BELLINZONA, Switzerland – A Liberian women told the Swiss Federal Criminal Court prosecuting Alieu Kosiah for war crimes that the former rebel commander raped her four times in one night in Voinjama, Lofa County.
By Names Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
The woman told a harrowing story of her experiences of the ULIMO rebels under Kosiah’s command. She said Kosiah and his rebels had raided Botosu—a town 150 miles northeast of Monrovia—killing her father and brother, and forcing civilians to head-carry looted goods.
She fled the town and his in the bush. The woman—whose name and location have been concealed by New Narratives at her lawyer’s request—told the court via videoconference from Liberia that a rebel child-soldier had captured her from the bush and taken her to Kosiah. (She is the only witness not to have traveled to the court to testify. She did not come because she had just given birth a week earlier.)
“He (Kosiah) took me and said I was his wife. We slept together that night,” she said, adding she was a virgin and had not seen her period before the incident. “He raped me four times that night.” The 43-year-old said Kosiah threatened to kill her if she resisted.
The witness said she managed to escape the next morning after making Kosiah think she was too afraid to flee. “I acted like I never wanted to run away. If I was going to show I wanted run away, he was going to me,” she said. “I was bleeding when I was running but I never [thought] about that.”
Shortly after, she said she fled to Guinea where she was treated for her injuries. She has rarely spoken of the incident since it happened.
Kosiah is on trial for war crimes committed in Liberia for allegedly including 18 murders, the eating of the heart of a schoolteacher, forced transportation, looting, recruitment of child-soldiers, rape and sexual enslavement. This witness, the last of seven plaintiffs who brought the case against Kosiah is his accuser on the counts of rape and sexual enslavement.
The former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), faces a maximum 20-year sentence in a Swiss jail. He denies all the offenses and says he was not in Lofa when the alleged crimes were committed. In testimony on Monday Kosiah told the court the plaintiffs and Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima, the Swiss group representing four of the witnesses including the woman, were “liars” and “manipulators.”
But the woman told the three-judge panel that former ULIMO commander led rebels in Botosu in Lofa County and ravaged the village. Kosiah and his men killed and tortured some villagers, looted rice and palm oil, and forced others to transport the looted goods, she said. Her father and brother were among the dead.
“I heard them (rebels) calling him (Kosiah) ‘General Kosiah,’” she said, adding the dawn attack on the village was the first time she heard of Kosiah. “[Rebels] were guarding him.”
When the presiding judge Jean-Luc Bacher asked whether she still recognized Kosiah, the witness said calmly: “His eyeballs [are] big, big. He’s sitting over there,” she said, pointing to the suspect, who wore an army green, winter jacket and had been ordered to remove his mask so she could see him clearly.
“He raped me that is why I can recognize the man. That’s him. Even if he [does not] remove the mask, that’s him there,” she said.
Andreas Müller, the prosecution lawyer, tested the woman’s memory of the event, which she said took place during ULIMO’s occupation of Lofa in the mid 1990s. She identified Voinjama and Botosu in two photographs Müller showed her.
On cross-examination Kosiah’s lawyer Dmitri Gianoli tried unsuccessfully to find contradictions in the woman’s testimony. She repeated what she had earlier told the court of her first encounter with Kosiah, the torture of civilians, her escapes, civilian captives forced to carry looted goods, her journey to Guinea. She also said she had known the sixth plaintiff, who had told the court he knew her during the war.
Asked earlier by Judge Bacher why she decided to sue Kosiah, the witness said because, “He killed my father and my brother, and turned around and raped me. Even today, I can still feel the pain.” She broke down in tears as she said those words, forcing the proceedings into an abrupt break.
The court had to go for a break so that she could breast-feed her new baby she named “Justice.”
“I named her Justice because I need justice,” she said.
The trial is historic both for Liberia and central European country bordering Austria, France, Germany and Italy. It is the first time a Liberian is prosecuted for war crimes in connection to the country’s civil conflict, which began in 1989 and ended 2003, killing an estimated 250,000 people and leaving a million displaced. It is also the first war crimes trial in a Swiss civilian court in the medieval, mountainous city Bellinzona. Its first other case was held in 2001 when a military court found a former mayor of a Rwandan town Fulgence Niyonteze guilty for his role in the country’s 1994 genocide. He served a 14-year sentence.
The woman’s testimony concludes all seven plaintiffs’ in this case, which has lifted the lid on one of Africa’s deadliest armed conflicts. Eight more people are expected to testify this week to conclude all the testimonies, including six defense and two prosecution witnesses. The trial continues on Wednesday with the first defense witness.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.