Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Monday, April 30, 2012

"One man's terrorist is another man's war hero": A Look at Charles Taylor

The moment I heard the announcement of the verdict for Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia who was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone throughout the 1990's,  my mind went straight to a conversation I had with  Benjamin Geedah,one of Taylor's former fighters, in the fall of 2010.  I interviewed Benjamin at a friend's home in the Peace Island community of Monrovia. Peace Island, interestingly enough, was a community created by Liberia's civil war, with close to 20,000 internally displaced people gathering there and living as squatters on what was considered private government land. Benjamin is one of many former fighters who landed here, being unable or unwilling to return to their home village for fear of almost certain rejection by their family and community because of the sins they committed during the war.

Benjamin Geedah was 14 years old and in the 7th grade at a mission school in May of 1990 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, came to his home village in Rivercess County. He recalled that it was a Sunday morning and he and his friend were walking to get some food. The rebels attacked his village and caught them. They demanded the 2 boys to take them to their homes to provide them with food. As the men were helping themselves to his family's food, Benjamin's friend stood up, in his own kitchen, and a soldier shot him dead on the spot. For showing disrespect to their authority. The rebels asked Benjamin to carry the boy to a field and bury him. He did, and he recalled to me shaking with fear that he might suffer the same fate as his friend. So he went directly to the chief of his village, and asked the chief to take him to the commander of the rebels, whose fighting name he remembers as General Noriega,  and offer him up as their son. And that is how Benjamin Geedah became a child soldier.

He told me how he was trained to fight on the same field where he dug a grave for his friend. His training was brief. The NPFL had advanced rapidly across Liberia since they entered the country from the eastern border with Cote D'Ivoire on Christmas Eve 1989. At the beginning of the rebellion, Charles Taylor had the support of many influential Liberians living in the United States, among them the current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who wanted to see the disastrous regime of President Samuel Doe come to an end. He quickly garnered the support of many civilians in Nimba County, his entry point into Liberia, where most people were of Gio and Mano descent, the two tribes who had been brutally targeted for retribution by President Doe after one of their own, General Thomas Quiwonkpa, had tried to overthrow him in a failed coup attempt in 1985. By May, the NPFL had crossed the country to its western coastline, and by July they would make it to the outskirts of the capital city. As they marched across the country to the capital, they looted, raped and killed many innocent civilians along the way. Within a year of his revolutionary entrance into Liberia, Taylor lost most of his US-based supporters as news of the egregious human rights abuses of his troops began to come out. Benjamin Geedah remembers the scene being the same in many villages that he and his fellow rebel fighters entered, the same brutal routine carried out when the rebels entered his own village. They would take young women and rape them in front of their parents, an act that instantly cut the girl off from her family so that she would be forced to be a soldier's wife. Taylor's army operated on a "pay yourself" basis. Any food, water, supplies that were needed were taken from the citizens of the villages they entered. Any refusal to comply was met with a bullet to the head.

Benjamin himself saw action on the front lines for the first time in July of 1990. He was fourteen years old. He was part of an attack on Sinoe, which his troops successfully captured. In the spring and summer of 1990, the NPFL took hold of huge swathes of the countryside, including Grand Gedeh and Grand Kru,  the base of President Doe's support, all the way to the southernmost part of the country, the town of Harper in Maryland County. But the grand prize,Monrovia and President Doe, were not to be theirs. The INPFL, an offshoot of the NPFL led by Prince Johnson from Nimba County, took hold of key parts of Monrovia and on September 9, 1990 Prince Johnson and a group of his fighters found President Doe at the headquarters of ECOMOG, a regional peace-keeping force that had recently landed, captured him and then videotaped his brutal torture and death at their hands. Even though the President was dead, and Taylor's forces had control of much of the country, Taylor had fallen from grace with the international community and had missed his chance at grabbing the ultimate position of power at that time. A peace plan had already been drawn up several months before by ECOWAS, a group of West African nation-states, and agreed upon by other factions and civil society groups within Liberia,  that formed a new government called the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU).  This body proved to be fairly impotent, but was held in power by the presence of ECOMOG, the peacekeeping force that represented ECOWAS' interests. ECOMOG managed to drive the NPFL back, but Taylor has never been one to admit defeat. By the end of 1990, Taylor had set up his own government, the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in Gbarnga, a town situated in Bong County,  the heart of the interior.  While this government was not recognized by any international body officially, the reality was that the official government of the land, the IGNU, only held sway over the capital city. Outside Monrovia, Taylor ruled as king over what became known as "Greater Liberia".

