Liberia asks as UN leaves: Who will pursue war's atrocities?
By JONATHAN PAYE-LAYLEH | Associated Press | Published: March 11, 2017
MONROVIA, Liberia — The skeletal remains of 27 people were all that was left of a massacre, one of many in this West African nation's back-to-back civil wars more than a decade ago. When the United Nations handed over the bones to the government last month, it was an invitation to investigate. Instead the remains were buried quickly, without ceremony, in a site intended for victims of the Ebola virus.
The incident left many Liberians feeling as though the government wanted to bury the past, too.
As the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission prepares to leave Liberia with the country's return to stability, questions remain about who must take responsibility for the atrocities over 14 years that left some 250,000 dead.
Unlike neighboring Sierra Leone, which also suffered from the fighting that spilled over the border, Liberia has yet to deal with perpetrators of the killings, many carried out by drugged and under-age fighters, overseen by people who may now be in power.
"If there is a need for exhumation for further investigation, that will happen," Information Minister Eugene Nagbe told The Associated Press, insisting the remains of the 27 people were not buried in the same spot where victims of the Ebola outbreak were buried.
The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has said it is taking measures to reconcile with the past, but human rights advocates say the president doesn't have the political will to allow the pursuit of past crimes. Before she took power, Sirleaf said that if she was elected she would go for reconciliation instead of prosecution.
Some in Liberia see this year's election as a chance to bring in a government that might take a more assertive approach.
The bones handed over by the U.N. mission are thought to be those of victims of the River Gee massacre in 2003, which left more than 360 dead, the New Democrat newspaper reported, citing a 2008 report of the truth and reconciliation commission set up after the civil wars. The U.N mission had begun a forensic investigation into the killings but chose to turn over the bones as its gradual withdrawal from Liberia continues. The mission ends in March 2018.
The truth and reconciliation commission had blamed on forces loyal to former Liberian rebel leader-turned-President Charles Taylor. Taylor is currently serving a 50-year sentence in Britain after being found guilty of war crimes by a U.N.-backed special court for his role in the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone when he was Liberia's leader.
Liberia has never had such a special court, though the truth and reconciliation commission had recommended criminal prosecution for dozens of ex-warlords and a 30-year political ban for people who supported the war.
One of those supporters was Sirleaf, who reluctantly appeared before the commission in 2008 and admitted to providing $10,000 to Taylor when his National Patriotic Front rebel movement was fighting the regime of then-President Samuel Doe.
But Sirleaf told the truth commission that the money to Taylor was for "humanitarian purposes." Her critics have debunked this, saying that in the 1990s Taylor and his rebels weren't pursuing any humanitarian venture. Meanwhile, Sirleaf held a string of overseas positions with the United Nations and the World Bank and returned to Liberia only in 2004 when Taylor was forced to step down. She was elected president the following year.
The truth and reconciliation commission's recommendations for criminal prosecution and political bans have never been implemented, and many people named by the commission are now senior members of Liberia's government. The National Human Rights Commission, tasked with implementing the commission's suggestions, remains underfunded.
Meanwhile, many massacres during the fighting from 1989 to 2003 remain uninvestigated, Liberians say. Some prefer to be done with the past, but others feel closure is vital.
"It is hard and worthless to keep repeating the graphic of the scene and see the hate and vices that occasioned the war still exist unabated," said Isaac Redd, director of press at the House of Representatives who survived a 1994 massacre at Kpolokpai. "I have personally prayed for the lost souls and asked God to take control for the perpetrators. I have forgiven them."
Redd, a local radio reporter at the time, recalled that "deaths by chopping off limbs and heads with machetes were ordered without discrimination." Victims were tied up on arrest, and there was no interrogation. "Heads were smashed against the rocks in the middle of the town."
Those rocks still take center stage in the small coffee-growing town. Visitors stand by them, agape, as survivors explain the atrocities.
Like the rest of the survivors, Redd does not know how many people were killed in the Kpolokpai massacre, but he said that when rebel fighters released him the next morning, "I was confused but remembered seeing around a hundred bodies on the rocks."
Many have called for the establishment of a war crimes court like the one that existed in post-conflict Sierra Leone, even as some say no amount of accountability can ease the trauma left behind.
Peterson Sonyah, who witnessed killings in another assault that has come to be known as the Lutheran Church Massacre, is among those calling for a war crimes tribunal "so that our ugly past cannot haunt us as a nation."
Sonyah survived an attack by Doe's troops by hiding under a church bench. Around him, soldiers opened fire, the flashes brightening the hall as if it was daytime.
"People started crying all over the place. Women were raped and made to give out whatever money they had to the soldiers before they were gunned down," he said.
Sonyah said Liberia Massacre Survivors Association has identified 69 mass graves in five of the country's 15 counties in the hope that someone will take interest. None is under investigation by the government.