few outdated and utterly useless books. Professors had been teaching complex law courses by just lecturing and writing on a blackboard. “I know the situation in Africa,” Ayres said. “But you just can’t imagine to have a law school operating with no books.” Like teeth on opposite ends of a gear, Ayres made things happen in Minnesota while Sirleaf worked with Jallah in Liberia. Ayres approached West Publishing, located in Eagan. He said he would not have done so were it not for Sirleaf. “It was the intensity of his integrity that got me to go to West Publishing Company,” Ayres said. Ayres explained the paucity of law books in Liberia, and told Sirleaf’s story. In response, West agreed to donate 1500 off-the-rack textbooks to the law school. These thick, well-bound books, which would otherwise have cost between $65-$150 per book, were sent along with BfA’s larger shipment in September 2008. West and BfA now have an enduring partnership. Ayres said more law books have since been sent to Cameroon and Sierra Leone, and another shipment will soon reach Tanzania. BfA is now considering which countries will be among the 2010 recipients, though he mentioned Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana as potential targets. Ayres traces a direct line for these upcoming shipments back to Sirleaf. “His story was so compelling,” Ayres said. When he called Sirleaf in late 2008 to tell him that the container had left port on its way to Monrovia, Ayres could hear, through the phone, that Sirleaf was smiling. The State Department’s statement I attempted to contact the U.S. State Department for its reaction to the Liberian TRC, and Liberia in general, but did not get a response before my deadline. Here, courtesy of an e-mail from spokesman Russell Brooks, are the responses: — The United States congratulates the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on their hard work over the last four years and on the release of their report. It is now up to the Liberian people to determine how best to implement the TRC recommendations and to make the decision on how best to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. — Impunity is unacceptable for those who committed serious atrocities and gross violations of human rights during Liberia’s conflict. The Liberian people must decide how best to address atrocities committed during that time period, and the United States will work with our partners in the Liberian government to support efforts to address these difficult issues. — As Secretary Clinton said during her August visit, we “have looked at the entire record that President Sirleaf brings to office, her performance in office, the accomplishments of the government she leads. And we are supportive of her efforts and will continue to be so because we think that Liberia is on the right track, as difficult as the path might be. And we will not underestimate the difficulties.” — When we look at what President Sirleaf has accomplished in the past two years, it is clear that President Sirleaf is a very committed leader and is dedicated to the betterment of the Liberian people. She has been consistent in her efforts on behalf of solving the problems that Liberia faces after 14 years of conflict so that Liberians can achieve a peaceful and prosperous future. Remarks from the Secretary’s stop in Monrovia from August: What was done and not done When I asked Herman Cohen about his testimony before the TRC, his answer was both simple and deeply revealing. “[My testimony] was all about US policy, and what we did in Liberia,” Cohen said. “Or failed to do.” Cohen’s story of his, and the government’s involvement in Liberia, is fascinating. In April 1990, while he was with the State Department, Cohen was told to stay out of Liberian affairs by the White House, which said the U.S. should not take charge of the problem. Still, under increasing pressure from Liberians in America, Cohen made his dangerous trip later that year to meet with Prince Johnson and Charles Taylor. Though Cohen was there on a fact-finding mission, and not as a negotiator, he thought he had a solution worked out. Taylor, who controlled all of Liberia except for the capital Monrovia, would be allowed to take power, while Doe had said he would surrender to the U.S. military. Cohen thought this solution would prevent the violence from continuing and expanding as it did. Cohen thinks Taylor would still have been a corrupt dictator as a leader, but Liberia’s infrastructure would not have been demolished in the way that it was, and hundreds of thousands of Liberians would still be alive. His plan was stifled by George H.W. Bush’s administration, though. The reason was not thoroughly explained to Cohen at the time, but years later he heard Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft explain that President Bush did not want Liberia to become a permanent dependency of the United States. “I think this was a bad prognosis, not an accurate prognosis,” Cohen said. “But that was the Presidential solution, so I just saluted and did what I was told.” If Bush had not wanted Liberia to become a dependency of the United States, the plan has backfired: since 2003, as part of its rebuilding and stabilizing effort, Liberia has received more than $2 billion in American aid. Cohen said that if there was a lesson to be learned from the Liberian experience, it is that America’s singular ability to act on the international stage should not go to waste. “I think the United States has a certain capability of intervening diplomatically and sometimes militarily to avoid total disasters,” Cohen said. “We can never solve internal problems of foreign countries. But we have a power to mediate and intervene that’s very strong, and we should use it as much as possible.” Endnotes Just a couple more quick observations: 1) Though many were reluctant to participate in the TRC, and both Sirleaf and Verdier heard repeated pleas to let the past disappear, airing these things in public is fitting with Liberia’s recent history: – In 1980, when Samuel Doe had 13 government officials executed on a beach, he invited BBC journalists to watch and document it. – In 1990, when Prince Johnson oversaw Doe’s execution by torture, the event was videotaped and appeared on news reports worldwide. Later, Johnson had Doe’s dead body displayed in Monrovia to prove that the President was indeed dead. – When Charles Taylor finally went into exile in 2003, the New York Times reported that his final Presidential address came in “the Executive Mansion that had been packed for the ceremony with Liberian politicians, three African heads of state and foreign journalists.” 2) Earlier this year, Charles Taylor told the courtroom at The Hague, Netherlands, that he escaped his imprisonment in Massachusetts with the help of the CIA, which he says wanted him to overthrow the Doe government. In 1985, Taylor was being held for extradition to Liberia after embezzling $900,000 from Samuel Doe’s government. As Taylor told it, he was allowed out of his cell one night, where an unmarked car drove him to New York. David Crane said he has no reason to believe this version of the story, which the CIA denied. But Crane has always wondered how it was that Taylor, of all people, was the first and only escapee of the Plymouth, Mass. jail. Though Taylor’s story has yet to be proved, I just wanted to point out this irony: it may be the case that the C.I.A. freed Taylor from confinement so that he could save Liberia, but instead he nearly wrecked it, while a nameless child soldier freed Ahmed Sirleaf so that he could flee Liberia, but instead he cannot stop returning to it.