Liberia: Despite LURD Atrocities Survivors are Split Over Call for Justice

Clan Chief John Bunday points to a mass grave of victims of the Gbarma massacre Gerald C. Koinyeneh/FrontPage Africa

GBARMA, Gbarpolu County – When news broke that Jankuba Fofana had been arrested by British police as part of an investigation into war crimes one might have expected celebration here in Gbarma.

By Gerald C. Koinyeneh with New Narratives, [email protected]        

Fofana is the first member of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) to face justice for war crimes in Liberia’s civil war. This town was the scene of thousands of LURD human rights violations recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and one of the faction’s worst massacres. LURD, started in 2000, committed atrocities at a faster rate than any of the factions that terrorized the country.

But many people here would rather let the past lie. 

“It has been too long since the war ended and up to now no steps have been taken to ensure justice is served,” said local resident David Sumo. “That’s why most of the people here have no appetite for justice.”

Liberia’s TRC ranked LURD as the second deadliest faction during both civil wars, even though it was active for just four of the 14 years of conflict. Between 2000 and 2003 LURD killed, tortured, raped and forced people into labor in Lofa, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi and Montserrado counties. The commission recorded nearly 19,000 human rights violations by LURD, 12 percent of the crimes reported to it. 

And yet, until August last year, not one member of LURD had faced justice. Ex-combatants from the Revolutionary United Front, the National Patriotic Front for Liberia and Ulimo have been charged and tried in courts in the U.S. and Europe. A member of the AFL has been sued by victims in a U.S. civil court. But last August, Jankuba Fofana, a former frontline commander for LURD, became the first LURD member arrested when he was picked up by Metropolitan Police in London and held under Section 51 of the U.K.’s International Criminal Court Act 2001, which covers genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Fofana, 45, was released as investigations continued. Police have not given an update on the case. UK courts have slowed because of the pandemic.

During a visit to Gbarma by FrontPageAfrica/New Narratives this year it became clear that almost everyone might be a victim of LURD’s atrocities. Festus Bemah, a motorcyclist in his mid-twenties said his nephew was burnt alive when the house he sought refuge in was set ablaze by the rebels. He said his uncle’s wife was gang raped several times. Although she is still alive, she is suffering from mental illness caused by the trauma.

“Four of my children and brothers were killed right on the train track here,” recalled John Bunday, Clan Chief of Gbarma Clan, pointing to one of the mass graves on the outskirts of the town. “They were accused of being enemies, not knowing they were coming back from looking for food for their families.”

Chief Bunday said his boys and their uncles had left for the bush to fetch food and were unaware that the rebels had captured Gbarma. On their way back, they walked straight into the rebels’ trap and were all killed.

Barkedu Town credit: Tommy Trenchard, NPR

Miatta Gray, in her early 60s, lost 15 members of her family including her husband, children, sisters and brothers and extended family members in the Gbarma massacre committed by LURD in 2002. 110 were killed by LURD fighters commanded by General Ophorie Diah according to the TRC.

“They killed everybody,” Mrs. Gray said recently, wiping her tears with the tip of her lappa.

Many years later, she says the deaths of her family have made life meaningless and she is only surviving by the mercy of God and the cherished memories of her lost loved ones.

“Nobody can call me mama, grandma or sister again. If my children and family were alive, then my life was going to be meaningful. But now, I am only surviving by the mercy of God,” she said as she cleaned around now-dilapidated home of her late sister Musu and her husband B.T. Johnson.

Gray is not opposed to justice but she would rather see some forms of reparations.

“I know that no amount of justice can bring back my family,” Mrs Gray said. “But if the government can help me to fix these houses that my sister and her husband left behind, I will be very happy and my sister will be happy too in her grave.”

The TRC report did recommend reparations but campaigners backing a war crimes court in Liberia say justice and accountability are needed before Liberians can trust government again and begin the serious work of building a strong new state.

David Sumo is one Gbarma resident who would like to see justice.

“People like Jankuba Fofana need to be held accountable for their actions to stop us from going back to war,” he said.

More than ten years have passed since the TRC recommended a war and economic crimes court but to date Liberia has not prosecuted a single person for the heinous crimes committed during its two armed conflicts.

The administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf all but ignored the TRC report, which recommended the Nobel Laureate, along with scores of other Liberians be barred from public office for 30 years because of their support for key players in the war.

Despite expressing support for a court before he became president, President Weah has since opposed it amid calls from domestic and international human rights groups, the U.S. and the U.N. His administration has blocked the passage of bills to approve a court through the legislature.

Despite Liberian government refusals to prosecute alleged perpetrators, nearly a dozen jurisdictions in the U.S. and Europe have prosecuted accused perpetrators for their actions in the Liberian civil war. Because they are deemed to be so serious, charges of torture – like war crimes – can be tried in US and European courts under the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction”, wherever any offences are said to have occurred.

In 2008, a U.S. Federal court convicted Chuckie Taylor, former head of the ATU and son of ex-president Taylor of torture and sentenced him to 97-years in prison. A Pennsylvania court convicted former ULIMO leader, Mohammed Jabbateh and NPFL spokesperson, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu of fraud for their failure to disclose their war crimes to U.S. immigration authorities. Moses Thomas, of the AFL, faces a civil lawsuit for torture and crimes against humanity for his role in the Lutheran Church massacre. US authorities deported George Boley and Alexander Zinnah for lying to immigration authorities about their war time activities.

Alieu Kosiah, a former ULIMO commander, was convicted by a Swiss court in June this year. In Belgium, former NPFL commander Martina Johnson is awaiting trial. U.K authorities indicted Agnes Reeves Taylor for torture but dropped the case on a technicality. In 2016 she was denied permanent residence in the UK on the suspicion she had committed a war crime and she returned to Liberia after being released from jail in 2019.

Gibril Massaquoi, former Sierra Leonean rebel commander and ex-president Taylor’s loyalist, is being tried in the District Court of Tampere in Finland for crimes allegedly committed in Liberia which he denies. Kunti Kamara, a former ULIMO commander will face trial in France next year.

These cases have been driven by civil society efforts, including a groundbreaking collaboration between the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) and Geneva-based Civitas Maxima.

According to Hassan Bility of GJRP, the failure of successive Liberian governments to establish a war crimes court to prosecute perpetrators is driving victims and survivors’ appetite for justice.

“Liberian governments after the war have been comprised of hypocrites and cheats,” he blasted recently in an interview in Monrovia. “If they are out of government, they advocate for justice. If they are in government, they want to stay in government and they do not want justice because they need votes from some people who have large followings.” 

Bility said governments have refused to listen to the people and honor the memories of those who were unjustifiably murdered by just standing up for them. When people’s expectations are not met, he warned, they give up hope.

“When people have less power to do anything they say, ‘Ok, I’ll leave with it God.’ They give up hope.” But, Bility said, Liberians should be optimistic. 

“The law doesn’t give up hope.”

This series was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. See part one here.