Liberia: Why the trials of perpetrators matter to me

Massa Amelia Washington

Sometime in early 1989, I was visiting three of my childhood friends. I was working as a reporter with the Ministry of Information as the only female in the newsroom in Monrovia, Liberia. Together we decided to form an organization that would meet once a month and work with the less fortunate in the Liberian society. We named the organization “Femme Soixante” (women of the ’60s) because we were all born in the 1960s; writes Massa Amelia Washington.

And so, we were hosting Femme Soixante’s first Christmas party on the night of December 24, 1989, at the home of the organization’s President when it was announced on TV that “war” had been declared by dissidents looking to unseat the government of President Samuel Doe. It was the first time any of us in the room had seen the AK-47 rifle, or the Beretta, but it would not be the last.

In fact, we would become engulfed in a war that would last fourteen years and be one of the most brutal ever recorded. A war that swallowed the rest of our youthful years and left in its wake massive destruction of infrastructure, our value systems, our way of life, over 250,000 dead for a country of just 3 million inhabitants, and considerable mental and psychological scars.

As a journalist, I covered the war extensively, reporting from all sides of the conflict on crimes such as cannibalism, rape, gang rape, sodomy, dismemberment, decapitations, floggings, forced labor, and sexual slavery. I witnessed some of the violence first hand. To cite only one example: I was a first responder at the site of the Lutheran Church massacre on the morning of July 29, 1990. The Church served as a center for the internally displaced and early that morning, over seven-hundred people had been either shot or hacked to death by soldiers loyal to President Doe.

I began working with civil society, women’s and youth groups particularly, calling for an end to the carnage. I wanted accountability for the heinous crimes committed because the perpetrators were emerging as the new lords of the land with political power and blood money that allowed them to be appointed or voted into office. I realized that people like me would have to get seriously involved in seeking justice and setting the stage for when Liberians could truly address their problems and forge ahead with hopes of genuine peace and reconciliation.

Another motivating factor behind my advocacy for justice was what happened to my brother, Daniel K. Ajavon. Daniel was my stepbrother, born in 1960. Though the oldest sibling, he was the baby of the family due to his disabilities. Daniel was born deaf and intellectually slow. Prior to the war, Daniel was attending a deaf and dumb mission boarding school and only came home during the holidays. We went to see him regularly on his birthdays and other special occasions. I took it upon myself to look out for him and he became very special to me. Daniel wore his flip-flops with his socks and always needed extra pairs that we provided him with. In spite of not being completely like the others, he was very dear to his family and part of our humanity.

During the First Liberian Civil War, up until 1994, Daniel stayed with us in the capital, when his father decided that Monrovia was no longer safe and wanted Daniel to join him in Gbarnga, where he lived. Not long after he went to Gbarnga with his father, a coalition of warring factions that were fighting Charles Taylor, attacked Gbarnga. ULIMO-K rebels entered Gbarnga first and Daniel, who may have been noticed quickly by the rebels as he did not behave like someone of his age, was cut into pieces. His father, step-mother and their entire household were either hacked or shot to death.

It is difficult to express how we felt when we got the news. My family never talked about Daniel, but I could see that we all grieved privately. It was heartbreaking.

I stayed in Liberia for most of the war, fleeing intermittently for safety to countries in the sub-region and returning to Liberia each time I thought the war was ending. However, following the elections of Charles Taylor as President in 1997 and with his armed group the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), now fully and legally in charge of the whole country, former warlords and rebels were emboldened and ruled the country with iron fists. The offices of the newspaper The Inquirer, of which I was the news editor, were set on fire twice by agents of the government. The arrest, flogging, and imprisonment of journalists were common during this time. In the wake of mounting safety issues, I finally threw in the towel and departed Liberia in 1999. I would return seven years later as a Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), investigating war crimes and making recommendations to ensure that Liberia does not revisit her ugly past.

At some point I travelled to Gbarnga, Bong County, for one week of thematic hearings with the TRC, I tried to locate the place where Daniel might have been killed, in search of his body. Some locals who knew the story well, took me on a dirt highway through a dense forest trail that Daniel and his family took while fleeing the attack. We encountered some skeletal remains scattered about the trail and others along the side of the road. It was impossible to determine whether the remains were Daniel’s. We gathered the bones and buried them in a shallow hole because we did not have proper digging materials and said a prayer for their souls. I returned to Gbarnga and my work at the hearings with thoughts of Daniel resting heavily upon my mind. That night, I dreamt about him: we were kids at home in Monrovia and I was joking with him and he was laughing and nodding his head like he used to.

Nearly thirty years after the outbreak of the war and nine years following the release of the final report of the TRC, nothing has been done locally in Liberia to address the most critical issues. Due to the entrenched culture of impunity, and perhaps Traumatic Bonding mindset of the victims that keep rewarding perpetrators with public office and high-paying jobs, the quest for justice and accountability is colossal. Traumatic Bonding is a psychological counterintuitive variation of the Attachment Theory where victims of abuse or violence developed strong emotional ties to their abusers over time.

The Liberian human rights community is now turning to the international human rights community for assistance. Thus, the wave of arrests and prosecutions of perpetrators in Europe and America signals the inevitable collapse of the culture of impunity in Liberia. Perpetrators of heinous crimes must not be provided with safe havens, anywhere in the world. They must be brought to justice. They must answer for their crimes against our common humanity.

As a long-term advocate of justice for Liberian war victims, I have closely followed the arrests and subsequent prosecutions outside of Liberia of individuals charged with perpetrating and abetting the violence in Liberia. I specifically followed the Mohammed Jabbateh, also known as “Jungle Jabbah,” case because his name, and the stories of violence and atrocities associated with him, were infamous during the war. I learnt it was the “Jungle Jabbah” battalion of ULIMO-K that entered Gbarnga first and that they were ordered to kill any and everybody they came across in Gbarnga. By attending the trials and being in the same room with “Jungle Jabbah,” fate had placed me in the same space with the possible killer of my brother Daniel. Only this time around, he was not this powerful, vicious, uncompromising rebel commander, who assigned upon himself the power of life and death. This time, he was sitting in the witness box as a nobody, powerless and fighting for his freedom.

It was a powerful experience for me. I am glad Mohammed Jabbateh got the opportunity to defend himself in a court of law, so that he learns and understands that there is something called “the Rule of Law,” that gives people a fair trial when they are accused of having done something wrong. I believe that the verdict and subsequent sentence, rendered justice to Daniel and the many other innocent victims murdered during the war.

Through my work for accountability and justice, I give a voice to Daniel and the hundreds of thousands of victims whose voices were silenced. To be mute would be to betray the trust, love, and confidence placed in me by my brother. Silence is an impossibility.

It has been twenty-nine years since my friends and I established Femme Soixante. At the time, our aim was to give back to our society through humanitarian work with the communities. Today, all of us reside in the United States of America. Some of us continue to brave the odds and continue working for a better Liberia. It is my hope that the tireless quest for justice for Daniel and all other victims, supported by organizations like Civitas Maxima and the Global and Justice Research Project, will ensure that young people, particularly women throughout Liberia, will be able to experience a future free of the turmoil of war. Unlike us, they have not had their lives shattered and I hope they will feel safe to dream big, establish their own version of Femme Soixante, help their communities and give back to Liberia.

Massa Amelia Washington is a Liberian journalist, human rights activitst and former commissioner of the Liberia TRC

Courtesy of Civitas Maxima