Liberia: The untold stories

Mike Mullen

One morning in October 1990, Ahmed Sirleaf woke up early and prepared to leave. Charles TaylorâÄôs rebels had come, again and again, and the village was not safe. Sirleaf needed to leave Makpouma and leave Liberia. The country was in the grip of a civil war that would last another 13 years. He ate a large breakfast of cassava, his only meal on a long day of walking. Sirleaf grabbed his schoolbag with one change of clothes and an extra pair of shoes. SirleafâÄôs grandmother walked him and his cousin to the villageâÄôs edge. She said a prayer for her teenage grandsons. Then she looked into SirleafâÄôs eyes. âÄúYou will find what you are looking for,âÄù she said. âÄúBut do not forget us.âÄù Sirleaf found what he was looking for. Peace. An education. A family. Sirleaf, now 40, wears a suit jacket to work in an office with a view of downtown Minneapolis. Sirleaf works for the Advocates for Human Rights , a nonprofit organization based out of the Twin Cities. The work allowed him to honor his grandmotherâÄôs request and to not forget the people and place he left behind. In October, the Advocates published its contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, a government-ordered project to uncover the tragic truth about LiberiaâÄôs civil war. Six employees and 800 volunteers âÄî several of them University of Minnesota graduates and students âÄî interviewed refugees in Ghana and 200 of the tens of thousands who have settled in Minnesota. Many Liberians refused to participate in the TRC process. Others do not want to read the report, with its gruesome details of war crimes and controversial recommendations for the next step forward. Sirleaf takes great pride in the AdvocatesâÄô report, and he keeps the printed copy out on a table in his office. âÄúBut then the fear is,âÄù he said, putting his hand on the report, âÄúWhat will this all amount to?âÄù Peace by reliving a war The AdvocatesâÄô report is a harrowing read. Personal tales of murder, rape and torture darken 500-plus pages. With its years of research and months of writing and editing, it is the academia of tragedy: terror and despair, with 3,200 footnotes. The Advocates distilled thousands of statements, from both victims and perpetrators, into a single document. Its authors say the stories inside cannot be fully explained but must be documented. This report was sent to Liberia to be condensed and incorporated into the findings of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established by a transitional legislature in April of 2005. The TRCâÄôs mandate called for the study of all offenses from January 1979 to October 2003, stating that it meant to promote peace by, âÄúinvestigating âĦ massacres, sexual violations, murder, extrajudicial killings and economic crimes.âÄù It may seem counterintuitive to seek peace by reliving a war rather than forgetting it. But truth commissions are an increasingly popular method of post-conflict and transitional justice. In a single 10-month period during 2000 and 2001, 12 truth commissions were established in different countries. LiberiaâÄôs is one of 41 truth commissions held to date, uncovering difficult truths about autocratic governments and sprawling civil wars. The Liberian TRC was the first to include the voice of the diaspora, which includes not only the hundreds of thousands of Liberians who now reside in the United States or United Kingdom, but also those living in refugee camps in Ghana. The Advocates oversaw this inclusive effort, taking statements of tragedy and survival. A long way to go George Norris looked across a table at a man very much like himself. The Liberian was around the same age as Norris, who is a third-year University of Minnesota law student, and he spoke like Norris. But this man was not like Norris. The Liberian recounted his days as a child soldier in Charles TaylorâÄôs rebel army. As a drugged-up young boy, he had committed the type of atrocities that fill the AdvocatesâÄô report. Some victims were tortured. Some were murdered. Some were tortured to death. Norris focused on staying professional and keeping accurate notes as the man told what he had done. Only later, when he retired to his room for the night, did Norris try to understand what he had heard. He could not. Of the former child soldier, Norris said, âÄúHe still has a mythical view of the world, and still some parts of him believe in magic, and in the idea that this person was invincible, and the only way the other side killed him was they chopped him into little pieces.âÄù Norris thinks that it was the first time the man had thought about what he had done and that the man wanted to become a better part of society. But, Norris said, he had a long way to go. The statement was one of more than 30 that Norris took in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana as a volunteer for the Advocates. Dulce Foster , who does white collar defense for Fredrikson and Byron, had been doing some pro bono work for the Advocates since she was a law student at the University. Foster prepared witnesses before the public hearings in St. Paul. She also volunteered as a statement taker. But the most memorable story Foster heard went unrecorded. One day, as she and another lawyer rode through Monrovia, the driver, a quiet man, turned his head to the backseat. âÄúWhat is this truth commission really doing?