Big Joe Town, Grand Bassa County – It was one of one of the deadliest offenses of the Liberian civil war. In 1992, Operation Octopus, so named because it reached across the nation like tentacles, was the National Patriotic Front of Liberia’s effort to finally stamp out the interim government headed by Amos Sawyer and the peacekeeping forces of ECOWAS, and install Charles Taylor in the Executive Mansion.
Report by James Harding Giahyue
Thousands died or were injured across the country. Tens of thousands more were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in refugee camps around the region. Many of those victims have welcomed the trial of Thomas Woewiyu, Charles Taylor’s number two in the NPFL, in the Philadelphia where he faces up to 110 years in prison this week if convicted by the jury. Prosecutors say Woewiyu lied to immigration officials when applying for American citizenship in 2006.
Victims remain haunted by the horrors of Octopus. Many of the estimated 200,000 people who died during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war died in that first period when Taylor’s NPFL terrorized the country. In his “Mask of Anarchy” British writer Stephen Ellis estimates 50,000 died between 1990-1992.
“I am happy for Woewiyu to go on trial,” says Moses Vah, an elder in Big Joe Town in Grand Bassa County as he sits underneath a thatched mud hut. “They are the people who brought the war.”
‘Carry those dogs…’
Residents here in this tiny roadside village just a few kilometers from Buchanan, the provincial capital of the west-central coastal county, recall how the NPFL rebels arrived early one morning and began killing people.
Throughout the civil war, NPFL rebels targeted Krahns and Mandingoes as well as officials of the Samuel Doe government. But Big Joe Town was one of several places where they killed innocent people, including women and children.
“My father was paralyzed, my brother was sick and my mother was old,” explains Joseph Kpleh, 64, who survived the massacre. “When they came they said ‘Who got this other sick man here? Who got this other old lady here? Who got this other sick brother here?’ They executed them right in this town here.”
Kpleh says the rebels said they wanted to “free” him of the burden of catering three sick people so that it would be easy for him to be recruited. Residents say 16 people were killed and buried in a well. They were the first corpses the rebels dumped in the well, he says.
“Then they said, ‘Carry those dogs in that hole’,” he explains, forcing back tears.
The rebels then forced those whose lives they spared to leave the town and move to places they had already captured towards River Cess in the southeast. They told some men to join them as fighters.
The victims in Big Joe Town were among the thousands who died during the crisis but it was Monrovia and its suburbs that accounted for most of the Octopus’s casualties.
At the time in 1992 Taylor controlled most parts of Liberia, then known as “Greater Liberia”, and fear that he would attack Monrovia always loomed, despite several peace talks. People mocked the Monrovia-based Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) as meaning “I [Charles] Ghankay [Taylor] never understand”. On the morning of October 15 rumors that Taylor would make a second attempt to seize the capital (after his failed first attempt in 1990), were confirmed with the sound of rockets and gunfire.
One of the infamous events of the crisis was the killing of five American nuns. Sisters Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Barbara Ann Muttra, Joel Kolmer and Agnes Mueller were killed by NPFL rebels and their bodies were found at two different locations not far from their Somalia Drive compound. Their deaths, however, have barely come up during the Woewiyu trial after prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to a deal not to discuss them in detail. (The defense argued that if the jury was told Woewiyu had presided over troops responsible for the killing of five American nuns, jurors would be so enraged they would not be able to clearly assess other facts in the case.)
But Monrovia got a random share of the bloodletting. Communities around the James Spriggs Payne Airfield were like battlegrounds, routinely shelled throughout the months of the campaign with loss of lives and properties.
“I just feel that he (Woewiyu) should face the trial and go to the same place where Charles Taylor is,” says Boima John, 61, who lost a leg during the crisis. “All the people that brought the war, in fact.”
After a rocket landed near his home, John fled Gbangay Town and came for Wroto Town to seek refuge. On that morning he sat with friends at a shop on the roadside and then the rocket fell on the road. Seven people died that day but he and another man survived. They were both critically wounded.
The rockets would begin to fall as soon as the Nigerian airliner Okada Air landed at Spriggs Field airport bringing supplies for West African peacekeepers who—with remnants of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL)—repelled the rebels’ attack. The peacekeepers were key targets for the NPFL.
At night you could see rockets coming like fireworks from a distance with a loud whistling sound. People learned to cope with the danger over time. Some pranked others by whistling or throwing flaming firewood in the air. Instinct advised people to run in the direction where the rockets came from or take cover under buildings with concrete roofs.
But the rocket that wounded John was a so-called “blind man”. The day was too bright to see it, he says, and loud muttering of a market community of Wroto Town absorbed its deadly sound.
“I just [saw myself falling],” recalls John, a father of four. “Right away the Ghanaian [peacekeepers] took me and put me in their car and took me to [St. Joseph] Catholic Hospital. My leg mashed. I could feel it.” John spent three weeks at the hospital and his family came to see him. He was amputated beneath his right knee and given a prosthetic leg that he has been using ever since.
Today John is not the carpenter he was before the incident. He does not do roof buildings anymore. He is constrained to furniture and repairs. He assists in the construction of a motel owned by his businessman friend in Lakpazee, not far from where he was wounded.
John was born in the Garwula District of Grand Cape Mount but lived in Monrovia prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 1989. He had fled back to his hometown when the war reached Monrovia but came back to capital when a ceasefire was brokered between the interim government led by Dr. Sawyer and the rebels led by Taylor. He laments that he did not know “I was coming to get hurt”.
Several witnesses in the Woewiyu trial have spoken of about the NPFL’s recruitment of child soldiers and targeting of Mandingoes and Krahns.
John says he knew a 15-year-old boy, Gbono, who was recruited by the NPFL rebels and later killed by ULIMO while he was still in Cape Mount. “I knew his whole family, his father and mother,” John says.
He explains that he saw Woewiyu in Cape Mount on several occasions, leading advance teams that secured the area whenever Taylor visited the mineral-rich county. “We used to run in the bushes whenever they came,” he says. “They used to just open fire everywhere and sometimes they used to take the parts from the car and make us push it on the road.”
‘…Go to Jail’
Like John, Richard Duo, 29, carries a lifelong scar from “Octopus”. As a 3-year-old toddler he was strapped to his mother’s back when they were hit by a rocket on Somalia Drive—the same place the nuns were killed—and his left leg was amputated just beneath his hip. His mother Elizabeth and brother Augustine were also wounded in the incident.
“Not only Tom Woewiyu, there are other people here in Liberia today who are going scot-free,” says Duo, who also lost his father in the 1990 Lutheran Church Massacre when he was still a baby. “I feel very happy (about Woewiyu) but I also need more than that to be done. People cannot commit atrocities against people—their own people, especially innocent children who knew nothing about the war—and then they go scot-free.”
Duo was only reunited with his mother Elizabeth, in 1999. He was cared for until then by Catholic missionaries at the St. Benedict Menni Rehab. The last time Elizabeth saw him, he was a toddler. Now he was no longer the same, using crutches to walk.
Duo remained with the missionaries at St. Benedict and later moved to the Don Bosco Homes after that tearful reunion with his mother. But funds ran out and the missionaries left. Now he stays with his mother, she is the only breadwinner for the family in Bernard’s Farm in Paynesville. He has not been able to complete 12th grade.
“They must put him (Woewiyu) in jail,” Elizabeth said. “It is this man that made me suffering today for nothing,” adds the 56-year-old, who trades a variety of farm products at the Red Light market to feed the family.
“I want him (Woewiyu) to go to jail,” Duo says, “and I also want them to pay for some of the damages they caused to our lives.”
“It is very much welcoming and we hope that… it will serve as deterrent to others,” said Peterson Sonyah of the Liberia Massacre Survivors Association (LIMASA). Sonyah was in the church and survived the Lutheran Lutheran Church Massacre in 1990.
“We all welcome the idea that Tom Woewiyu is being tried and see what will come out of the judgment.”
Woewiyu’s victims join those of Mohammed Jabbateh or “Jungle Jabbah”, the former ULIMO commander, who was sentenced to 30 years in a US jail for brutal war crime including systemic rape and cannibalism, in being the first Liberians to see some justice served over the civil war. Charles Taylor’s son Chuckie is serving a 97-year sentence for torture committed in Liberia, but he was tried as an American. Jabbateh and Woewiyu are the only Liberians so far to have faced justice for their crimes in Liberia.
More victims will have a taste of justice in coming months as Agnes Taylor, Martina Johnson and Alieu Kosiah go on trial in Europe for their crimes in Liberia. Commander of the Lutheran Massacre, Moses Thomas, faces a civil law suit in Philadelphia for his role in the massacre.
Investigators promise charges will be filed against more alleged perpetrators in Europe and the United Stated in coming months.