For two years, hundreds of volunteers from Minnesota and other states have worked to get the full story behind Liberia’s bloody civil war.
In private sessions — so emotional that counselors stood by to help with the trauma and healing — they listened while Liberians who had fled the conflict poured forth their painful stories of rape, murder and torture.
Now, an unprecedented public phase of that inquiry begins this week in St. Paul. It is historic in that it is the first time the formal process known as Truth and Reconciliation has been staged half a world away from the scene of the conflict, according to The Advocates for Human Rights, which has coordinated the U.S. arm of the inquiry from its offices in Minneapolis.
Truth and Reconciliation commissioners from Liberia will preside over public hearings at Hamline University from June 10-15. Liberians from across the United States have been invited to tell their war stories and contribute recommendations for how their West African nation should deal with the aftermath.
It is the culmination of a process that started with Ahmed Sirleaf II telling the traumatic story of what happened to his family in Liberia. In the first private statement given to trained volunteers, Sirleaf told about the slaughter of his three brothers and two sisters as well as dear cousins and friends.
“I told their stories and gave them voice,” said Sirleaf, who now works for the Advocates. “I told about my own experiences as a young person who got caught up in the war, separated from my parents and ended up in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.”
Like Sirleaf, thousands of war survivors eventually found their way to Minnesota. Along with emotional baggage, they carried the history of that awful war. Now the history is housed, story by story, in apartment complexes in Brooklyn Park, bungalows in Brooklyn Center and a scattering of residences across the Twin Cities and across America.
What started as a local project in 2006 has grown into an ambitious international quest, with teams of volunteers from Minnesota training others to take statements in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and several other American cities as well as in the United Kingdom. Dozens of them have travelled to Liberia and Ghana.
Many of the volunteers are attorneys, like Dulce Foster of the law firm Fredrikson & Byron. She’s lost track of the hours she spent on the project, but it’s hundreds for sure.
Several major Minnesota-based law firms are helping The Advocates and local Liberian organizations with the project. It is one of the largest pro bono efforts ever coordinated by lawyers in the Twin Cities, Foster said.
It is more than a civic duty for Foster.
She found herself absorbed in “an incredibly compelling story” that isn’t well known by most Americans. It’s a story Americans needs to hear, Foster said, because the histories of the two nations are intricately intertwined.
Liberia was settled by freed American slaves who no longer were welcome in this country. Beginning with a coup in 1980, tension had smoldered until bloodshed erupted in 1989 when the warlord Charles Taylor gathered an army of boys and men to rise against the government.
The waves of fighting that followed sparked almost unbelievable brutality — mass rapes, forced conscription of thousands of child soldiers, innocent civilians burned or buried alive, unborn babies cut from their mothers’ wombs in tribal revenge.
Taylor was elected president in 1997, but that brought no peace. He battled an armed rebellion until he stepped down in 2003 and left the country shattered by almost every measure.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was sanctioned as part of a peace agreement in 2003, making Liberia one of about 30 countries that have followed the example South Africa set when apartheid ended. The commission’s mandate is to investigate gross human rights violations, war crimes and economic crimes. It also is to draw out victims and perpetrators in order to create a record and facilitate reconciliation where it is deemed appropriate.
The commission has no authority to prosecute wrongdoers. That would be up to the Liberian government.
Since the commission officially opened for business two years ago, it has taken more than 25,000 statements from Liberians around the world, Sirleaf said. That process will continue through the end of this year when the work of compiling reports begins.
Public hearings have been held in Liberia, but the one in St. Paul this week is the only one scheduled for the United States.
The process has been intensely controversial. Taylor is charged with war crimes for his role in conflict in Sierra Leone, and a trial is underway in The Hague, in the Netherlands. Many Liberians wanted their new government to follow Sierra Leone into speedier prosecutions.
Further, while the commission systematically gathers information, some former warlords have taken positions in the new government.
One reason wounds are still raw and passions run hot in Minnesota is that Liberians representing the many sides of the conflicts now live here.
“People who did horrible things live here. People who are victims live here,” Sirleaf said. “Some of them have been direct players in the conflict, combatants themselves.”
Others cannot forgive the slaughter of loved ones. They worry the commission eventually will reach let-bygones-be-bygones conclusions.
Foster responds to criticism by explaining that the process is a first step toward any action the evidence might warrant.
“I tell people this is your opportunity to be heard, to have your story become part of the record,” she said.
The full historic magnitude of the process hit Foster last year when she travelled to Liberia and saw almost heroic efforts to pull out the evidence village by village.
“Here we might go to an apartment complex to take statements,” she said. “There, they are walking through the bush with no roads. When they finally arrive in a town, they ask to see the chief and ask if they can sleep on somebody’s floor for a couple of weeks.”
One group of statement takers found a village completely abandoned.
“Somebody had seen them coming and thought they might be rebels,” she said.
The work also took Sirleaf home for the first time since he fled Monrovia in 1990. The first trip was emotional, but “scary” too, he said.
“I hadn’t seen my mother since six months before I left,” he said.
He had been living as a student in Monrovia when warring factions cut off roads to his hometown. So he fled toward the Sierra Leone border, as did millions of other Liberians who have described a nightmare of a journey — trudging corpse-strewn roads and dodging ambushes by gangs of machine-gun toting child soldiers.
Sirleaf missed the chance to grieve with his family over their losses. He was grateful to finally see his loved ones, but he was heartbroken over the sight of his hometown in utter ruin.
“Somebody had to tell me where I used to live,” he said. “I couldn’t recognize it.”
On the other hand, Sirleaf expressed immense pride in the work of bringing justice and healing to Liberia. If the commission fulfills his hopes, he will have played a role in far-reaching change and reform.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Sirleaf said.