Liberia: ‘Jungle Jabbah’ Witnesses say Testifying gave them Peace

Haja and granddaughter prepare food in her thatched kitchen in the Garwula District of Grand Cape Mount County

Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County – In September 2017 John, Haja Fahnbulleh, two siblings and Satta, their brother’s wife, left their village here and boarded their first international flight, headed to Philadelphia in the United States. The three went on that long trip to do something no other Liberian had ever done: testify against the man who murdered loved ones and committed atrocities against them during the Liberian civil war. 

By James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent   

In Philadelphia, the three joined 20 other Liberian witnesses flown in to testify in the trial of Mohammed Jabbateh, the terrifying general with the United Liberation Move of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) who went by the alias “Jungle Jabbah” in the early years of the war. With Jabbateh sitting only 12 feet away in the defendant seat, the witnesses told a shocked and weeping jury tales of torture, rape and cannibalism by Jabbateh and soldiers under his command. 

Satta’s testimony, more than any other, left the 12 Philadelphians in the jury visibly moved. Jabbateh, she told the court, ordered his Zebra Battalion to kill her husband (Haja’s and John’s brother). They then cut out his heart and forced Satta, then four -months pregnant, to cook it so Jabbateh and his men could eat it. 

Satta spoke carefully, stopping now and then to weep, as she recalled the words of the young rebel who delivered the order.

“Make yourself strong, ma,” he said. “If you don’t do it, he’ll kill us both.”

The Philadelphia Federal courtroom has, for now, become centerstage for those seeking justice for Liberia’s civil wars. With no war crimes court yet established in Liberia, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Linwood C. Wright and Nelson Thayer, with the help of Civitas Maxima and Liberia-based Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), have made it their mission to prosecute war criminals hiding from justice in the diaspora. Jabbateh was given a 30-year maximum jail sentence, the longest ever given for such an offense by a US court. Eighteen months later, a jury in the same courtroom convicted Thomas Woewiyu, the former number two to Charles Taylor, for criminal immigration fraud, also for lying about war crimes. He also faces a 30-year prison term when he is sentenced later this year.

Testifying before the court required tremendous courage on the part of the witnesses who were seeing their torturer for the first time in nearly 30 years. 

Hassan Bility of GJRP identified the witnesses. He praises Satta, Haja and John and all the other witnesses who testified in the trials of Jabbateh and Woewiyu for their strength amid fear, threats and the lack of interest by the Liberian government to prosecute the country’s wartime crimes. 

“Their coming forward to testify was the beginning of the end of the blanket of fear that had covered victims of the two Liberian civil wars,” says Bility. “Now, that role has been reversed, thus swinging the pendulum of justice and putting all the victims in the position to make history and to break the chain of silence and remove the blanket of fear that covered their desire for justice and accountability,” he adds. 

Nearly two years since the trial, Satta, Haja and John (their real names and village are withheld for fear of reprisal) say they are glad to have taken part in the trial. 

Satta sits next to a hearth where she is smoldering fish she sells to sell and feed her family. She says the trial has brought her a measure of peace for the first time since the attack. She still grieves for her husband “but not like before” the trial. Her son, whom she was carrying when her husband was killed, is graduating from high school this year. “Allah is great.” 

John told the court that another brother was beheaded and his body was set ablaze in the 1995 attack on their village. He also said the trial brought him some peace. 

“I was free to testify what happened. The grief that was in my heart has gone away,” says John. He did not feel any fear to be sitting in front of Jabbateh after all those years. “I felt fine to be in his midst to express myself on what happened to me and my late brother they killed.”

John says that he relives his testimony in the Philadelphia courtroom each day. He savors the moment the jury found Jabbateh guilty. “When it happened, it was just like an imagination. I was not expecting that,” he says. “His going to jail will not make for my late brother to come back to life, but at least he must bear some consequence for what he did.” 

Haja wept bitterly as she told the court that the ULIMO militiamen threw her three-week-old baby into the rainy night and then gang-raped her. She says Jabbateh’s conviction “satisfied” her heart.

“Because the man is bad. He will not do same again,” she said.        

Jabbateh was not tried for war crimes but rather, for criminal immigration fraud committed in the United States when he denied his involvement in the war to immigration authorities. But for prosecutors to win that conviction they had to prove that he committed war crimes. The Philadelphia jury accepted the testimony of the witnesses – that he Jabbateh’s sentence is the longest ever given for immigration fraud in the United States. Jabbateh became the first Liberian to be found guilty in connection to the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003) that killed an estimated 250,000 people. (Former President Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for crimes he committed in Sierra Leone and his son Chuckie Taylor is serving a 97-year term in the United States where he was tried as an American).   

More Liberians face charges in the United States and in Europe in connection to crimes they allegedly committed in the civil war. The Philadelphia prosecutors have been advising other prosecutors on their cases. Other than Woewiyu, Moses Thomas, ex-soldier of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) faces civil charges in the same state. Two other ex-ULIMO generals—Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland and Kunti Kamara in France—have been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Agnes Reeves Taylor, ex-wife of former President Taylor, has been charged with torture in the United Kingdom. And Martina Johnson, former head of the NPFL artillery and mastermind of the “Octopus” crisis in 1992, is still under house arrest in that first ever war crime case against a Liberian anywhere around the world. At least a dozen more investigations are going on in countries around the world with indictments expected shortly.

Many more Liberians have and will be called to testify. Billity says the early witnesses have paved the way for those who will follow. “Like all other witnesses and victims [and] survivors, these individuals pioneered a cause,” he said. 

John is urging witnesses to come forward and tell their stories. “The only advice I get for them is that they must feel free,” John says. “They must not be afraid to explain whatever that happened to them.”

He says dead victims such as his brother were counting on their living relatives and witnesses to crimes to speak for them. “They are in the grave. They will not talk to you, but if you take that challenge they will feel that you work for them.”

Liberia is under immense pressure to set up a war crimes court to address crimes committed during its civil war. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has given the George Weah administration only up to July next year to set up the court and implement other recommendations of the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Satta, Haja and John say they would testify in a Liberian court if they are called.  

“If the court comes here and they call me [to testify], I will go [and] tell them what I know,” says Satta. “The thing that happened to us that’s [no] small thing,” she says. “I can do that one.” 

“I will go there!” exclaims Haja. “I enjoyed [testifying against Jabbateh],” she adds. “I feel fine because Jungle Jabbah did bad to me.”

“Of course, when that happens here, then the other people who want to (commit crimes) will be afraid,” John says. “They will not be thinking to bring war here anymore.” 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the International Women in Media Foundation.