Describing the events that unfolded in July 1990 still brings tears to the eyes of Liberian native Jane Allison Samukai. After civil war broke out in her homeland, rebel soldiers attacked her home. Those who didn’t heed the soldiers’ demands were shot. “I witnessed my neighbor’s killing and torture,” Samukai said, wiping her eyes. “People were taken away in the night… I knew they were going to kill me.”
After she’d been tied up and raped at gunpoint, another soldier told her attacker that he had done enough. She lay helplessly on the ground. “I could no longer fight,” she told an audience that had gathered for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings at St. Paul’s Hamline University last week.
Eventually, Samukai, who was covered with cuts and bruises, made her way back to the schoolhouse where her family and others had sought shelter. For days, she lived in fear. “I thought about suicide…I couldn’t face anyone,” she said with a pained expression on her face. In spite of everything, Samukai, who now lives in New Jersey and works with troubled youth, pressed on. Now, she says she wants to pay tribute to those who endured what she did by “being a voice for the voiceless.”
Testimony from the Liberian Diaspora came to light during the TRC hearings, the first such hearings to be held in the United States. Many who endured such suffering are living among us: Minnesota was a natural host for the hearings because of its large Liberian population. Others came forward during the hearings to share their stories as well, including some aligned with the perpetrators of misdeeds during the Liberian civil war. Some expert witnesses discussed the war’s triggers, which include riots over the price of rice and swelling ethnic and racial tensions in the region.
More than a million Liberians fled their homeland after fighting began between the Liberian army and a group of rebels called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia; between the bloodshed and the mass exodus by the people in the region, it became one of the world’s most brutal examples of “ethnic cleansing.”
The country’s complicated history is bound together by a series of leaders who ruled by force. Thus, waves of Liberians were displaced from 1979 to 2003. The vast majority relocated to the U.S., with as many as 30,000 Liberians ending up in Minnesota. Throughout the civil war, countless crimes against humanity have been reported. Some children were forced into combat. Many people were raped and tortured, and some 250,000 were killed. (For more, see PBS’ history of Liberia.)
Similar truth-and-reconciliation bodies exist in other countries, but the Liberian TRC is the only one so far “to make a concerted effort to solicit from Diaspora communities for reconciliation and systemic change,” according to a prepared statement about the hearings. The TRC Mandate enacted in 2005 established the commission, which is “creating an independent and accurate record of the rights violations and abuses as a result of the conflict.” But whether the hearings will be a vehicle for concrete change — either healing for victims or war-crimes prosecutions for perpetrators — remains to be seen.
The week’s hearings began with a series of witnesses who offered historical and social context for the war, including Herman Cohen, who served as the U.S. Secretary of African Affairs from 1983-87; Bai Gbala, a former economic adviser to three presidents in Liberia; and Wilhemina Tolbert Holder, the daughter of former president William Tolbert and an activist who reaches out to immigrant women through a St. Paul nonprofit. Kerper Dwanyan, president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, told the TRC he was a spokesman for the Nimba Redemption Council, which was associated with the war’s perpetrators.
But the hearings’ main focus was on individuals who discussed with varying degrees of emotion their experiences in fighting, suffering displacement, and living in refugee camps. Some witnesses said they had never shared their stories aloud before. One woman, Patricia Jabba Wesley, spoke calmly yet authoritatively about the plight of women and children traumatized by the war. Sometimes she punctuated her sentences by leaning forward, as if conversing with friends, all the while maintaining eye contact with the commissioners.
Doris Parker, the founder and executive director of the Women’s Liberian Organization in Minnesota, addressed the commission on her sister’s behalf. Abducted by a rebel soldier at the age of 10, Parker’s sister, now 28, still does not have the strength to tell her story, she said. For Parker, who addressed the commissioners with composure, and drawing her words out carefully, the hearings are “an opportunity to seek justice,” she said. “It puts a face on the people who were affected by the war. Hopefully it will keep us from repeating history.”
