Liberia: Witnesses Link Ex-NPFL Defense Minister Woewiyu To Recruiting Child Soldiers

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PHILADELPHIA, USA – A fifth government witness, in her emotionally-charged recollection of her brief encounter with a powerful Defense minister whose power measured only next to the leader of the armed rebellion, Charles Taylor, placed defendant Thomas Woewiyu in the center of the conscription of children as child soldiers.


Report by Jackson Kanneh and Tecee Boley


The witness, a grocery shop owner, was the first witness among a batch of local Liberians brought over to support the U.S. case against Woewiyu.

Woewiyu is facing 16 counts of immigration fraud and perjury charges arising from his 2006 citizenship application to become a U.S. citizen. He faces 110 years if found guilty.

On a typical market day in Konola near Central Liberia, Witness #5 recalled an ordeal she said she never forgets – sharing with jurors a heartbreaking familiar story told many times around Liberia by parents whose children were forced to join the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) as fighters.

One day in the market, “my youngest brother (name withheld) was taken from my hands by force. They took him with many other children his age group and drove away.”

“We cried and chased after the truck but it drove away. Someone told us to go and see Defense Minister and appeal to him to bring back my brother and other children,” said Witness #5.

She broke down in tears as she recalled when she heard the most unforgettable news that the kids who were taken away from the market days ago, had fallen into an armed bush while being taken to the frontline to face the air superiority of ECOMOG.

“And they told me that they took some wounded soldiers to Phebe [Hospital] last night,” she narrated with vivid agony.

“I got the Phebe and walked in the hospital where they had brought the wounded soldiers the night before. I started yelling out his middle name … and he heard me. He answered and when I found him, his head, eye and hand were severely injured his hand badly damaged in the armed bush.”

She revealed that NPFL had embarked on “arresting young boys to send to the frontlines” to face ECOMOG, just days after the NPFL had attacked ECOMOG positions around Monrovia in an operation coded “Operation Octopus.”

The attacks were the largest attempt by Taylor’s forces to overrun the capital Monrovia in a drive to seize power. ECOMOG comprised about 10,000 peacekeepers from six of Liberia’s West African neighbors led by Nigeria and Ghana.

Witness #6, a former child soldier, took stand and gave a recollection of how he was recruited.

“We were crying, missing our parents but crying could not help us,” he told the quiet courtroom.

“We were trained to kill. They trained us to dismantle AK47s and put it together, gave us drugs to go kill,” he added.

He was one of several children forcefully taken from the market in Konola.

“The took us to the base (NPFL training base) in Konola

There was brief glitch over Woewiyu lawyers’ opposition to government-appointed court interpreters – questioning their ethnicity and religion, arguing that they might belong to tribes that opposed Woewiyu’s NPFL in the civil war. The government argued by asking one disputed interpreter to state his tribe and religion – the two key points the defense had concerns over.

“Have you worked on another recent federal case here”, asked Government prosecutor L. C. Wright

Interpreter replied, “Yes”

You said you have been Muslim since birth?

“Yes.”

“Was that defender a Muslim?

“Yes”

“Was he a member of the Mandingo tribe?”

“Yes”

“I have no further question, your Honor.”

Veteran BBC West Africa Correspondent Elizabeth Blunt – the only non-Liberian locals considered a walking history of the civil war opened the day on the witness stand.

Blunt was not particularly dramatic but her appearance as a key government witness was to shed light on Woewiyu’s alleged war profile, one of the underlying crimes the U.S. must prove against Woewiyu.

After Blunt, the government played its first of nearly 30 digital recordings from BBC interviews allegedly of Woewiyu during the height of the war. The BBC was the most listened to radio around Liberia and the rest of Africa during the Liberian civil wars.

In the first tape, a BBC reporter asked Woewiyu if he saw anything morally wrong with recruiting or using children as child soldiers. In an unexpected reply, the man prosecutors identified as the ex-NPFL Defense Minister told the interviewer, “I see something morally wrong to seeing 10-year-olds being killed.”

Government prosecutors tried Thursday to enforce their charges that Woewiyu did not only recruit and use child soldiers, they fielded witnesses to attest that he had the power to back him up.

Thursday’s testimonies were heavily focused on the used of child soldiers allegedly under Woewiyu’s command as the NPFL defense minister. In an effort to hammer home their claims, prosecutors brought in two witnesses who said were forced to train and fight as child soldiers.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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