Confronting a difficult past: the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in St. Paul

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Witnesses at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation hearing in St. Paul June 9-14 varied widely in their experiences and perspectives. The daughter of the Vice President under Samuel Doe in the 1980s wanted her murdered father to be remembered as a public servant willing to give his life for his country. The economic advisor under three presidents flew in from Philadelphia to give his inside perspective on what would be best for his country. A young nurse tearfully recounted finding the soldier who kidnapped and raped her during Taylor’s rebellion later promoted to a government security position.

The eight commissioners of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation who heard testimony in St. Paul have their work cut out for them. Since January 2008, they have been holding public hearings on human rights violations during Liberia’s 14-year civil war. They are charged with making binding recommendations to the current administration on how to respond to Liberia’s past violence and to move forward.

Other countries, most famously South Africa, have held Truth and Reconciliation hearings in order to help a deeply scarred population process the events of the past, prosecute where necessary, forgive, and heal. Liberia is the first country to hold hearings outside its borders, among citizens who became refugees of the war. Last week’s hearings in St. Paul were their only stop outside of Liberia. Minnesota is home to one of the largest population of Liberians in the United States.

Liberia’s story since the late 1970s is one of corrupt leaders and coups, of brutal civil war and moments of calm in which some of those who fled the violence returned to their homes, only to have fighting break out again. Nearly one and a half million people fled their homes—half the population. About 250,000 people were killed, according to the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights, who are coordinating the taking of statements throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will focus on the human rights violations between January 1979 and October 2003, the year of the peace accord.

Eight commissioners—four men and four women—sat at a long table on the stage of the Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University. The audience of about fifty people included members of the media, interested onlookers, and Liberians in business suits and traditional dress. They trickled in and out as the testimonies continued. Over the course of six days, there were 21 scheduled hours of individual testimony and four and one-half hours of testimony from the Diaspora organization. That was the time allotted, but most of the testimonies ran long. Lunch breaks were cut short, and the days started earlier. There was so much to say.

The testimonies spanned the rules of three presidents: William Tolbert, killed in a coup in 1980; Samuel Doe, killed in a coup in 1990; and Charles Taylor, whose rebellion/coup sparked the civil war and who is currently being tried at the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity.

“We all lost a lot of people. We all went through a lot of experiences. If we think about it, we’ll just be depressed more,” said witness Marie Y. Hayes, who had known all three presidents and was able to describe both their good and bad sides. She had just finished listing the names and ages of her relatives who were killed. One of the responsibilities of the TRC is to compile a list of names of those who were killed during the Civil War. There was virtually no one in Liberia who did not lose family members or friends.

To some extent, the fighting was intertribal, spurred on by decades of political maneuvering that created rifts between formerly peaceful groups. But the killing, torture, and rape was also indiscriminate, reported witness Jane Allison Samukai, whose family was forced from their suburban home by soldiers. She reported spending years in fear.

“We need to come to some sort of understanding about why this war happened,” Mrs. Hayes urged, stating that afterward she hoped to forget about those tragic events.

Her statement echoed that of TRC Chairman Jerome Verdier: “We are convinced that these hearings are the best opportunity yet for Liberians to learn from their mistakes” in order to “build a better future.”

“Thank you for coming here today, and for being honest.” Each commissioner began with some variation of this, honoring the witness’s statement before asking follow-up questions. They expressed their sympathies at each person’s loss.

The commissioners, too, went through the war. They are human rights activists: journalists, social workers, lawyers, and leaders of both Islamic and Christian faiths. It is up to them to recommend amnesties, prosecutions, reparations, and system reforms to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“We need to unite and rebuild as Liberians,” stated witness Alfred Zeo, a cousin of former President Doe, who saw his tribe given special privileges under Doe’s regime and then persecuted under Taylor’s. “We need to rebuild,” he repeated.

The question is how. That is what the commissioners must figure out.

Emily K. Bright was the University of Minnesota Scribe for Human Rights for the academic year 2007-2008. For several years, she taught orientation classes to refugees, including Liberians, settling in the Twin Cities.