Liberia: The untold stories


One morning in October 1990, Ahmed Sirleaf woke up early and prepared to leave. Charles Taylor’s 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.

Sirleaf’s grandmother walked him and his cousin to the village’s edge. She said a prayer for her teenage grandsons. Then she looked into Sirleaf’s eyes.

“You will find what you are looking for,” she said. “But do not forget us.”

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 non-profit organization based out of the Twin Cities. The work allowed him to honor his grandmother’s 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 Liberia’s civil war. Six employees and 800 volunteers, several of them University of Minnesota graduates and students, 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 Advocates’ report, and he keeps the printed copy out on a table in his office.

“But then the fear is,” he said, putting his hand on the report, “What will this all amount to?”

Peace by reliving a war

The Advocates’ 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 TRC’s mandate called for the study of all offenses from January of 1979 to October 2003, stating that it meant to promote peace by, “investigating … massacres, sexual violations, murder, extrajudicial killings and economic crimes.”

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. Liberia’s 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 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 Taylor’s rebel army. As a drugged-up young boy, he had committed the type of atrocities that fill the Advocates’ 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, “He 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.”

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.

“What is this truth commission really doing?” 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.

“It was sort of like unlocking a dam,” Foster said. “The 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.”

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, Tolbert’s son and 13 other government officials.

In 1985, Doe grasped at legitimacy by holding what he called an “election.” 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.

“He was considered to be highly incompetent, and” Cohen said, “generally very loyal to the United States.”

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 Liberia’s 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 Taylor’s men were killing prominent Liberians and raiding villages to rape and pillage. Taylor’s image as a savior disappeared.

“It quickly became clear that he was a nasty megalomaniac,” 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 Taylor’s who had since joined Liberia’s coup-leader-turned-president Samuel Doe. Cohen found Johnson to be very nervous, constantly on his cell phone.

“He was kind of a nutcase,” Cohen said. “He was really not a guy you can really reason with.”

Cohen was then driven to a forest location near the eastern border to meet Taylor. He found Taylor guarded by child soldiers.

“I think he kept them high on drugs,” Cohen said. “It was very frightening to go in there.”

The fall of 1990 also marked the very public and brutal end of Doe’s reign. Prince Johnson, who had been Doe’s chief of staff, turned on him. Videotape emerged of Johnson sipping Budweiser and calmly overseeing Doe’s humiliation and execution by torture.

‘The distinctions between evil and good’

The TRC’s 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, Africa’s 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, “the distinctions between evil and good were not so clear,” and apologizing for her “misjudgment.”

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.

“That’s how it is, but that is not our bother,” Verdier said. “We were mandated to do a job irrespective of who is in government.”

Herman Cohen, who worked with Johnson-Sirleaf in his time at the World Bank, called the demand for her to step down “ridiculous.”

“That’s a total bum rap,” Cohen said. “Everybody supported Taylor at the beginning, because he was the hope of getting rid of Doe.”

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.

“I think it was politically orchestrated by people who want political power and know they can’t defeat her in an election,” Dwanyen said.

Verdier worked briefly as an adviser to Johnson-Sirleaf’s 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 Liberia’s First Civil War. Of these various groups, most with an ethnic identity, the Advocates’ report states that, “Each was itself responsible for human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

Liberia’s 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, Taylor’s 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 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.

“It’s not the same image I have of him,” he said. “This guy was a good kid.”

‘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.

“I frankly believe that it was out of – I don’t know, fear or interest, or a combination of both,” 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.

“That is something that I guess we have to live with,” 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.

“More often they would pause just to make sure I could keep up,” he said.

After each statement, as Norris sat holding the notes of every graphic and tragic detail of a refugee’s 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.

“Sometimes I was successful,” he said. “Sometimes I wasn’t.”

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 Taylor’s names came up occasionally, statement givers rarely wanted to place blame for the things done to them.

“In so many ways, I think the violence was so seemingly random,” Norris said. “And so the whos and why were just sort of lost in the absurdity of what had occurred.”

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.

“My son, I’ve been here for 17 years,” the woman told him. “This is the first time someone has asked me, ‘What happened to you?'”

“That meant the whole world to me,” Sirleaf said, remembering her words.

Dulce Foster’s 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.

“Absolutely,” 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

Sirleaf’s father was a county imam in Liberia, a problem-solver and a respected man. Men like Sirleaf’s father were endangered in Charles Taylor’s 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 father’s 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.

“When I first met him, we just cried,” Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf’s 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 mother’s 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 “war story.” 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 brother’s, are what brought him to the TRC.

“I could shut the whole thing off and not bother with Liberia,” Sirleaf said. “But I just can’t. It would haunt me.”

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 grandmother’s 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.