Duport Road: Remembering Wartime Atrocities
By Aaron Weah
It is, indeed, an extraordinarily important step, by a largely marginal community, to come to terms with a past that should neither be forgotten nor inhibit reconstruction and community revival.
The journey towards this project began last year, with meetings supported by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) by community members and victims who witnessed those atrocities. Like many efforts to memorialize past conflicts, the Duport Road community began with a debate on how best to remember the past to make sure it never happens again. The discussions then narrowed to whether a memorial should be built.
There were two sides. One argued against building a memorial, and cited these reasons: First, a memorial would evoke a past dominated by pain, misery and mourning which many find emotionally troubling and prefer not to deal with. Second, building a memorial assign blame on some group as being responsible for having committed atrocities. Third, many people in the community see putting their lives together as a more important priority.
But others argued that the past should be remembered, to serve as a reminder of what happened and to prevent its reoccurrence. A school teacher contributed to the debated by describing a memorial built in a remote village in Bong County called Samay.
A memorial can also assist victims to feel greater level of integration, recognition and acceptance into society; it can convince them of the possibility of non repetition and can combat feelings of isolation and silence. A memorial also seeks to develop an existential conversion by asking, how did such tragedy occur? Why did this happen? And how can we stop it from happening again?
In post-confict Liberia, there are calls at many levels of society to remember the past. At last year’s Independence Day Celebration, Professor Malakpa Sakui, addressed the issue of the past in terms of national symbolism as a crucial aspect of making social advancement in post-war Liberia. In 2007, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf contributed to the debate by closing down two notorious prison centers -- Post Stockade and Belleh Yallah -- to preserve them for future generations. Even alleged warlords speaking before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission despite their public denials and evasiveness about their involvement during the conflict have recognized the urgent need to capture the past and preserve the memory for posterity.
At the unofficial community level, as the actions of the Duport Road residents demonstrate, the process is already underway. The community, on the outskirts of the capital, has transformed these statements and calls into positive action by engaging into creative and constructive efforts to remember the past. The efforts are entirely community-driven, without any outside prompting. The community intends to commemorate in a special way horrific incidents which occurred at two different periods during the brutal civil wars.
Duport Road is a community that suffered the brunt of the Liberian conflict. In 1990, the Charles Taylor-led National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) allegedly arrested, tortured and summarily executed many people perceived to be belonging to a particular ethnic group. Most of the killings were carried out at the end of Duport Road known as the Waterside.
Four years later, the community was attacked again. In December 1994, more than 44 people were massacred, allegedly by forces of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, this time at a location in Duport Road known as the Cow Field. Men, women, children and the elderly were the victims. This place is remembered today as Cow Field Massacre.
Now, 18 years later, the community has decided to take steps beyond the having more dignified burials.
“Too many innocent people died in this community,” one resident said, “and not to remember them is to forget our history. I am new in this community and am not related to anyone who died here but something has to be done. Their spirits must be uneasy and irritated over the continue neglect.”
Duport Road residents have connected with residents in Samay, a town outside of Gbarnga in Bong County that in 2001 erected a monument in memory of community members killed during the civil crisis. The site is now used as a tool to teach children about the dangers and horrors of warfare. This project was entirely self-initiated. Though Duport Road has sought the technical assistance of an international NGO, the International Center for Transitional Justice that has collected global experience in similar projects, its efforts are also completely self-started and led.
The work of Duport Road and that of other communities such as Samay are shining examples of what Liberians can achieve in dealing with their past when they come together to do so constructively and collaboratively. The Duport Road initiative and others that will follow need to be strongly supported by all actors in Liberia community members, the government of Liberia, and the international community as a remarkably useful and important part of Liberia’s reconstruction and peace building effort.