- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

MONROVIA, Liberia

When former warlord Sekou Conneh testified before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, artist Wilson Fallah grew enraged.

Mr. Fallah, 19, a former child soldier, had earlier traded his AK-47 for paintbrushes and canvas to record scenes of life in postwar Liberia.

But when Mr. Conneh, who led the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), said that he and his former fighters were “liberators,” Mr. Fallah put down his brush and rushed to the Centennial Pavilion in Monrovia, where the commission holds hearings.

“I came to make him tell the truth,” Mr. Fallah said. “When he comes face to face, he can’t lie.”

Mr. Fallah was one of hundreds of angry protesters who tried to mob the hearing on a scorching day last summer and get their hands on Mr. Conneh. The former warlord made a quick escape out the back door, while U.N. peacekeepers held back the crowd with large plastic shields.

The anger reflects pain that continues to surface more than five years after fighting ended.

Liberia, founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, suffered back-to-back civil wars in the 14 years from 1989 to 2003.

Mr. Conneh’s LURD was instrumental in forcing former President Charles Taylor into exile, which marked the end of the second civil war and led to national elections in 2005.

Former World Bank official Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was chosen as Africa’s first female president.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was also established in 2005, is set to disband later this year. It is a public, voluntary hearing that encourages war-affected Liberians and officials who played major roles in the conflict to give testimonies of their experiences.

Hearings have been held both in Liberia and the United States, home to 39,030 documented Liberians, according to the 2000 U.S. census and thousands more illegal-immigrant Liberians.

Although aiming to bring healing and closure, some question whether the TRC process is doing more harm than good. The commission has no power to prosecute.

Mr. Fallah pulled back the sleeve of his brown, tattered T-shirt to show a 3-inch-long scar slashed into the base of his bicep. It was a knife wound.

Who did it?

“Sekou Conneh,” he said.

In Mr. Fallah’s mind, the LURD rebel leader and the men who worked for him are one in the same.

At age 9, Mr. Fallah joined Mr. Taylor’s forces. Known as “Charles Taylor’s Peking,” he received a blessing from a secret society whose members thought they have magic powers.

Amazingly, the bullets never hit Mr. Fallah, even though he was sent to the front lines. During battle, Mr. Fallah didn’t trust the magic, so he would often pray for God’s protection.

He says his faith helped him put down his weapons when the war ended and become an artist.

He now lives the life of a humble painter, working in a small room of a group house near Monrovia’s port. The room, with a mattress on the floor and art covering the walls, doubles as a bedroom and a studio.

Rose Saulwas, 24, is a journalist for the Inquirer newspaper, one of more than a dozen local papers available in the capital.

She’s covered the TRC since it started. Initially, the hearings were packed, but interest has since waned.

“People just assume that everybody lying,” Miss Saulwas says. “So, nobody got time. Everybody just go about their normal business.”

Celia Nyanforth, 35, lived in Monrovia throughout the war. Sometimes she has flashbacks of the gruesome scenes - bodies lying on the road, starving people, brutality and death.

But delivering justice is out of her hands, she said.

“Let them go. Let them go with their guilt. That’s their business,” Miss Nyanforth said. “If I hear somebody lying, I can’t do anything about it. I leave it with God. God is going to judge them for what they did in the past.”

But without justice, some Liberians fear a return to war.

Jamuel Kullie, 23, hopes the TRC will recommend prosecution for some of the warlords. When he was a young boy, fighters tried to recruit him. He was able to avoid fighting, but his brother was killed by a rocket.

“There will be a revenge,” Mr. Kullie said.

Fear that fighting will resume prompted Mulbah K. Morlu Jr. to found the Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in 2006. The organization is petitioning for a war-crimes tribunal in Liberia.

“Every time you postpone the mechanism of justice, there is a successive crisis,” Mr. Morlu said. “We said we are fed up with war now, but … we have a consistent record of going back to war.”

Even if the TRC recommends prosecution of certain warlords, the measure must be approved by Liberia’s national legislature. Mr. Morlu fears “an infusion of warlords” in the legislature will put an end to any prosecution.

Warlord Prince Johnson led the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which captured and executed President Samuel K. Doe. Today, he serves as a senator in the national legislature.

So does Jewell Howard Taylor, the estranged wife of the next president to be overthrown.

A Gallup poll released in December found that 67 percent of Liberians think it is good that Mr. Taylor is on trial at The Hague for crimes committed during Sierra Leone´s protracted war.

Nineteen percent think he should be convicted and sentenced to death. Mr. Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes, including murdering, sexual slavery and abducting children and forcing them to fight.

Mr. Taylor´s son, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., was sentenced Jan. 9 in Miami to 97 years in prison for acts of torture committed during Liberia´s civil war.

Without more prosecutions, the gains a fragile Liberia has made in the last five years easily could be reversed, warned Mr. Morlu, who leads the effort to establish a war-crimes court for Liberia.

Like many Liberians, Mr. Morlu also has a personal appeal for justice. During the war, he lost his parents, twin brother and uncle. His father was beaten to death by a rebel faction. His twin brother was beheaded before his eyes.

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