âÄù he asked. When they explained, the man said he would consider telling his story. And then, right there in the car, he did. As he drove, he told every horrific detail of everything that had happened to him and his family. âÄúIt was sort of like unlocking a dam,âÄù Foster said. âÄúThe whole story came out of him. I had taken statements before, but this was so spontaneous and so real. It really gave me a window into how much of this has been bottled-up.âÄù The fall of 1990 For 150 years, Liberia was dominated by repatriated American black slaves and their descendants, called Americo-Liberians. Though Americo-Liberian rule was largely uneventful, its end was violent. In 1980, military commander Samuel Doe and a small group killed President William Tolbert, TolbertâÄôs son and 13 other government officials. In 1985, Doe grasped at legitimacy by holding what he called an âÄúelection.âÄù His ballot-stuffing effort that year is considered one of the most fraudulent elections in African history. Career diplomat Herman Cohen joined the White House staff in 1987 and served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1989-1993 . Cohen said the U.S. government viewed Doe as a trusted but unimpressive ally. âÄúHe was considered to be highly incompetent,âÄù Cohen said, âÄúand generally very loyal to the United States.âÄù While enriching himself and his own ethnic group, Doe proved unable or unwilling to make domestic changes to avoid another violent overthrow. On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor announced himself as LiberiaâÄôs savior. Taylor, an American-educated former government official, made rapid gains throughout the countryside. Soon, he controlled all of Liberia except for Monrovia, where fighting raged on throughout 1990. Stories circulated that TaylorâÄôs men were killing prominent Liberians and raiding villages to rape and pillage. TaylorâÄôs image as a savior disappeared. âÄúIt quickly became clear that he was a nasty megalomaniac,âÄù Cohen said. In August 1990, Cohen helicoptered into Monrovia during a period of intense fighting. At the U.S. Embassy, he met with Prince Johnson, once a confidant of TaylorâÄôs who had since joined LiberiaâÄôs coup-leader-turned-president Samuel Doe. Cohen found Johnson to be very nervous, constantly on his cell phone. âÄúHe was kind of a nutcase,âÄù Cohen said. âÄúHe was really not a guy you can really reason with.âÄù Cohen was then driven to a forest location near the eastern border to meet Taylor. He found Taylor guarded by child soldiers. âÄúI think he kept them high on drugs,âÄù Cohen said. âÄúIt was very frightening to go in there.âÄù The fall of 1990 also marked the very public and brutal end of DoeâÄôs reign. Prince Johnson, who had been DoeâÄôs chief of staff, turned on him. Videotape emerged of Johnson sipping Budweiser and calmly overseeing DoeâÄôs humiliation and execution by torture. ‘The distinctions between evil and good’ The TRCâÄôs recommendations have shaken Liberia: The only form of blanket amnesty in the TRC was extended to former child soldiers. All others would be held accountable for their wartime actions. Not only have prominent Liberians been recommended for criminal prosecution, but the report has called for the banning of a popular and democratically elected head of state. The report named the leaders of eight factions and 98 other perpetrators, recommending prosecutions for their wartime actions, including Prince Johnson, now an elected senator. Another list had 50 names recommended for a 30-year ban from public office. Most controversially, this list included President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf , AfricaâÄôs first female head of state. Johnson-Sirleaf was faulted for her role as a supporter of Charles Taylor. Johnson-Sirleaf became an outspoken critic of Taylor in the late 1990s. She addressed her early support in a speech this summer, saying that in wartime, âÄúthe distinctions between evil and good were not so clear,âÄù and apologizing for her âÄúmisjudgment.âÄù The TRC report was passed on to the National Legislature, which deferred a decision until next year. TRC chairman Jerome Verdier said a final edited report is coming at the end of November and none of the listed names will be removed. If anything changes, he said, a half-dozen more names may be added. Verdier understands the oddity of asking the government to ratify the report, which calls for the president to step down and a senator to be prosecuted. âÄúThatâÄôs how it is, but that is not our bother,âÄù Verdier said. âÄúWe were mandated to do a job irrespective of who is in government.âÄù Herman Cohen, who worked with Johnson-Sirleaf in his time at the World Bank, called the demand for her to step down âÄúridiculous.âÄù âÄúThatâÄôs a total bum rap,âÄù Cohen said. âÄúEverybody supported Taylor at the beginning, because he was the hope of getting rid of Doe.âÄù Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, was in college in America when Charles Taylor’s men killed his father. Despite Johnson-Sireaf’s acknowledged support of Taylor, Dwanyen campaigned for her in 2005 and he does not believe she should be sanctioned. âÄúI think it was politically orchestrated by people who want political power and know they canâÄôt defeat her in an election,âÄù Dwanyen said. Verdier worked briefly as an adviser to Johnson-SirleafâÄôs opponent in the 2005 election, soccer legend George Weah , but said that he is currently unaffiliated with Weah or any political party. No rule of law or decency More than 10 warring factions emerged between 1990 and 1997, a period now called LiberiaâÄôs First Civil War. Of these various groups, most with an ethnic identity, the AdvocatesâÄô report states that, âÄúEach was itself responsible for human rights and humanitarian law violations.