Liberia: Five Murdered American Nuns Raised in Woewiyu Case, Former US Ambassador Testifies

PHILADELPHIA – The saga of five American nuns killed at the height of the Liberian civil war took center stage Wednesday as the trial for Mr. Thomas Jucontee Woewiyu entered its third day at the Federal Court in Philadelphia.

Report by Jackson Kanneh and Tecee Boley

Ambassador James Bishop, a former US envoy to Liberia testified that Woewiyu had command over NPFL forces in Gardnersville at the time the nuns were murdered. Bishop was not asked directly whether Woewiyu had given the order to murder the nuns or who he believed was responsible.

It is widely believed the nuns were murdered by Sam Bockarie widely known as “General Mosquito” during Operation Octopus, under Mr. Woewiyu’s command.

Bockarie was a leading member of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone who was infamous for his brutal tactics, which included amputation, mutilation, and rape. He earned the nickname “Mosquito” for his ability to attack when his enemies were off-guard mainly during the night. During his service in the RUF, he befriended future Liberian president Charles Taylor, and RUF commander Foday Sankoh. When Sankoh was imprisoned from March 1997 until April 1999, Bockarie served as commander of the RUF in his place.

Both Sankoh and Bockarie are now deceased.

A May 2015 Pro Publica report revealed that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation which had been cold on the case was back on the radar.

Pro Publica wrote: “The killing of the five Catholic sisters, the FBI says, remains relevant to a “pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding.” Releasing the information, the FBI says, “could reasonably be expected to interfere” with that proceeding.” It is expected this report will appear in the prosecution’s case.

Envoy Met With Tubman, Woewiyu

On Wednesday, Ambassador Bishop recalled in court: “After NPFL invasion I headed a task force on the Liberian crisis based in D.C. encouraging 5,000 Americans in Liberia to leave. I met with Winston Tubman who was representing the (Doe)government and I met with Mr. Woewiyu who said that he was representing the NPFL.”

On October 15, 1992, NPFL forces attacked Monrovia in what became known as Operation Octopus.  Over the ensuing days, NPFL forces engaged in a pitched battle against, among others, peacekeeping forces from the Economic Community of West African States monitoring group (“ECOMOG”).  At the height of Operation Octopus, five American nuns, whose convent stood at what at what had become the front line of the battle, were murdered by NPFL fighters as suspected ECOMOG collaborators.

Prosecutors allege that during Woewiyu’s tenure as NPFL Minister of Defense, the NPFL conducted a particularly heinous and brutal military campaign.  It was characterized by the torture of perceived adversaries; the execution of civilians; the killing of ECOMOG peacekeepers; the rape and forced sexual slavery of girls and women; the conscription of child soldiers (known as “Small Boys”) who often served as guards at countless checkpoints decorated with human heads, skulls and intestines; the murder of humanitarian aid workers; and cannibalism.

Civilian members of the Krahn and Mandingo tribes, whom the NPFL had always perceived were loyal to the Doe government, were particularly subject to many of these atrocities.

Woewiyu served as the chief spokesperson, negotiator and Minister of Defense of the NPFL (and of the government formed by the NPFL to oversee the territory it held, the National Reconstruction Assembly Government, or NPRAG) until 1994, when he left the NPFL and formed the splinter National Patriotic Front of Liberia Central Revolutionary Council (“NPFLCRC”).  Sometime thereafter Woewiyu reunited with Taylor, serving as the labor minister in then-President Taylor’s administration.

US prosecutors say evidence will demonstrate that Woewiyu fraudulently attempted to obtain citizenship, committed fraud in immigration documents, made false statements in relation to naturalization and committed perjury when he answered “No” to Question 11 on his Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, which asked, “Have you EVER persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion?”   

Prosecutors are looking to prove that Woewiyu did persecute another person, both directly and indirectly, because of the race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  “The evidence of Woewiyu’s persecutory conduct tracks four groups which the NPFL persecuted pursuant to NPFL policy:  (1) suspected members of the Krahn tribe; (2) suspected members of the Mandingo tribe; 3) people suspected of being affiliated with or supporting the Doe government, including the AFL; and (4) people suspected of collaborating or being affiliated with ECOMOG.

Woewiyu ‘wanted Doe gone’

Testifying Wednesday, Ambassador Bishop, who served as the U.S. Ambassador in Monrovia from 1987 through the early 1990s, said Woewiyu told him: “he wanted the Doe government gone” and that he Woewiyu was in charge of the military. Bishop said it was not clear what Woewiyu and Taylor wanted in place of the Doe government.

Ambassador Bishop told the court that he was on a road trip from Monrovia to Abidjan via Nimba County on the night of the December 24, 1989 rebel invasion by Taylor’s NPFL. “So, while in the Ivory Coast, it was then that my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan informed us that they had heard on the radio that some people had invaded Liberia,” the Ambassador recalled.

