WAR IS A TERRIBLE THING TO KNOW- WAR IS THE CRUELEST OF ALL HUMAN WICKEDNESS
Members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia:
THEY HAVE A SACRED CHARGE, A SACRED BURDEN, AND A SACRED RESPONSIBILITY TO CARRY OUR STORIES TO WHERE THEY NEED TO BE SO THAT JUSTICE IS RESTORED TO LIBERIANS AND LIBERIA.
I was among a few Liberian immigrants living in the Diaspora who were invited to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Hearings in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was extended the invitation by The Advocates for Human Rights based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At first, I did not feel like flying all the way from Pennsylvania to Saint Paul to tell the story of what I saw in that bloody Liberian civil war. I did not want to relive my story, to speak to the tortures my family and I experienced, to talk about the many near death experiences we underwent as a group or the personal tortures I experienced. I felt that my story had already been told by others or by myself, in my own writing and speeches, but something made me to take the ticket offered me by the Advocates, to fly out there and be with fellow Liberians who had their stories to tell. After all, I had a connection to this state and to those who had extended the invitation to me. Two years ago, I spent a week in Minneapolis also taking statements for my own research on Liberian women’s trauma stories, and I am on my way to Africa to collect more statements. So, I needed to go. I then packed up my bags, being an avid traveler, I boarded a plane in Pittsburgh, and flew to the Twin City.
The hearings began on the 10th of June, a day after the opening ceremony. I was too busy to be there the whole time, so I made plans on arriving two days later.
I arrived on the 12th, the hot midwestern sun glaring in my eyes as my escort picked me up from the airport. She was a young Russian immigrant who had volunteered like dozens of others in the area to help facilitate this beautiful and sad gathering of these Liberians who had been driven from their own homelands by their own brothers and sisters.
I was to live with Aviva, the President of the Advocates for Human Rights Board of Directors. She was an angel to live with, a grandmother and mother of four. But the matter at hand was going to be a tough one for all of us, I quickly realized.
By 4 pm, I was sitting in the huge auditorium at Hamline University where eight commissioners from my country sat as if in a court room, listening to one story after the other. They had been appointed to hear the sad and horrific stories of the bloody years of our nation, and anyone could see that the stories had taken something out of them.
There they sat, in a long row, listening to ugly stories of massacres, of rapes, of babies being smashed against the walls, of pregnant women who were split open to speed them to their deaths, of starvation of both the once rich and the poor, listening to both the perpetrators of the human rights abuses as well as to the victims, some of us still weeping after all these years. It was not long when I too, began to weep in the audience. The stories were too overwhelming, too fresh even after these many years, too familiar, too hard to racall, and too far away from the places where these horrific things had happened to us.
This was indeed, historical. We were here. But many more Liberians should have been here to hear their own stories, to support those whose stories were too heavy to carry alone. The auditorium was filled, especially, in the noon hours, but there were still seats available. We needed to fill the room, but we did not. The Truth Commission of Liberia was here in the US to hear the stories of human rights abuses and torture for the first time. The Advocates for Human Rights in Minnesota had done us a great favor of giving those of us so far way from home a voice just as others in Liberia who had their chance of telling.
Where was the world when these things were happening to us? Where was the world when we were being tortured? Where were the cameras, the sympathizers, the world? These are questions that kept coming back to me as I sat and listened. Fortunately, the hidden stories were coming out for the first time today, I thought.
But the stories continued. The commissioners were all Liberians, familiar, eight of them, their Liberian accent coming alive with questions. They probed and probed both the victims and the perpetrators. They sympathized with everyone. After all, even the perpetrators had their own sad stories. i was there when the former Advisor to Liberia’s President, Samuel Doe, Mr. Bai Gbala testified. I was angry when he did because he was jesting and teasing, mocking us for all we had suffered, and distorted all of the historical events we had lived. He had not changed even after all the years and the blood shed. He was not sorry at all that so many of our people had died, and when the commissioners questioned him, he was not remorseful. I was left with the feelings that this would not be a serious occasion, but then, the questions got harder. I was especially proud of Councilor Pearle Brown-Bull who drilled the questions in for Mr. Gbala. He was the advisor during the years that President Samuel Doe massacred so many Liberians, but Mr. Gbala claimed that he did not see any of the killings and that he does not remember Mr. Doe doing any evil during his years advising the President.
The room was often tense. People were either too sad or two angry as the testimonies came and the statement givers departed for more horrific telling to continue. The commissioners took their turns every now and then, leaving the room for a quick break. They seemed to be so sad up there, sometimes, almost weepy. I pitied all of them. How could any group of people just sit there and listen to all of these mind troubling stories? How had they survived traveling through all of our counties, listening to such horrifying details of massacres, of the burial of people alive, of the dumping of whole truck loads of people into rivers, the burning down of whole towns? How had all of this happened without the world stopping this in what we call a civilized world? How had the world sat by and allowed our people to die so violently?