"Greater Liberia" was actually an overwhelming testament to the genius and charisma of Taylor, and it provided him with many business contacts which he nurtured throughout those years and then used to full advantage to help fund the war in neighboring Sierra Leone through his infamous diamonds-for-guns schemes. Liberia is a tiny country, but it is abundantly rich in natural resources, most notably iron ore and timber. Taylor exploited both resources to the fullest by making deals with international investors and corporations to come in and extract these riches. His NPRAG and his own pockets got a handsome cut of those profits.  British journalist Colin Waugh writes in his book Charles Taylor and Liberia that "During the period of NPFL control of the commodity economy of Liberia from 1990 to 1993, the estimated value of timber, diamonds, rubber, iron ore, and other commodity businesses ran into hundreds of millions of dollars. Accordingly, it has been estimated that the taxes that Taylor's government was able to levy on this trade could easily have exceeded $75 million annually." That is a whole lot of loot, and most of it went to Taylor and his cronies directly. He did , however, offer generous gestures to his constituents, such as the move to  establish a minimum wage of $2 a day, which was more than what workers had been receiving before. It was actions like these that kept him popular amongst a large portion of Liberians.

While there was some semblance of order in Greater Liberia during those years, the NPFL was ever-present and ready to resort to violence when threatened or challenged by either the local population, other fighting factions, or ECOMOG. And they often did. Benjamin Geedah recalled to me that he was based in Totota, Bong County, as part of the force called on to establish and maintain order in Greater Liberia. There he was trained in explosives and became a bomb specialist. He was sent to Cape Mount in the northern part of the country to do battle against a new faction called ULIMO. As Benjamin got older, he was given more responsibility and he proudly recalled to me his excitement at being made a commander of a group of child soldiers close to Taylor, which became known as the Small Boys Units. The day I interviewed Geedah, he brought 3 of these now young men with him.  One of the young men, Innis Glaywano, proudly shared with me his fighting name, Killer 1. He was given that name when he was 10 years old. These young boys spent most of their time guarding Taylor at his compound and affectionately referred to him as "Papay".

"Papay" Taylor lost more and more territory as the controversial ECOMOG force gained ground, but often in a violent manner. ECOMOG was far from a neutral force, supplying rival factions with arms to help bring down Taylor, and bombing and looting indiscriminately, often harming and killing civilians. In late 1993, a peace accord was signed that set up a Council of State as government, with the various faction leaders sharing power, followed by a turbulent 3 years with several broken agreements and ceasefires, until 1996,  when another peace agreement was signed which provided for democratic elections for the first time since 1971.

When Charles Taylor was elected as President in July of 1997, by the very people that he had waged a rapacious war against for the better part of 7 years, the international community was stunned. It still baffles historians and journalists who look at the situation from the outside. It baffles me. One of his slogans was "He killed my ma, He killed my pa, but I will vote for him." There are many theories and many opinions, even amongst Liberians themselves, as to why the people voted for Taylor. You have to remember that the election came at the close of 7 war-ravaged years, which saw close to 250,000 Liberians killed, and 1 million more flee to neighboring countries or other areas as refugees. A little over 600,000 people voted in the election, and it would seem that while they were also greatly affected by the war, those who were able to vote were those who had survived with the greater part of their lives still intact. You could also point to the fact that Taylor owned one of two radio stations that still had broadcast reach through out the country, and radio is the primary means of media consumption and therefore influence for rural Africa. You could also point to the improvements that Taylor made in agriculture, the jobs that he created by reviving extraction industries, and the wages that he established while he was in control of Greater Liberia. Journalists and historians have also theorized that Taylor seemed the best alternative in a country filled with power-hungry and blood-thirsty warlords who had raped and pillaged the country at will for the last 7 years. If he was elected, there might be an end to the fighting because someone had finally WON. If you ask Liberians on the street, you would probably hear all of these things. When I asked Benjamin Geedah, I realized that notwithstanding all these arguments and opinions, the reality was that some people still genuinely loved, admired,and supported Taylor.

