Snapshots From Home: The TRC at Work in Monrovia
By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
“No, I can’t tell. The boys were wearing jeans and they had red bandanas on their heads.”
“Can you tell us what you saw that day?”
“When the war came to Monrovia, my mother and I left our home in New Krutown to go to Kakata and then we reached the checkpoint. They put the men on one side and the women on one side. They made the men to take off their pants. Then they cut that thing men have in front of their bodies. Then they cut the heads of the men and they put their men-things and their heads on a stick.”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t remember.”
When were you born?”
“I was born January 15, 1984 in Monrovia. My father died when I was a baby.”
“So you and your mother passed Kakata?”
“No, the boys were counting the women. They kept some women; they killed some and let some go. They killed my mother.”
“What happened to you next?
“One woman they let go just took my hand and I followed her and she brought me to Monrovia. Then in the last war, we moved to Greystone near the American Embassy. One day a rocket fell on her and she died. Then one boy saw me and took me. Now I have nobody, I don’t have any family. I have two children. One is one year and nine months and the other one is five years.”
“You have ever been to school? You know how to read or write”
“No, I have never been to school. One girl now is teaching me how to do hair.”
“Where is the father of your children?”
“It is difficult for me to say it. I live with the man who was married to the woman who took care of me after my mother died. He is very mean to me. He beats me and says bad things about me and my children. Right now I am scared to return home.”
It was my second day of listening at the hearings at the Centennial Pavilion, probably along with the Executive Mansion; it was one of the few buildings that were never looted during the war. That is because every warlord looked forward to being inaugurated there as President!
A security desk checks every visitor. No identification required. The hall was sparingly filled, with mostly young people. The press occupied an entire wing. On the stage, members of the TRC sit at a long table, with Chairman Jerome Verdier in the middle with other members around him. About ten video cameras are set on the other side, facing both the witness and members of the commission. The witnesses sit in a chair, a few feet away from the commissioners, looking into the cameras, with a young man at his/her side holding a microphone. There is also a woman seated behind the witness who from time to time, during difficult moments, touches the witness and caress him or her, taping on the shoulder or the arm. After their testimony, witnesses walk behind a huge curtain that serves as a backdrop to the Commission. That is also from where they enter the scene.
In a country of secrets societies, Masonic brotherhoods and other secret associations, the current session of the TRC is a novelty on many levels. By allowing Liberians to come forward with their deepest hurts sustained through decades of wanton killing, rape and dehumanization the process gives them the chance they never had: speak out their minds.
Big and small secrets have come out, unearthed by hundreds of people who, otherwise, would have carried the sour memories to their graves. Every witness that shows up comes with a different story, from a different sphere of the battle Liberians brought up on themselves.
“I was on my farm, with my nephew. When the warring factions took over Lofa, we decided to stay, everyone else left. We were working one morning when Sekou and his men came to us. He was fighting for ULIMO. I knew Sekou from the time he was small boy. I knew his father. So I was not scared. He came to me and asked me if I remembered him. Then, they started to talk among themselves. And then they took my cutlass from my hand and chopped off my right arm, right here, as you can see. Then they brought my nephew and they chopped his left arm. He and Sekou used to be friends. Then someone said we can’t hear anything. So they cut off our ears, you can see it, both ears.”
“Why did they cut off your arms and ears?”
“They said they own Lofa now and I should go tell other Lorma people who moved to Guinea to never come back.”
“Would recognize Sekou now if you saw him?”
“Yes, I know him. One day I saw him on a bus, I walked to him and showed him my arm and my ears, and I asked him why he did this to me. He said he was not himself. I forgive him. But when I heard about this thing, I traveled from Bong Mines to come and tell my story.”
The commissioners asked him a few questions, about his travel to Guinea, if he went to Alhaji Kromah, the leader of ULIMO and talked about what happened to him and the care he received. Then he asked a question:
“This thing here about reconciliation, are we supposed to forgive the people who harmed us or the whole country supposed to forgive each other?”
Before him, a man in a wheel chair, with a college degree in electrical engineering but now living as a beggar on Benson Street, across from the Ministry of Defense came in and told the audience how he lost his two legs and how he traveled throughout the West African sub region attempting to remove the shrapnel that paralyzed him. He has a son in Europe and two daughters, both doing well in school.
“I feel the pain of my condition but I am not ashamed of myself, because I have done nothing to be like this but I pray to God to help me walk again.”
General Butt Naked came in and made the most astonishing revelations. He said he killed 20, 000 people. It sounds so unreal but then again, as I am now reading his book, I wonder about that. In the book, he claims to have been in the killing business since he was six years old, when he was enthroned as the high priest of the Krahn tribe and later when he worked with Samuel Doe. He believes that he could kill people by stealing their soul once he penetrated their spiritual space. On that account, he could claim to have killed millions. The problem with him is to make the difference between fiction and reality. In his book, a fascinating tale saddling reality and fantasy, he recounts his early formation, his confrontational relationships with humans and his absolute submission to tribe and deity. He talks about making human sacrifices as others would talk about buying a cup of tea. The scary thing about it is that there are people who function at that level of reality.