The commissioners, who listened intently to the testimonies all day, with few breaks, offered apologies to each person for their struggle, thanking them for candor on behalf of all Liberians. For some non-Liberians in the audience, the hearings offered education, albeit at times painful.
Colleen Bell, a professor of conflict studies at Hamline, said she was struck by some of the historical details that emerged from the hearings. “I didn’t realize the U.S. involvement in Liberia before, or its relationship to colonial America [freed American slaves were sent to Liberia],” she said. “There’s so much pain and destruction. There probably wasn’t a single Liberian in the audience who had not witnessed or been a victim of the brutality… It seems like it’s a huge thing just to be talking about it.”
The TRC’s role
While the hearings seemed to offer release for victims and perpetrators of atrocities in Liberia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will incorporate that input into concrete objectives. The commission was formed in 2005 to promote peace; as such, its purpose is to trace the conflict’s root causes and identify appropriate remedies for the gross human rights violations that arose from it. The eight commissioners who sit on the TRC will continue its investigation.
Based on their findings, they will prepare a report outlining goals to be presented to Liberian government officials early next year, according to TRC chairman Jerome J. Verdier. They plan to address governmental operations and possible memorials for the victims, among other tasks. “We have to proceed to the precipice, transcend our experience and move forward… It’s a process of truth-seeking,” Verdier told the Hamline gathering.
The hearings provide a forum for those in the Diaspora to “express themselves, share their experiences and make recommendations.” That is a major step forward because in the past, “public processes to a large extent excluded ordinary Liberians. We want that to change. We want Liberians to be involved in all aspects of public life,” he said.
Vereata Giddings, a resident of north Minneapolis, could not make it to the hearings, but she said she has been paying attention to them with much interest. Giddings is one of many people who came to Minnesota from Liberia in search of a better life. While she wants to return to Liberia someday, she knows memories will haunt her. She says some of her relatives were forced to watch as soldiers beheaded her youngest brother. As a teenager, her daughter witnessed her biological father’s murder. A soldier tried to make him have intercourse with her, but he refused. Before he was executed, he told her, “I’m sorry. I would rather die.”
Giddings’ daughter escaped from the soldiers by walking barefoot from Liberia to Sierra Leone, ripping the pads of her feet to shreds. She says her daughter, who lives in Minnesota now, is too traumatized to discuss the atrocities herself. “Going back to that memory is tough, like it’s happening all over again,” Giddings said.
With such an excruciating legacy, what do Liberians hope to gain from sharing them publicly? “Some peace,” says Giddings. She hopes the work of the commission can bring a sense of order to the country. “Things will never be like they were before the war, but people shouldn’t be afraid of going outside and being robbed at gunpoint,” for instance. Here, in the U.S., she said, “people are able to move around without being worried about it, which is the way it should be.”
But some people are skeptical that the peaceful process will spur real social change in Liberia. Jackson George, who lives in Brooklyn Park and is the former vice president of the Organization for Liberians in Minnesota, commends the truth and reconciliation process as a means for healing. But he believes it needs to go further by establishing a war crimes tribunal to try those who instigated the war. At this point, nobody in Liberia has been charged for crimes against humanity associated with the civil war. “People shouldn’t commit those crimes and then go free,” he said.
The TRC’s recommendations should go to a neutral body, not the Liberian government, he added. That will enable people to “begin the process of thinking about returning home and seeing how we can contribute to the reconstruction of Liberia,” he said.
Patrick Oliver Sawyer Jr., a Liberian living in Crystal who was 18 when the strife began, is also reluctant to embrace the proceedings.
“This process failed miserably because the custodians of power in Liberia, the architects of the civil war are the same ones behind it… This is a show for them,” he said. He believes the TRC’s charge is too vague but is optimistic that in the future, a legally binding process will “help reconcile the millions of people who died, the solemn victims.”