Stories of atrocities dominate accounts of Liberia’s years of civil war, but not a single person has been tried for war crimes in the country’s courts.
And this despite the estimated 250,000 deaths – or about 8% of the population at the time – and the survivors ready to testify on the conflicts from 1989 to 1997 and from 1999 to 2003.
On Tuesday, in an unprecedented move, a war crimes case is due to be heard in the capital, Monrovia. But it will be a Finnish court that will hold an extraordinary session, which will not be part of the Liberian judicial process.
Gibril Massaquoi was residing in Finland when he was arrested in 2020 and is accused of killing civilians, raping and recruiting child soldiers. He denies the charges.
The case, while well received by activists, raises the question of why Liberian courts have failed to take action.
Arthur Bondo is among those who wish to see people tried in his country.
He was recruited as a child soldier – but not by Mr. Massaquoi – in 1990, when he was 15 years old.
He has a vivid memory of the day rebels from the Liberian National Patriotic Front (NPFL) came to his father’s farm in north-central Bong County.
“They slaughtered the pigs we were raising, ordered us to transport them with them and forced us to join them,” he says.
“I have been through a lot of bad things.”
He does not go into more detail. It is clear, however, that he wants a war crimes tribunal to be created “to end impunity”.
Civil war in Liberia
Liberia suffered two episodes of brutal fighting in 1989-1997 and 1999-2003
Charles Taylor led an uprising against President Samuel Doe, who himself seized power in a coup in 1980
Doe was executed in 1990 by a rebel group led by Prince Johnson
Some 250,000 people have been killed in all the fighting
Thousands more have been mutilated and raped
Taylor was elected president in 1997 after a peace deal
The war was reignited in 1999 when two new rebel groups emerged
Taylor resigned and went into exile before a peace deal in 2003
The 46-year-old bears the physical and emotional scars of the conflict and wants to make sure others don’t have to go through the same thing.
He lost an arm during this time and is now the head of a disabled people’s association in Bong County.
“The child soldiers who have been used live in poverty and trauma. If a war crimes tribunal comes to Liberia and people are prosecuted, no one would use child soldiers again.”
“Need for closure”
His comments are echoed by activist Adama Dempster of the Liberia Civil Society Human Rights Platform.
According to him, “a war crimes tribunal would put an end to the victims of the civil war and would also give the victims a possibility of legal reparation”.
The testimony of victims has become a key element in war crimes trials, and the Finnish court will be sitting in Monrovia to hear these witnesses.
Mr Dempster also believes that the lack of legal proceedings and “the failure to remedy past human rights violations during the war” [has led] violation of current human rights “.
It was supposed to be different.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the country’s first post-conflict presidential election, inaugurated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2006 to, in her words, “help the healing process.”
It was a country shattered by war and looking for a way to restore trust among the people.
The TRC was not a tribunal, but was created to identify “the root causes of the conflict, and [determine] those responsible for committing national and international crimes against the Liberian people “.
Its 2009 final report recommended, among other things, the prosecution of certain people, the creation of a special tribunal and the ban of certain persons from public office for 30 years, as well as reparations for the victims.
But the recommendations were immediately mired in political controversy.
Among those who were supposed to be excluded was Ms Johnson Sirleaf herself due to a past connection to a former rebel leader and former President Charles Taylor.
She had admitted that she donated money for a relief operation that ended up in Taylor’s hands and apologized to the commission – but she did not resign.
She was not the only one, and some remain in office today. Other people in positions of authority have been identified for prosecution – including two lawmakers who still sit in parliament.
“The TRC’s recommendations had political implications for members of the government,” said Liberian transitional justice researcher Tennen Dalieh Tehougue.
“A logical reason they didn’t sign a war crimes and economic crimes tribunal, or other measures, is that it would have affected them.”
She also believes that the TRC was a missed opportunity because “it did not provide a platform to speak the truth and the remorse of most of the major actors in the war. Most of them justified their actions. before court hearings “.
“Why a war crimes tribunal now?
The current government, led by President George Weah, who ran unsuccessfully against Ms Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005, has given conflicting messages to a war crimes tribunal.
In 2019, he wrote to Parliament telling it he should advise and provide guidance on the legislation needed to implement the TRC’s recommendations.
But later that year he told reporters that “since we came to power [in 2018]I have not once called for a war crimes tribunal. Why now? When we have economic problems, we try to develop our country, why focus on a war crimes tribunal now? “.
Contacted by the BBC, Information Minister Ledgerhood Rennie said that “any decision of a war crimes tribunal would emanate from the Liberian people through their representatives in the legislature.”
But there does not appear to have been any progress.
Rather than wait, some activists, including the Swiss group Civitas Maxima which works with Liberians and provides information to authorities, have tried to find alternative routes to justice in foreign courts, hence the Finnish trial of Mr. Massaquoi.
In the United States, former warlord Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh was jailed in 2017 for 30 years, convicted of immigration fraud for lying about his past as the leader of a force that committed several murders and acts of cannibalism.
Thomas Woewiyu, who founded the NPFL with Taylor, was also convicted in the United States of immigration fraud in 2018, but died before conviction.
Taylor’s son, “Chuckie” Taylor, was tried as a US citizen in a US court and sentenced to 97 years in 2009 for torturing and killing people while he was head of Liberia’s counterterrorism service.
Taylor himself is in prison, but he has been convicted of crimes related to the conflict in neighboring Sierra Leone.
And Alieu Kosiah – a former commander of a rebel group fighting the NPFL – was tried last year in Switzerland.
Mr. Massaquoi – who is Sierra Leonean – had testified before the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up to investigate war crimes committed in the conflict. He was transferred to Finland in 2008 as part of a witness protection program, which provided immunity for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, but not in Liberia.
The two conflicts were closely linked.
There are Liberians for whom the memories of the fighting are too traumatic and they prefer not to look back.
Godfrey Konnah, now 40, lost his leg after shrapnel from a grenade hit him while on his way to buy bread in Monrovia.
“I don’t like to talk about war, I don’t like to think about it,” he said.
“I’ve evolved whether or not they translate a war crimes tribunal, I’m fine. What God wants to happen would happen.”
But Mr Dempster, who campaigned for a tribunal, believes its creation would give victims hope their concerns could be addressed
He adds that the money would come once the political will is there.
What the trial of Mr. Massaquoi could do is relaunch discussions in the country to finally bring justice to the hundreds of thousands of victims.