The session on Tuesday January 22, 2008, was interrupted at noon when questioning of a witness by Commissioner Pearl Brown Bull turned into a back and forth rhetorical game. It got so bad that TRC Chairman Jerome Verdier asked Ms. Bull to be mindful of the nature of the hearing. He said this was not a court room and reassured the witness that he was not being indicted. Counselor Bull said she was just making sure that the witness was really recounting the truth. She did not return the next day for the hearing.
Witness Stanley was a radio reporter in Voinjama, Lofa County when the war broke out. After the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) overran government troops, he decided to stay on. “We used to remind young fighters to respect the rules of war…” He spoke of how Thomas Woeweyiu, then minister of defense of Charles Taylor ordered the execution of their minister of Lands and Mines Dearborn for holding secret meetings with AlHaji Kromah. He talked about Isaac Minsah, known to many as Isaac Musa who also ordered the execution of a fellow soldier. He said Gabriel Doe stole tons of coffee in Voinjama and may have sold it to Kekura Kpoto who had started a produce marketing business in Sierra Leone. He talked about Kadjatu Diarrah, Benoni Urey, Cyrill Allen, all people close to the leadership who could have gotten away with anything.
When the exchanges between the witness and counselor Bull turned sour, Commissioner Sheikh Kafumba Konneh conferred with the TRC Chairman and then with Counselor Bull. The session was stopped for a five minute break, which was later turned into an hour lunch.
Today, we learned that reporters went to the village that was once under the control of Marcus Davies, now known as Sundaygar Dearboy, a celebrated musician. The villagers talked about the rapes, the beating, and the babies thrown and beaten in mortar like rice. Nyundueh Morkonmana, the former speaker is said to have requested blood of innocent people. Both deny the allegations and promise to come forward at the hearings.
Now we know who killed Gray D. Allison. IGNU is also vindicated because someone who participated in the Carter Camp massacre came forward to say how it was organized and carried out by the NPFL. Amos Wako of Kenya, after visiting Taylor in Gbarnga, came up with a report that indicted the AFL. Vice President Dogolea was beaten to death. John Yormie was killed and his heart eaten in a soup.
But beyond the sensational stories, the pains and sufferings of those who were caught in the cruelty of warfare are what give essence to the work of the TRC. Finally, after 160 years of humiliating silence the common Liberians have a stage to speak and be heard. The TRC will not need to call the warlords to come and testify, the people will. As the stories come out, accused people will have to take the stand. Evil is being brought to light. The TRC may not be a court, but it will expose the criminals and will make recommendation for reparation and/or prosecution. That might lead to a war crimes tribunal, with the names of perpetrators known to all.
It is possible that the TRC, the one commission amongst the multitude that the international community brought into Liberia - from GEMAP to Governance, Auditing and Contracts - and which seemed to draw the less expectation from the people, may end up achieving what Liberia needs most at this time: unearthing the truth and reconciling the people. On the other end, except for The New Democrat of Tom Camara, the media and the public seem totally oblivious to the trial of Charles Taylor. Being ignored is probably the stiffest sentence for the former president.
Meanwhile, Monrovia like the rest of Africa is glued to television screens everyday after 4, to watch the African Cup of Nations in Ghana. People leave work early to get home or to a bar to watch the games. One can imagine the roars throughout the continent every time someone scores a goal. That is one of the few pleasures that help people forget their daily hardships and troubles. Political leaders across the continent can take a breather for the next two weeks. As long as the games are on, there would be no trouble, except in Kenya and in Zimbabwe, where people are facing desperate situations.
Liberians are also preparing to hear from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the last Monday of January when she addresses the parliament for her annual address early next week. The economy, national reconciliation and a roadmap for national recovery based on Liberia’s domestic strength will be center. She will make a renewed commitment to fight corruption, instill good governance in her administration and call on Liberians to depend on their own resources and capacities for national development rather than expect handouts. She will also talk about the urgent need for decentralization to empower local communities. She wants every mayor to be elected, sooner or later.
The JallahTown road may not live to be 100 years as the deputy minister of Public Works said when the project was completed two months ago. Maybe, just as the ministry of commerce is not involved in selling and buying commodities, the ministry of public works should not be involved in road and construction work… because when they go wrong, things stay wrong. John Morlu is back as Auditor General and will stay away from the political wrangles of the past. Life goes on in Monrovia. Transport is a headache for hundreds of thousands and driving a car to get anywhere can cause migraines… because so many roads are under repair. It is hot everyday and no rain in sight. Street vendors remain on the streets, like everywhere else in Africa, peddling junk. It would be easier to remove the streets than to remove them. Making them pay taxes could be more effective. It may also be time for the City of Monrovia to have parking meters to reduce the congestion. A toll on the Gabriel Tucker Bridge could help defray the cost of roadwork and the construction of another bridge.