Benjamin described to me how the personality of Charles Taylor was magnetic. He could make anyone believe anything, make people believe that HE would find a solution to their problems and that HE was on their side. He was magnanimous toward his constituents, especially the young men that he brought into his fighting force, the ones who affectionately called him "Papay". He promised them many things. He would spin grand tales for them about the spoils of war, the power they would have and the material things they would gain when they finally won control over the country. He promised them handsome compensation for all the sacrifices they had made for him over the years. For Geedah, that dream came shattering down several years after Taylor became president. None of the promises that Taylor seduced him with were fulfilled. Not one. Geedah and the other former fighters knew that Taylor had the means now to give them what he had promised, but as Benjamin recalls, they were forgotten. In Geedah's own words, they were used as "mechanisms" in war. They were used to help Taylor get what he was after, then they were cast aside. But what baffled me was what Geedah said next when I asked him how he felt about Taylor now. "If Charles Taylor came back to Liberia today and asked me to fight for him, I would do it." "Even though you understand now that he used you?", I asked. "Yes,  I will remain loyal to him. Your ma is your ma no matter what." A chill came over me as I realized he meant it. Killer 1 and the other young men nodded in agreement. This was not grandstanding or boasting just to shock an American.

For Benjamin Geedah and the young men that fought with him in the NPFL, even though they felt used and forgotten by Taylor, what came next for them was no better. The improvement, the rebuilding, the new vision that was promised to them when the war ended in 2003 and then again when current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005, has not affected them at all. If they were forgotten by Taylor when he ascended to power in 1997, they feel that they were branded as outcasts after Taylor left power in 2003. Life has not been kind to them since. They live in a community that , as of 2011, had only two hand pumps available for water for 20,000 people to share. When I visited, there was one public school in the community, and its exterior walls were made from woven mats, a structure that surely would not withstand the brutal rainy season. The Peace Island community was not recognized by the government at all until President Sirleaf's visit in 2011, where her promises of better schools and sanitation services were seen as an election stunt and felt more like a slap in the face. To be fair, the task of rebuilding a country that was completely destroyed by 14 years of war and 9 years of destructive mismanagement before that is enormous, and one that will not be completed in one or two terms. From the outside, it is easy for someone like me to see the good that President Sirleaf has done for the country. But when you fought for Charles Taylor, never received any compensation for your sacrifices, and now live in Peace Island,where your children have no school to attend and your wife has to guess which days she will be able to get water, change cannot come fast enough. It is hard to be patient.

Another reason Taylor still has some supporters in Liberia is because Liberians are the most forgiving people I have ever met, or as some more cynical people have suggested, Liberians suffer from an "amnesia" that allows them to brush over crimes that were committed during the war and affords corrupt and brutal warlords a measure of impunity they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. In truth, it is probably a little of both.  At the end of the second war in 2003, fighters that only days before had been raining mortar on each other, were hugging and giving each other high fives, celebrating that the war was finally over and Taylor had left the country. Former warlords, such as Prince Johnson,  and even Taylor's ex-wife Jewel, who allegedly had a hand in many of his illegal business deals, now serve as democratically elected senators in the national legislative body.  The country did establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to bring perpetrators and victims together and seek justice and restitution for atrocities committed during the war. Some rebel generals, including my good friend Joshua Blayhi, went before the commission and were blatantly honest about the breadth of the crimes they committed. The TRC took that into consideration and also their remorse and contribution to Liberian society since and , in the case of Joshua, recommended complete amnesty. In many of these cases, there was also reconciliation and restitution with the victims. This is the Liberian spirit of forgiveness at its best.