âÄù LiberiaâÄôs was a war in which no rule of law or decency was respected. In the St. Peter Lutheran Church massacre of July 1990, hundreds of innocents seeking sanctuary in a church were executed by Doe loyalists. In 1994, TaylorâÄôs men forced patients out of a hospital and executed some of them. Ahmed Sirleaf knew of at least one friend who had participated in some of the worst deeds. Sirleaf had gone to school and played soccer with this friend when they were kids. As teenagers, they chatted up girls. Years later, Sirleaf heard that this friend had joined ULIMO, a fighting group, and had become a vicious war criminal. Sirleaf heard about his friend looting his own village, raping girls he had known his whole life and raping the wives of his own relatives. As the story was told to Sirleaf, this friend later supervised a diamond creek, where he was accused of stealing and was killed. Sirleaf told the story and shook his head. âÄúItâÄôs not the same image I have of him,âÄù he said. âÄúThis guy was a good kid.âÄù ‘Fear or interest’ Verdier thinks that most of those who have been critical of the report have not read it. But several commissioners have disassociated themselves from the findings. âÄúI frankly believe that it was out of âÄî I donâÄôt know, fear or interest, or a combination of both,âÄù Verdier said. Verdier said he and other commissioners were threatened before, during and after the process. Commissioners and their family members have received intimidating text messages. Even now Verdier watches where he speaks and where he eats in public. âÄúThat is something that I guess we have to live with,âÄù he said. Every graphic and tragic detail Norris, a University law student, sat in a room as each statement giver came in, one after the other, telling stories which lasted up to an hour. Many of these refugees were telling their story for the first time, and he was surprised by how easily the statements flowed. Norris rarely needed to ask prompting questions. Toilet paper was available to wipe tears, and statement givers were told they could take a break if they needed it. âÄúMore often they would pause just to make sure I could keep up,âÄù he said. After each statement, as Norris sat holding the notes of every graphic and tragic detail of a refugeeâÄôs life, another was waiting, next in line. Norris said he tried to take breaks in between statements to organize his notes, and to collect himself. âÄúSometimes I was successful,âÄù he said. âÄúSometimes I wasnâÄôt.âÄù At the end of the day, Norris filed his notes in a computerized database. As he did so, something peculiar struck him. Though Prince Johnson and Charles TaylorâÄôs names came up occasionally, statement givers rarely wanted to place blame for the things done to them. âÄúIn so many ways, I think the violence was so seemingly random,âÄù Norris said. âÄúAnd so the whos and why were just sort of lost in the absurdity of what had occurred.âÄù For Ahmed Sirleaf, each statement had a deep effect. At times he found himself talking to a former child soldier, like the ones who terrorized his village. Once, he found himself talking to an old woman who reminded him of his grandmother. âÄúMy son, IâÄôve been here for 17 years,âÄù the woman told him. âÄúThis is the first time someone has asked me, âÄòWhat happened to you?âÄô âÄù âÄúThat meant the whole world to me,âÄù Sirleaf said, remembering her words. Dulce FosterâÄôs work in preparing witnesses before public hearings and as a statement taker left her emotionally strung out. She spoke about the work in generalities with her friends, avoiding the gory details. She also noticed herself clicking away from violent movies and television shows. What was once cartoonish had become real, and she could not watch. Despite how the work affected Foster, she would do it again. âÄúAbsolutely,âÄù she said. Norris, who had already spent a summer working at the criminal tribunal for Rwanda, came out of the experience with a new goal in life. He is getting a paper published on the topic of transitional justice, and after he graduates in May, he wants to become an international prosecutor of war criminals. A war story SirleafâÄôs father was an imam in Liberia, a problem solver and a respected man. Men like SirleafâÄôs father were endangered in Charles TaylorâÄôs Liberia. His father fled the war and left Sirleaf with an uncle. Sirleaf did not see him again until 1995, when his father came to Ghana for medical treatment. Sirleaf heard then about his fatherâÄôs farm being burned. He heard that one of his brothers, a young doctor, was killed, as was one of his sisters. Another brother died under mysterious circumstances. âÄúWhen I first met him, we just cried,âÄù Sirleaf said. SirleafâÄôs father said they needed to pray for their country. In 2007, Sirleaf returned to Liberia for the first time in 11 years to attend his motherâÄôs funeral. Sirleaf also saw his youngest brother, with whom he had often talked on the phone. His brother was severely undersized and gravely ill. After taking his brother to the hospital, Sirleaf asked what had happened. His relatives mentioned something about a âÄúwar story.