- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) | More than 5,500 miles from Liberia, those who fled the war-ravaged West African nation years ago will get the chance to tell their stories this week to the country’s truth commission.

Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian community in the United States, numbering more than 20,000. Other exiles are expected to come from Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York City and Providence, R.I.

Public hearings by the commission designed to document wartime atrocities were scheduled to begin Tuesday at Hamline University and continue through Saturday.

“Liberians in the diaspora have always had a burning desire for change back home,” said Jerome Verdier, chairman of the nine-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. “It’s a significant voice we think should not be overlooked.”

The violence in Liberia, which was founded in 1847 to resettle freed American slaves, started in 1979 when government security forces killed dozens during riots over the price of food. A bloody coup toppling the presidency of William R. Tolbert Jr. followed a year later. In 1989, rebels led by warlord Charles Taylor invaded, setting off another civil war that ended 14 years later when Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria.

He is now being prosecuted on war-crimes charges in The Hague, in the Netherlands, in connection with a rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Mr. Verdier said 97 percent of Liberia’s population was displaced at some point during the years of violence. Most who could get out left. Many refugees ended up in Minnesota and in pockets along the East Coast.

The commission already has taken statements from more than 1,000 Liberians in the United States, United Kingdom and Ghana since starting its work in 2006, said Jennifer Prestholdt of Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis-based organization coordinating contact with Liberians who left their homeland.

About 30 Liberian refugees who live in the U.S. are expected to testify this week.

The commission aims for a full accounting of wartime atrocities. It doesn’t have the power to charge perpetrators with crimes, but it can recommend prosecutions, reparations and policy changes to the Liberian government. Mr. Verdier said the ultimate goal is to prepare the ground for a lasting peace.

In Minnesota, Mr. Verdier said, he expects to hear about the early years of conflict, when many of the refugees here left Liberia. Hearings in Liberia have centered on the violence from 1990 to 2003, which is fresher in people’s minds there.

The Rev. James N. Wilson II, an Episcopal priest who left Liberia in 1997 and now lives in Brooklyn Park, Minn., said he looks to the commission to bring peace and reconciliation to his homeland. He said he plans to attend several of the sessions this week.

“The hearing means a lot to me personally,” Mr. Wilson said. “It means a lot for us as a nation, because it provides an excellent opportunity for us to be part of the history.”

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