Lest we forget that hundreds of thousands of Liberians were massacred, killed, and mutilated, that whole families were lined up and executed, blown up, bombed, that whole villages, cities, and towns were burnt to the ground, the dead have returned to help us remember. This should be the time to remember, to reflect that no matter how hard we try to forget, we will have to slow down and remember that for one reason or the other, all the world sat by as hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters were massacred, dumped into mass holes, and forgotten, but we should not forget that it happened.
Liberian news writer, Jonathan Paye-Layleh quotes the chairman of Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Jerome Verdier as saying that “The mass graves that we saw are something the people are living with.” Chairman Verdier goes on to add, “In some places, they have the full names of those who were buried.” Yes, villagers in this part of Loffa County are the custodians of the silent history buried beneath their feet, and have refused to allow these masses of our people to be forgotten.
“The mass graves that we saw are something the people are living with.” What a powerful statement to know that throughout Liberia, survivors have come home to mass graves of sometimes hundreds, maybe someone will discover thousands someday, and who are we to set those perpetrators of this evil free? Who are we to say that Charles Taylor’s crimes committed against humanity only happened to Sierra Leoneans? Who are we to hand over his wealth to him when masses of Liberians who were probably buried alive are being discovered in a nation that is still trying to find a new footing after fourteen years of war? Who are we to set free those who have not even been brought to trial when hundreds of thousands of Liberians will never return home again? Who are we?
I do not like to play around with politics, most specifically, Liberian politics because it can get rotten.
I do not see myself in politics ever because I cannot bear what politics can do to a person when power is given to them, especially, in Africa. But every now and then, the Liberian civil war that is so close to my heart comes up, and my blood boils over with pain. Maybe this is because living through and watching bombs fall and watching people die in my presence or watching my own family starve or watching politicians and warlords destroy Liberia is something that I will never forget.
Therefore, the news today of the discovery of more mass graves, though not surprising to me, reminds me of how we need to dig up the past in order to bury the past, and after burying the past, we can then move on into the future. Until we do that, there is no forgetting.
I often hear people say, “Oh, we need to forget the past- or we need not talk about what happend, oh.” But I will say, we need to talk about the past; we need to dig up the evil past and examine the past, debate the past, be guarded by the past, look at the past so we do not have to repeat its mistakes. There are many other things we may not dig up, like mountains of bones and human skulls that were left in the slaughter jungles of Charles Taylor’s war. They were not buried, and cannot therefore be dug up. Maybe we will discover the skulls and bones of our relatives left in the killing bushes, and then bury them, but they must be reckoned with sooner than later, if you ask me.
The dead do not die in such mass numbers as did Liberians just for us to forget what Liberia’s war lovers did to destroy hundreds of thousands of our people. I am not saying that Liberians should continue to be angry and hateful of those who massacred our people. No. I am saying rather that many among us would rather forget that hundreds of thousands of Liberians died for what little freedom the country has experienced these two years, and because so much blood was shed and because such a high price was paid, we should not forget for one moment.
Hospital workers dig mass graves in this file photo from 2003, when hundreds of people in Monrovia were killed.
I recall the day of the inauguration of our President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the frist female President in Africa. Everyone I know was going crazy about the idea of Africa’s first female president, and not about the end of the bloody warfare. I was surprised that people were trying to politicize a very serious matter that had resulted in this historical event. For me, it was a tearful moment just to know that the horrible war that had eaten away at our hearts was now over, that Charles Taylor was gone even if not forever, and that a new hope was born. That afternoon of the inauguration, I was sitting in my office at Penn State University’s Altoona campus where I teach, when I received a phone call from the BBC producer, Kirsty Pope in London.
BBC wanted to know how I, a Liberian woman and a Liberian poet felt about the great news taking place in my homeland of Liberia, how I wanted to express my opinion about such a great historical moment. “We have been trying to locate you,” Kirsty Pope’s beautiful British accent sounded clear over the phone waves. I was about to attend a workshop on grant proposal making that Penn State’s Associate Vice President of Research and Grant, Bob Killeron was conducting on my campus that day. I was running late, I thought, but a call from the BBC was much more important at that moment, and a call about Liberia’s inauguration after fourteen years of warfare was more important. As a mother, wife, teacher, writer, scholar, driver of teenagers, family cook and line backer, I know how to negotiate my minutes and moments, so I crossed out the workshop which was being conducted by not just my Vice President, but a good friend of mine. Later on, the VP finished his workshop, and was brought over to find me in my office. And even as I went to the door, and told him that I was on the phone with BBC, discussing Liberia after all these years, I felt that my VP was important, but Liberia deserved this one moment on BBC.
