Liberia: Memories of War Victims Dominate Decoration Day Rituals

A man takes photograph of the Maher Memorial in Bomi County on March 13, 2019

Maher, Bomi County – A gigantic concrete structure stands roughly two meters high adjacent the Maher Bridge in Bomi County. With a cross and a crescent on two of its huge pillars, it depicts one of the most horrible events of the Liberian Civil War (1989 – 2003). In the concrete carving, soldiers transport people via pickups, drag them out of the vehicles, shoot and dump their lifeless bodies into river. Some were hacked, too. This is the Maher Memorial. 

Report by James Harding Giahyue, Senior New Narratives Justice Correspondent and Parnneh Mallobe, New Narratives Justice Reporter

The souls of the people killed here in June 2002 were immortalized in this memorial. The victims were mainly displaced people fleeing fighting between the Liberia United for Democracy and Reconciliation (LURD) and pro-government militiamen. Others were townspeople and villagers paying host to their distraught guests. The Catholic Justice of the Peace Commission (JPC), which first investigated the massacre in 2004, found “hundreds” were killed. 

War victims such as those killed in Maher Massacre have been remembered on every Decoration Day since the end of the 1990 crisis, but the resurgence of the call for the implementation of other recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has brought victims back to public to the fore. 

“Myself I come to be with them (dead). May God [allow] their souls to lie down in peace,” said 65-year-old Varney Sherman, a visually impaired man who lost his elderly sister in the massacre. He said he used to visit the river where his sister was killed every year and say prayers. He said he was happy that he would be able to lay wreath at the memorial. 

The TRC recorded more than 200 mass graves across the country, with more in Lofa (32), River Cess (30), Grand Cape Mount County (24) and Gbarpolu (18).

A newly established pro-war crimes group Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia (SEWACOLL) has said it would observe this month as a “month of memorial” in which it says it would visit the counties with the most mass graves.

The TRC recommended that one memorial be built on every mass gravesite; however, the Maher Massacre is only the second memorial done by Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC). The other is the Du Port Road Memorial, which has yet to be completed. 

“I believe a national memorial will be very good, especially if we could get the names of those who died at each massacre sites,” said Emmett Scott one of the few persons who survived the Du Port Road Cow Field Massacre on December 15, 1994. According to the TRC, 28 people were burnt to death by the NPFL in their houses while they slept. 

IHRC Commissioner Wilfred Gray-Johnson told FrontPage Africa in a mobile interview earlier on Tuesday that the commission intended to erect one memorial in each county, but would use geographic information system (GIS) coordinates to identify all mass graves. 

“We want to believe, for instance, that there may be areas where some of those mass graves would have been either encroached on now or they’ve done other things on them,” Gray-Johnson said. He said mass graves within current concession areas would be difficult to identify.  

“Some mass graves are on private and community land. He said the commission was going to work with the Liberia Land Authority and other land-related institutions and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to get land on which are mass graves,” he said. 

 Gray-Johnson disclosed that plans were underway to begin a memorial at Carter Camp in Firestone but survivors continue to pay their tribute. 

Survivors and relatives of victims of the Carter Camp Massacre paid respect to about 600 people were killed at the Carter Camp Massacre on June 6, 1993. A UN inquest into the killings blamed the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), but the TRC found it was rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

“Whenever Decoration Day comes, I usually sit for few minutes and have a prayer I retrospect on how he was killed,” said 54-year-old Stephen Korpel Whose brother John Flomo was beheaded in the massacre. “He was killed very painfully. He did not even have a child,” said Kropel, who lives at the end of the runway of the James Spriggs Payne Airfield towards the mangrove swamp.   

The community where Kropel lives used to be a killing field during the 1990 war and has a mass grave. 

AFL death squad headed by Yuobo Tailey—who is named in the TRC report—arrested people in the Sinkor area and killed them here. Survivors of the JFK massacre, where 250 people were killed, and the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre—where 600 people were killed—are buried at the end of the runway. Bones of the victims are still visible even after nearly 30 years.  

One family, the Giples, managed to get the bodies of four of their relatives and one tenant from when they were killed by the AFL soldiers 

“This particular grave is here because at that time there was no way we could separate their bodies, so that is why we decided to bury all of them together,” said Albert Giple of his nephews Koffa Giple and Stephen Giple, cousin Benedictus Torbor and a tenant only identified as Wesseh. “At least we have some memory that ever Decoration Day we go and decorate.” 

One community that erected its own memorial is Samay in Bong County with the names of all victims. 

Twenty-eight people were killed here on October 27, 1994 by the NPFL, accused of being supporters of the Liberia Peace Council (LPC). 

“Any time I come to this site, sorrow can come to me and I will start to cry because that man and myself born nine children: two boys seven girls,” said Fatu Tokpah, who lost her husband to the massacre. “Since my husband died I am not to myself. When I am even walking to go on farm I can just be talking to myself,” Tokpah explained in Kpelleh.

Back in Maher, a planned dedication of the memorial on Wednesday was postponed to an undisclosed date after chiefs and elders refused to participate in the ceremony. The chief demanded that a special traditional ceremony be conducted to appease the spirits of the dead, despite the presence of Varney Sirleaf, Minister of Internal Affairs and Representative Manah B. Johnson, Chairman of House Committee on Internal Affairs. 

“These people did not die just ordinary death. They were killed and dumped into the water,” said Chief Siasa Barmadia, Head of Bomi Traditional Council. “The water has a lot of things into it. There are people they live in the water. For us, we don’t see them but they are looking at us. Since they were dumped into the water, before the dedication be done, those that live in the water need to be given their won kola, too. We need to slaughter a sheep or cow—if we—so that we ask the ancestors to lead us the way,” he said. 

“These people were not happy. They were massacred in cold blood. They were grieving.” 

Atty. Bartholomew Colly, Acting Chairman of the IHRC apologized to the chiefs for the lack of proper preparation for the dedication of the Maher Memorial. He said the Commission had learned its lesson. 

Paying respect to the dead is an important component of the African culture. Surviving relatives seeking protection and direction from their dead loved ones. If not, dead relatives are believed to haunt surviving families and communities. 

The TRC report, in addition to memorials, recommended that National Unification Day observed the 14th of May each year is renamed the National Unification and Memorial Day. It called for the reburials of war victims.   

Moses Bailey, New Narratives Justice Reporter contributed to this story. 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project