As I sat there the next day, listening to more stories, gathering my own strength for the moment when I too, would be on the stand to tell my story, I remembered how as refugees during the war, we had asked the same questions we are still asking today. How had this happened to us?
That day of my sharing my own story was one of the most solemn of all the days, someone told me. There were way too many heavy stories to tell that day. Marie V, a lady I had interviewed two years earlier took the stand before me. She testified and then another lady who had seen so many tortured to their deaths, seen a major massacre in Harbel, took the stand before I took the stand. But when Marie was speaking, I broke down and left the hall. I had interviewed Marie and knew her story very well. She had been raped, tied up to die, tortured in so many ways, and yet she was strong, as two years earlier, strong and brave, her voice sharp and clear, and her tears controlled. It was the audience that wept. But when she was done, then the tears came down.
Another time that I left the room was the morning of the 13th. A young Muslim man whose family was killed by rebels, Ali Sylla, took the stand. At first, I told myself that I would not leave the room, that i would not weep this time. And then he said something about losing his siblings during the rebel take over, soon after his father and two brothers had been executed. “When I came back, my siblings were not there,” he said, and even he was weeping just saying that. I could not help myself then. I broke down, and left the room.
In the afternoon, soon after the break, I came on. I followed the young woman who had such a brave story, such a brave story. She must have been so young when she experienced the brutality she was now recounting. I came on, knowing that i would not tell my whole story. I felt that my story could not be told on that stage, could not be spilled out yet. I felt that I would summarize my own sad story, would talk about how the torture of women affected me in the refugee camps, how the use of children as soldiers affected me, and how I lost some of my family. I gave two stories that continue to haunt me, the story of my brother’s execution and another story. I broke down a few times as I told my story. I could not tell all. I was not such a brave person. One is taken back into the war just by reliving the story, and yet, one gains a sense of control and power just to recall the names of the horrible murderers who killed our people.
WAR IS A TERRIBLE THING TO LIVE WITH EVEN AFTER IT HAS ENDED- WAR IS A TERRIBLE REALITY TO FORGET!
Counselors and lawyers were on hand to assist anyone who needed them. The Advocates for Human Rights had set up everything to perfection, with security for everyone, privacy for those who needed to testify in seclusion, courtroom recorders on hand, typing away for hours, camera men and women zooming in, and the stories heartbreaking. Each day, I would drive home with Aviva with a deep cry buried inside of me. I came away from each meeting as though I had been to a Grebo Mat or a Grebo burial ritual. One was in the sad zone just sitting through one recounting of the experience. Had I not experienced the war for myself, I may have used some of the Psychiatrists on call. But I laughed with tears in my eyes as the social worker tried to tell me how much help she could give me if I needed help.
I had carried the stories inside of me for nearly twenty years. Yes, I had cried over the years, and I promised her that I would cry again over and over. But I know that telling the stories gives life to those who died senselessly. When one of the women concluded her session by asking the commissioners to explain to her “if your son has a car and gives it to a driver to operate, and that driver crashes the car and people die as a result, do you think that it is right to kill the owner of the car just because it is his car,” I knew that she had done what the perpetrators of our war said would never happen for such a woman. She had lost her only son to execution by Charles Taylor’s rebels simply because his car had been crashed by a driver. Taylor’s rebels decided they would kill the owner of the car who was not even present when the accident occurred. His mother who did not speak any English, speaking in her native language interpreted by another man, looked squarely at the commissioners and asked more than once, “Would you order the killing of such a young man just because he owned the car that crashed?”
This was certainly one of the most enriching, most solemn, most worthy, and most necessary experiences of my life. I felt validated just as many of my friends. My friend, Doris Parker and I had time to weep together and console each other. You can know someone for years, and never cry with them because you are all too hard to just sit and weep over the killing of your families or over the torture of your families. But when Doris told her sibling’s story, one could not help but feel the pain.
All of the commissioners, including John Stewart, who went to college with me, are some of the bravest in our world today. I admire them, and applaud them. My favorite among them is Pearle Brown-Bull, a strong and outspoken woman, who is not afraid to ask the tough questions. All of the commissioners are wonderful, but each brings something special to the table. Some are lawyers, others like Massa Washington, are journalists. Each of them has a unique way of drawing answers from the person on the stand.
After I had testified and was in the waiting room, one of the cameramen came to me and said that he had observed every one of the proceedings from the first day, and that during my time on stage was the only time he saw Councilor Brown-Bull connect in a warm way to anyone. He thought that i was lucky to find her bonding with me. He was there when the Commissioner gave me a note with her contact information, and was of course warm towards me and my tears, something this journalist noticed. Councilor Brown-Bull of course is the kind of strong woman that I admire, and so it was only my honor that she too admired me in my tearful moment.
All of the testimonies were webstreamed and should be available via internet very soon if not already.
The hearings in Minnesota will go down into history as one of the best experiences any group of immigrants can recall. I wish all of you had been there when the stories were told.