Of course, I was happy that after fourteen years of violence, Liberia was at least seeing its first signs of peace. But telling Kirsty Pope or the BBC that I was happy was putting it too simply, and I was not about to do so. The matter at hand was not that simple, and the dead are saying just that once more. My response would need a two page write up, a poem, and time on the radio and then on the internet for about a month. It was not that simple.
I was saddened and happy at the same time. I was saddened that so many Liberians had died just for us to realize this day. I was saddened that an entire nation had been leveled to the ground, and I was saddened that Liberia would never ever be the same again and that Liberians were forever changed by that ugly fourteen-year warfare. I knew that even though I was glad that we now had a new leader, glad that that leader was a woman like myself, I was however grieved that we had allowed warfare to destroy us as a people, and as much as I was hopeful, I knew one thing: that the dead would not rest until we one day decided to give them their proper burial once we found their graves.
For me, that burial is not the burial of individual unburied bones or of masses who were buried in huge invisible graves. For me, burial means that we will not hide the truth or cover up for war criminals or try to protect our friends who are war criminals, but that we would build a nation on transparency, fair play and honesty. Maybe that moment is dawning for us in the Diaspora as well as in the country with this new discovery.
And to me, not forgetting means that those who are now the new leaders take heed, listen, and refrain from the news now coming out of the country, the news of new corruption deals and new contracts. The discovery of the first set of mass graves is only the beginning of things to come, and if anything, we need to take account and be accountable to the world so that the violence we saw for fourteen years never happens again.
Yes, Liberians were buried alive by Samuel Kanyon Doe and his soldiers, massacred and buried alive by Charles Taylor’s rebels, by Prince Johnson’s soldiers, and by several other Liberian war lords and warriors, some of whom are serving today as officials of government. Those statement takers for the LT RC in Liberia and in the Diaspora are doing a good job, but after all is uncovered, there should follow the necessary action so those who must be prosecuted will face prosecution. Those who must be pardoned are pardoned, and those who need to give back monies from the war gains, will return the money to our country. The dead who were crowded into graves dug by greedy warlords are making their voices heard if we the living cannot do it for them.
Maybe some would love to forget that Charles Taylor and his rebels/soldiers along with their opposing enemies killed Liberians in mass numbers and buried them in mass graves across our country. Today, Charles Taylor has not yet been charged by Liberia, by the United Nations or by anyone for the crimes he committed against Liberians. Today, he sits in a beautiful jail, having of his own desire, postponed his trial for another year. And today, Liberia is discovering just a few of the many mass graves of Liberians that were massacred in that bloody war.
Is it any wonder that government officials and Human Rights Investigators have discovered mass graves in villages in Loffa County? Is it any wonder that the smallest of the graves contains 78 bodies and one of the largest, 500 bodies? But this is the beginning of the digging, the beginning of the search for the ugly past of an ugly war that we would all love to forget, to cover up, to put behind us as we go on with our new future. But as the Africans believe, “The dead are not really dead.” The dead will come back to haunt us if we do not stop to dig up those masses of innocent civilians that were massacred by ugly warlords and government zealots. We would like to pretend that we did not know that these things did happen.
I lived in Liberia those first two horrible years of the war. I read stories of people being loaded on to trucks and dumped somewhere by government, read of Charles Taylor’s men who burnt down whole towns and killed whole villages as they overran the country in their fight to take Liberia.
Yes, this is a good thing that the mass graves are being brought to the light. Those who were dumped in invisible mass graves were people with names, and we must remember that. There are many more graves to discover; we must never forget that.
Finding My Family
Good friend, please help me
Did you happen to see
two boys when you lived in Kataka?
One dark, chubby?
The other, light with dark eyes?
did you see them while you lived in Ganta?
One would have been ten
and the other this tall.
My big boy, Nyema, the small one, Doeteh.
Good friend, can you tell me
if they went to Tapeta?
Were they given weapons, did they kill?
Good friend, can you say
if they walked to Bassa?
Did they starve to death?
Good friend, can you say
if there was a mother walking by their side?
Was she healthy? was she treated well?
Oh, good friend, so this is where
they took them out of line?
Good friend, were they hungry
when they met their end?
Oh, good friend, I will follow
to wrap up their bones.
Thank you, good friend
But how will I know their bones?
—–By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Taken from Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa)