Liberia: Students promote Justice in Civil War Cartoon Exhibition

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Monrovia – An exhibition at the National Museum of Liberia is showcasing illustrations by more than a dozen schoolchildren depicting crimes committed during the Liberian Civil War. The two-month-long exhibition, called “Cartooning for Justice” opened on Wednesday and aims to use art to promote justice and accountability in the country. 

“We want to tell the history of the war to the new generation of Liberians who will take the mantle of leadership tomorrow in Liberia,” said Hassan Bility of the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), the Liberian based organization  which organized the event in collaboration with Civitas Maxima and Liberia Visual Arts Academy (LivArts).  “We want to tell them what the war did to Liberia and Liberians and the consequences that continue to plague Liberia today, to mold their minds in a way as to oppose violence as means to attaining political power and as a solution, and to make them appreciate the value of democracy and respect the sanctity of human life,” Bility added. 

The Global Justice and Research Project is a Liberian-based non-governmental organization that works in collaboration with Civitas Maxima, a Swiss-based justice organization, to document war crimes and gather witness testimony to build up legal cases against alleged perpetrators living in different countries throughout the world.  

The civil war, which began in 1989 and ended in 2003, was one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, killing an estimated 250,000 people. However, the history of the conflict is notably absent from the curricula of Liberian schools, leaving the postwar generation with only oral accounts of the war. 

“The goal was to make sure that Liberian students, especially those born after the two civil wars (1989-1997 and 1998-2003) or who didn’t really witness it, are told some of the stories and will use some of the information to put it on papers,” he added. 

The cartoons will also be displayed at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) in Kakata, Margibi County. 

“Some of the students had heard several stories from their parents and some of them are orphans, so the only way they can express what they have learned about the war is through drawing cartoons of justice and accountability,” added Leslie Lumeh of LivArts. He said the 13 schoolchildren participating in the exhibition are some of 24 students attending LivArts.    

In some of cartoons, rebels kill civilians, child-soldiers torture people, civilians saying prayers at gunpoint and children being separated from their parents. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that key perpetrators be prosecuted, but it also stressed the need to establish a truthful written history of the civil war that could be imparted to Liberians. The government of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and that of George Weah, have failed to implement these recommendations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has given Liberia just up to July next year to address crimes committed during its civil war. 

Hilton Dorbor-Jallah, one of the schoolchildren, told FrontPage Africa in a mobile phone interview after the exhibition’s opening that he felt their cartoons could make an impact in the debate of wartime accountability.  

“I feel good when I am drawing, because through cartoons maybe the government will allow the TRC recommendations to be implemented for justice to be served,” said Dorbor-Jallah, who was born on June 19, 1999. “I also want victims of my age to join us in drawing for justice so that anytime they see perpetrators in their communities, they won’t be angry and want to revenge,” he added.

Accountability 

Francis A. Igiriogu, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights office in Liberia, said the schoolchildren’s cartoons showed they were involved in the promotion of human rights. 

“For us, we strongly believe that any country that wants to be serious for peace and development, that country should be serious for accountability of past wrongs.  We also believe that without accountability what you will get is impunity.  When you have impunity, the consequences are that you will get lawlessness, underdevelopment, and poverty,” Igiriogu said. 

Government Don’t-care Behavior

President George Weah does not support accountability of crimes committed during the war. He has spoken against the establishment of a war crimes court and has appointed and aligned former warlords in the government. He has also avoided programs that have link to wartime accountability. 

The Ministry Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, and the Ministry of Justice were invited to the event but did not attend. 

“What kind of government do we have that does not seem to be interested in anything constructive, creative, and useful?” Kenneth Best, publisher of the Daily Observer newspaper, said.  “Why is the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism not here?  Art is one of the major components of culture, and here are these young people trying to display the talents the good Lord Himself gave them, and we don’t see some of the prominent people in society here to give them some encouragement,” said Best. 

Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, president of the Liberia Bar Association, joined Best.    “We will have accountability in Liberia and we will make them do it,” Cllr. Gongloe said. “It is not their choice,” he said. 

“They don’t want accountability, but we want accountability.  There will be war crimes tribunal set up here.  We will have accountability, we will say no to war, we will say no to impunity, and we will make it happen in this government,” he added. 

“I call upon the people of Liberia to be determined.  Any leader of a country that does not believe in human rights, then there is a problem.  There can be no peace if there is no respect for human rights. There can be no development if there is no peace,” added Gongloe.    

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

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