Other warlords and faction leaders ignored the summons of the TRC or tried to manipulate the details about the crimes they committed, and some of these leaders were recommended for further prosecution. There has been much debate over the arbitrariness of these recommendations, since even the current President Sirleaf was recommended for prosecution and to be banned from public office, though her early support of Taylor was dropped and her contributions to rebuilding and reconciliation have been great. However, it all seems to be a moot point now as almost three years have gone by since the release of the TRC report and no steps have been taken to implement any of the findings. This is the Liberian spirit of amnesia at its worst.

It now seems that the only Liberian war criminal that will ever be brought to justice is Charles Taylor. His conviction last Thursday by the Special Court for Sierra Leone was for war crimes and atrocities that he perpetrated against the people of Sierra Leone, in their separate war that ran parallel to Liberia's horror. He was found to have aided the RUF rebels in committing serious war crimes such as murder, rape, and use of child soldiers. Much evidence was provided that he smuggled diamonds that the RUF mined in Sierra Leone through Liberia to sell on the international market, and then used the profits to provide arms, logistical support, training, and safe houses for the rebels.  Records of exports to Belgium from the years in question show that Liberia was exporting close to 6 million carats of diamonds annually, when its own mines could only produce at best 200, 000 carats. There was never any question really as to whether grave atrocities were committed in Sierra Leone, or as to whether conflict diamonds were illegally smuggled through Liberia and sold on the international market. The role of the Special Court was to decide if Charles Taylor was the main party responsible for the commission of these crimes. In determining that Taylor was guilty of playing a huge role in funding and aiding the RUF, but not guilty of being solely responsible, it seems like a fair verdict was handed down for his role in Sierra Leone. 

His conviction, however,  has nothing to do with events in Liberia, so it doesn't bring a sense of justice to Liberians or offer them any form of restitution. His crimes against the Liberian people will never be prosecuted, and many Liberians are okay with that. Call it amnesia, call it forgiveness, they just want to move on.  A restaurant owner in Monrovia commented to the BBC's Focus on Africa program, "What can we say about what happened in Sierra Leone and the court's decision? It does not concern us." Helene Cooper, a New York Times reporter and native Liberian, wrote in an article that hit the presses the same day the verdict was announced that she is just resigned  to the hope that history will remember what Taylor did to Liberia as well. The ambivalence about the verdict or the mixed emotions that many Liberians feel are understandable. However, in Sierra Leone there were reports of thousands of people cheering, of the amputee victims of the RUF saying that this guilty judgement brought a sense of closure to their years of horror. Not only did the guilty judgement bring closure to a horrific chapter in Sierra Leone's history, it opened a new chapter in the annals of international justice. Taylor is the first African head of state to ever be convicted, and many supporters of the International Criminal Court and other justice tribunals hope that this sends a message to other warlords and would-be tyrants that impunity will not be a foregone conclusion anymore.

While I welcome the guilty verdict of Charles Taylor, I do wonder if our definition of justice needs to be expanded. Conviction and punishment for a warlord , while bringing a measure of  closure to his victims, will not really do much else to improve their daily standard of living. It does not help a war-ravaged country rebuild. It will not give an amputee his arms back. It will not give a woman her virginity back. True justice will include punishment for the perpetrators, and restitution for the victims in the form of empowering them in concrete ways to rebuild their lives and communities. True justice will include job training for amputees, funding and support for local disarmament programs, education for ex-combatants, counseling for victims of rape and sexual abuse. These are the steps in the staircase that lead to the countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone rebuilding themselves and pressing on to a brighter vision for  tomorrow. Maybe then, men like Benjamin Geedah and Killer 1 will see some of their long-awaited promises fulfilled, not by a power-hungry warlord, but by their own hard work and a society that gives them the opportunities and tools to flourish.

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