Ambassador Bishop, who testified that he accompanied late President Doe to his 1984 White House meeting with President Ronald Reagan, recalled that several fighters were with Woewiyu when he met him during the civil war. “Several of his men with him, he said that he was representing the NPFL,” Bishop recalled a meeting with Woewiyu in 1990.

Attorney Mark Wilson, representing Mr. Woewiyu, referred to Doe’s government as a usurper, saying “it was not a real constitutional government.” The defense is hoping to persuade the jury that Woewiyu’s actions in pursuing the overthrow of Doe were a legitimate effort to reinstate a democratic and legitimate government.

Herman Cohen, a former Under Secretary for African Affairs(From 1989-93) and a 38-year foreign service veteran, who served in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Zaire and Senegal and Paris, recalled:
“Two weeks after the war had begun, I received a telephone called from Mr.  Woewiyu who described himself as a Liberian living in New Jersey and that he was the official spokesman for the NPFL.”

Cohen ‘Direct’ Contact With Taylor

Mr. Cohen said he did not really get in touch with Woewiyu often because Charles Taylor had acquired a satellite phone which enabled him to dial him up directly from his desk.”

“I met Taylor because they were blowing up things as they went along. I went into the Ivory Coast and we (along with several top embassy officials) drove to a city on the Ivorian side called Man. And we drove our vehicle inside Liberia for about 15 miles to the Taylor compound.”

Asked to described the scenes that greeted him when he arrived to meet Taylor, Mr. Cohen said: “We saw a large group of young boys with very large automatic weapons, and they’d stare at us with no smile. I thought to myself perhaps they had been drugged.”

Mr. Cohen said, Mr. Taylor was sitting in a hut-like structure with a chair that looked like a throng. “One thing that caught my eyes was a large portrait of the Kennedy family. That was pretty interesting to me.”

The former diplomat said he made a plea to Taylor to end the war because, with the arrival of peacekeepers, Taylor would never have been able to take Monrovia.

US prosecutors pressed Cohen to admit NPFL objective was to overthrow the government of Samuel Doe by means of force as prosecutors sought to emphasize their point that child soldiers were a key part of the NPFL recruitment operations. “Their objective was to overthrow the government of Doe,” Mr. Cohen said.

Witness Tie Woewiyu to ‘Child Soldiers’

Prosecutors displayed several photographs of Woewiyu and NPFL child soldiers during witness testimonies.  “How would you describe Doe’s government?” asked prosecutors L. C. Wright.  “It was a regular government – with a legislature, a cabinet, and ministries?”

A seemingly humbled Woewiyu sat passively sandwiched by his attorneys. Woewiyu wrote in his notepad as pictures of children were shown brandishing semi-automatic weapons. James Kokulo Faseukoi, the Liberian photographer whose photographs came to serve as a visual record of the war, told the jury of the horrors he and his family endured as they fled the capital Monrovia toward Charles Taylor’s NPFL controlled-territory. NPFL had seized about 90% of Liberia only months after it first launched the rebellion on Christmas Eve in 1989.

Woewiyu was a less-known leader locally but was an active fundraiser and regarded as the face of the rebellion he constantly described as a “revolution” in the United States and other places outside of Liberia. Faseukoi said he ran into Mr. Woewiyu at the ceremony marking a first attempt at reunifying rebel-controlled country with the capital Monrovia.

Woewiyu led the infamous and bloody 1992 multi-front attacks codenamed “Operation Octopus,” when peacekeepers from Liberia’s West African neighbors led by Nigeria and Ghana were attacked by NPFL fighters. Prosecutors claimed they were under command of Woewiyu as the group’s Defense Minister.

“Operation Octopus” was the NPFL’s largest single attack on the peacekeepers’ position in a push to overrun Monrovia and seize power.  Some 10,000 West African peacekeeping forces known as ECOMOG appeared to have been the only barrier between Taylor and the presidency.

US Assistant District Attorney Nelson Thayer read a statement to jurors that said the NPFL occupied the Gardnersville suburb of Monrovia and executed five American nuns during “Operation Octopus.”

Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia invaded Liberia on December 24, 1989, through Cote d’Ivoire.  By April 1990, the NPFL controlled approximately ninety per cent of Liberia but did not control Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.  Woewiyu, who was the NPFL’s spokesperson, became its Minister of Defense in the summer of 1990, and held both of these posts through 1994.

In 1990, numerous of Taylor’s NPFL fighters left the NPFL and joined a splinter faction called the Independent National Patriotic front of Liberia (“INPFL”).  The INPFL was led by Prince Yormie Johnson, a former NPFL military training officer.  In September 1990, Doe was captured by INPFL forces.  His captors tortured, mutilated and executed Doe.

Despite Doe’s demise, the war in Liberia persisted, with several groups, including those remaining loyal to the Doe government, such as AFL soldiers who had not deserted, and another rebel group opposed to the NPFL made up of an uneasy alliance of Christian Krahn and Muslim Mandingo fighters known as the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (“ULIMO”), all viciously vying for control of the country.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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