‘We Were Terrified’: Woman Recalls Meeting Liberian President in Prison
Monrovia – History is not fair or maybe historians are not fair. Some people are forgotten and never make it on the pages of history books but they existed.
Report by James Harding Giahyue – [email protected]
“We climbed the stairs — the only thing they did not handcuff me—and that’s when I saw Ezekiel Pajibo and I saw Dempster Yallah, who is my husband today.
Pajibo’s hands were swollen for being handcuffed too tightly. Everybody looked too terrified. You could see terror written on everyone’s face.
At that time I did not know that Alaric [Togba], Jimmy [Fromoyan] and [Christian] Herbert had been arrested. I thought it was only three of us.” Mrs. Lucia Massalee-Yallah recalled
When we speak of multiparty democracy in Liberia, what come to mind are the names of Baccus Matthews, Amos Sawyer, Togba Na Tipoteh and several all names.
This is a story of how a young graduate of the University of Liberia, who advocated for multiparty democracy in the land she loves most, suffered at the hands of the despotic regime of the late President Samuel K. Doe.
On December 3, 1984 Lucia Massalee, an employee at the Ministry of Agriculture was arrested by state security operatives. Her charge was that she had bought a stolen television and was taken to the Police depot in Congo Town outside Monrovia.
She later found out that she was one of six students that were being accused of being the authors of a leaflet called “React”.
React, circulated on the campus of the University of Liberia and throughout Monrovia and adjacent cities.
“First, I was told that by Jacob Nimely, the National Security Agency’s Director because I had bought a stolen TV,” Massalee recalled in an interview with FrontPage Africa over the weekend.
“What happened was I was in the Police cell at Paynesville and the 2 O’clock news came on and it was Charles Gbenyon who was reading the news… and he said ‘Several student leaders at the University of Liberia have been arrested today’. That’s when it clicked to me that it was not a stolen TV.”
After the news broadcast, Massalee said the Director of Police at the time, Wilfred Clarke, came into the Police station and loudly asked for the political prisoner who was being kept in the cell.
By that time, Massalee did not know that other student leaders were being likewise rounded up by the security forces.
“At that time, James Fromayan, Dempster Yallah and myself lived in a house in Lakpazee,” Massalee explained in the interview.
She said she had been hinted by Gbenyon’s news broadcast that other student leaders were being picked and when the Police Director Clarke asked for “political prisoners, she knew she was heading for a bigger trouble rather than for an appliance.
“I knew I was in trouble, I knew I was being held for some political thing but I could not put my head on it,” she said.
She explained that she was taken from the Paynesville cell to the NSA headquarters in Mamba Point for interrogation. She had been arrested by early morning hours and had not eaten or drunk in hours.
“I was placed into a dark cell and all this time was never offered anything to eat, anything to drink.”
Massalee was not the author of React but she had been one of the students observed by the Doe regime and suspected of plotting against the government.
“I was a member of the Student Unification Party. I graduated from the university since 1981 and then I was a founding member of the Liberian People Party (LPP), which was of course my right,” she told our reporter.
Massalee was then taken from the NSA to the Ministry of Defense and met a panel of interrogators, including Minister of Defense Gray D. Allison.
“We climbed the stairs—the only thing they did not handcuff me—and that’s when I saw Ezekiel Pajibo and I saw Dempster Yallah, who is my husband today.
Pajibo’s hands were swollen up for being handcuffed too tightly. Everybody looked too terrified. You could see terror written on everyone’s face.
At that time I did not know that Alaric [Togba], Jimmy [Fromoyan] and [Christian] Herbert (now late) had been arrested.
I thought it was only three of us,” she recalled and stopped for a while, apparently subdued by the nightmarish imagery of her ideal more than 30 years ago.
She further explained that an argument ensued between officials at the Defense Ministry over which of the three of them—she, Parjibo or Yallah—should appear for questioning first.
“Finally, they agreed that Pajibo went in first. Pajibo was already crying,” she said.