âÄù Sirleaf pressed them and was told that his brother had been caught behind enemy lines during the war and did not eat for three weeks. Two weeks after Sirleaf returned home, his brother died. Sirleaf said the untold stories of Liberia, like his brotherâÄôs, are what brought him to the TRC. âÄúI could shut the whole thing off and not bother with Liberia,âÄù Sirleaf said. âÄúBut I just canâÄôt. It would haunt me.âÄù Earlier this year, when he was in Liberia to help promote the TRC, Sirleaf took a week off to return to the village of Makpouma. Two of his uncles took him to his grandmotherâÄôs grave, where he laid a bundle of wheatgrass. In a light rain, Sirleaf knelt down at the grave and said a prayer. At long last he had come back to his grandmother. He had not forgotten. * * * * Taylor on trial: Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is standing trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone. As punishment for his autocratic government, Liberian President William Tolbert was dragged from his bed and killed by Samuel Doe. Ten years later, Doe spent the last hours of his existence begging for his life while he was tortured to death by Prince Johnson. Tolbert and DoeâÄôs crimes pale in comparison to the allegations against Charles Taylor, who waged a merciless campaign for power during the 1990s and looted the country as its president from 1997 to 2003. And yet, Taylor is facing justice while dressed in fine suits, calmly stating his case and denying everything. If he is convicted, he does not face the death penalty. Kerper Dwanyen , whose father was singled out and killed in 1990 by TaylorâÄôs men, said he is happy to see his fatherâÄôs killer facing a real trial, though he knows other Liberians wish that Taylor met an end similar to TolbertâÄôs and DoeâÄôs. âÄúYou always have the people who revert to their animal instincts, but thatâÄôs not how you build societies,âÄù Dwanyen said. âÄúThere are lots of people who would like to have a one-on-one with [Taylor] in a dark alley.âÄù Taylor is standing trial in The Hague, Netherlands, for his complicity in Sierra LeoneâÄôs civil war. He faces 11 counts of murder, sexual slavery, rape, cruelty, forced labor and recruiting child soldiers. David Crane, appointed as chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra by Kofi Annan in 2002 , filed an indictment against Taylor in March of 2003. It was only the second criminal indictment filed against a sitting head of state, and the first in Africa. Thanks to pressure from the United States, including three battleships floating near MonroviaâÄôs port, Taylor fled Liberia and went into exile in Nigeria in August of 2003. After compiling evidence against 12 other major actors in Sierra LeoneâÄôs civil war, Crane turned his attention to Taylor. He spent the better part of two years applying political pressure to have Taylor delivered. Six months after CraneâÄôs term as chief prosecutor ended, Taylor was finally apprehended. His trial has since been moved to The Hague, in the Netherlands. On Tuesday, Taylor is expected to wrap up his defense and begin to face questions from the prosecution. Though CraneâÄôs strongest evidence probably came from culpable government officials from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Liberia, he also held town hall meetings with Sierra Leonean people and encouraged them to participate in the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Describing TaylorâÄôs actions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Crane said, âÄúHeâÄôs criminally responsible for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of over 1.2 million human beings.âÄù When former assistant secretary of state for African affairs Herman Cohen reached TaylorâÄôs forest compound in mid-1990, before Taylor had taken power of Liberia, he found Taylor inside a tent, sitting atop something of a throne. While armed and drugged boy soldiers milled around, Cohen noticed what was mounted inside the tent, over TaylorâÄôs shoulder: a big picture of John F. Kennedy with his wife and kids. âÄúIt told me that his ambition was to be a great statesman,âÄù Cohen said. âÄúHe clearly had a big ego.âÄù From his recollection of this meeting, he confirmed TaylorâÄôs reputation as charming and charismatic. Crane said TaylorâÄôs mix of ego, charm and ruthlessness puts him in a historical category with Saddam Hussein, SerbiaâÄôs Slobodan Milosevic and Nazi Hermann Goering. âÄúTheyâÄôre all charming, theyâÄôre all fascinating,âÄù Crane said. âÄúYou could have a wonderful evening with them over dinner, and then they take you out and cut your throat.âÄù Crane said that with his charm and professed Christianity, Taylor managed to fool Rev. Jesse Jackson and former President Jimmy Carter. Cohen, meanwhile, recalls opening The Washington Post one morning in 1990 to see a full-page ad taken out by Liberians in America, declaring that Taylor was the countryâÄôs savior. In his last moments as president of Liberia, Taylor compared himself to Jesus and said he hoped someday to return. âÄúGod willing, I will be back,âÄù Taylor said. Crane said his case against Taylor needed to be ironclad to prevent exactly that. âÄúYou donâÄôt take down the most powerful warlord in Africa unless youâÄôre damn sure, because heâÄôll come back and he will destroy [Liberia] again,âÄù Crane said. âÄúHe can never see the light of a free day.âÄù