Pajibo might have thought that it his last moment. By 1984 the People Redemption Council (PRC) had headed the country for like four years with more than an iron fist.
The coup d’état had taken place in 1980 and the killing of President William R. Tolbert and subsequently 13 government officials of his government.
Intra-PRC killings were now ongoing as well as the government ruthlessly going after political opponents. This was indeed a place for students’ political activism but a place for students’ apocalypse.
Massalee recalled that she did not even think of all that. She was half dead already.
“At that stage, I was just numb and terrified. In the first place, you are first in a place with bunch of people who do not care about human life and you’re sitting there and you don’t know what you did, what they got you for.
After Pajibo’s appearance it was her turn. She said Minister Allison made her swear on a little Bible that he pulled out of his pocket.
“He said ‘Put your hand on this Bible’ and I put my hand on it. ‘You will tell the truth and nothing but the truth’. Then I said ‘truth about what?’
She said the high level security panel comprising also Charles Clarke and other top officials drink Gordon’s London Dry Gin with their guns on the table. She said she thought that one of them would just shoot her.
An already terrified Massalee was interrogated on what course she had read at the university.
They accused her of having read political science and was bent on dethroning the Doe regime even though she had told them she read agriculture and was working at the Ministry of agriculture, assigned at the Freeport of Monrovia.
But the Doe regime did not buy her story. They accused her of being one of several students sent to Ethiopia to be trained in revolution and propaganda.
Students were targeted by the Doe regime and in some months after that President Doe sanctioned a raid on the main campus of the University on Capitol Hill, where students were flogged and raped.
Massalee said one of the officials was not happy with her responses to questions and took up a gun and placed it at her head.
She had asked a rhetorical question when asked about the whereabouts of Dr. Amos Sawyer.
“Sir, you have had me here for about 24 hours, how do you think I will know where Amos Sawyer is?” She explained. “He said ‘If you act frisky one more time, I will blow your head off.’”
Following the intense Ministry of Defense episode, she was taken to the NSA and then to the Post stockade along with Parjibo and Dempster Yallah.
It was at Post Stockade, she said, she saw Fromayan, Herbert and Togba.
Massalee and the other five student activists stayed at the maximum detention camp until February 1985 and were taken to Belle Yallah.
Located deep in the jungle of Lofa County, Belle Yallah was Known as a dungeon for opposition figures during the Doe regime, as well as the final resting place for outlaws and notorious criminals. There, they would wait torturously for death and their souls to be exiled into oblivion.
Defense Minister would soon after be imprisoned thereafter and would die by the hands of rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
Another React leaflet was circulated while the sextuplet stayed at Post Stockade but they were not released. It was after the publication of that edition of React that she and her colleagues were sent to Belle Yallah.
“Some soldiers said we were free but certain soldiers there were sympathetic towards us. I saw their faces because I was in a room outside and I knew that we were not free,” she recalls the event right after the publication of that edition of React.
“Some soldiers thought the publication of the leaflet exonerated them but that was not the case.”
“James Fromayan and the other people were outside, so they couldn’t see what was happening outside that I could see, and there was no way for me to communicate with them that we were not free.”
Massalee then thought that they were going to be executed because she saw a bus parked outside with six armed soldiers.
“I thought they were taking us to execute us. They put us in the bus and said nothing to us.”
“They did not even tell us that we were being transferred to Belle Yallah for us to prepare. Nobody said a thing to us. You could drop a pin and would hear it because everybody was silent and terrified.”
Massalee, Fromayan, Parjibo, Herbert, Togba and Yallah were transferred to Belle Yallah in two separate airplanes via the James Spriggs Payne Airfied.
The plane taking Massalee had a problem and had to be jumpstarted by spinning its engine. At that time, their charge was not authoring a damaging leaflet but treason.
For Massalee, that was her third charge after she had initially been accused of buying a stolen TV.
“When I landed in Belle Yallah, I said ‘God, my life is in your hands,’” she revealed.
The six prisoners stayed in Belle Yallah from February to July 1985.
She recalled that there were many things that took place at Belle Yallah but not more than the barbing of prisoners’ hair.
“They did not cut my hair but they cut the other prisoners’ hair,” she says, mimicking how the soldiers executed the haircut on Parjibo, Fromayan, Togba, Herbert and Yallah.
Massalee, interestingly, and the other prisoners returned to a hero’s welcome back to Post Stockade after the six months at Belle Yallah. “They were so happy to see us,” she said.
Ill-treated by another, meets a would-be President
Massalee was back at Post Stockade, her home six months earlier. However, it would be a new period. She would no longer sleep along; she would spend nights on that bare concrete floor with a woman who would become President exactly two decades later.
“That morning I heard the soldiers saying ‘We got a big fish coming.
’” I asked one of the soldiers: ‘Who is the big fish that is coming?’ Then he answered ‘You will see her when she comes.’”
She said she did not know that it would be Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Minister of Finance and pondered all night who could be that “big fish”.
Then she became even more paranoid that if more people were being imprisoned then her own freedom was far-fetched.
The next morning she woke up and gazed straightly at the gate of the prison compound. “Guess what I saw: Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
This was still in July 1985,” she reminisced, adding that Mrs. Sirleaf being escorted security forces into Post Stockade.
“I could see that she was so mad. They told me you got a roommate. So she came in and I went to her and I gave her a hug. I told her no matter what they do, never let these people see you tears.”
Massalee said she was a strong admirer of President Sirleaf as was thousands of young women in Liberia then.
Mrs. Sirleaf as Minister of Finance participated in intellectual discourses held by the student council government of the University of Liberia.
“It was just her steadfastness in what she did. She was a strong woman. We called her the iron lady because she believes in principles.:
“She had this brilliancy in managing the finances of the country. She was one of those that you never heard being accused of mismanagement and this and that. You never heard that of her. She really knew her job.”
She said she and Mrs. Sirleaf had many conversations, and one told the other about her life, about triumphs and tribulations.
Mrs. Sirleaf marveled in her strength having spent more than six months in jail already, while she admitted that Mrs. Sirleaf and others had actually given them hope of being free one day through persistent advocacy.
The two women also spoke about the future of Liberia behind the rusty bars of their prison cell, according to Massalee.
Mrs. Sirleaf, she said, told her that after that experience she (Mrs. Sirleaf) was going to start a women’s bank, geared toward empowering women.
“She said ‘Lucia, you will work in the bank. You will be one of the executives in the bank,’” she recalled Mrs. Sirleaf telling her.
She said that it did not come to her mind that Mrs. Sirleaf would become the President of Liberia.
Mrs. Sirleaf was released before Massalee and she recalled that Mrs. Sirleaf promised that she would get all of the six student leaders out of prison.
Massalee was finally released in September and Mrs. Sirleaf celebrated her birthday on October 7, 1985 with a nice meal at a restaurant in Monrovia.
Both women stayed in contact even in the United States after Massalee was granted an asylum in March 1988.
Massalee admits that she thought differently about the Doe regime and alongside Mrs. Sirleaf lead rallies in Washington and other parts of the United States, flagging human rights abuse by the regime.
It has been many years now since that fateful incidence, and Massalee has never allowed her experiences weigh her down.
She later married one of her fellow prisoners, Dempster Yallah and is Mrs. Lucia Massalee-Yallah.
She has a Master’s degree in women and gender studies from Eastern Michigan University.
Massalee-Yallah has not taken a job in the government of President Sirleaf she has been busy threading her own path in the United States.
Now she wants to return home and work in the Liberian government as a professional, not a friend of the President.
That professionalism will make her accept any job for the sake of the Liberian people.
“Service to people any nation should be done at 110 percent at all levels. You don’t have to be at the top to give your best,” she said. “
“You can be at the bottom or at the middle to give your best at all times.”