“Jungle Jabbah” Bridge, Gbarqueta, Gbarpolu – The news that Jungle Jabbah had been sentenced to 30 years in a US prison was welcomed by victims who endured years of terror at the hands of Jabbah and his rebels in Western Liberia.
At the community around the bridge that bears his name the memories of the atrocities are fresh.
“Ye, he is supposed to go to jail. 30 years is even small,” said John Wanner, 49. “Me I see Jungle Jabbah, I was not a small boy at that time. Here in Lofa Bridge when they kill somebody he takes of their heart to cook pepper soup and eat it.”
“Whenever soldiers under his commend complain of hunger he will ask for all the prisoners to get out,” said Town Chief Momoh FenSeh, 60. “He like the fair skin people. Whether you are a woman or man as long as your skin is fair he referred to you is hog (pig) meat. We are satisfying with that 30 years, for somebody to kill people like chicken and be walking free it is not fine.
He had a big dryer where he used to dry (preserve by smoking) human being after he finish eating the heart. As Chief for Lofa Bridge I say we are happy.”
But there was also unhappiness with the sentence.
For 40-year-old Zoe Lahei who was commonly known as Tactical during the days of war Jungle Jabbah does not deserve punishment. Although her own father died after he was placed on a dryer and heated alive.
“If I was there I was going to talk for them. When somebody does wrong to you always pay them good. Sometimes he used to give me food.”
In the area near the Jungle Jabbah bridge which bears his name because of the violence he committed there, there was relief that he was facing punishment.
“Let him be there. Let them put him in jail. Jungle Jabbah did a lot of things here. Let him be in jail,” said Joseph Ballah, 78, a resident of Gbarqueta, the biggest town before the Jungle Jabbah Bridge.
“The things that he did in Liberia here, let him bear the penalty. He ran away from here to America, taking himself to be a good person. Let him bear the penalty.”
The bridge was named to commemorate the horrors he committed here after forcing the local community to build a bridge to transport items he stole from a nearby logging company. The news of the sentence, nearly three decades after the crimes, was a relief to people here.
Ballah says Jabbah forced people to farm for them. His reputation for barbarous acts meant anyone could be subjected to torture or violent death for the slightest perceived insult. Ballah was once caught by Jabbah’s men and he counted himself lucky that he escaped unharmed.
“This is the main route Jungle Jabbah used to pass from Bellefasama end to Bopolu and then to Monrovia,” said George Massaquoi, now 51, pointing to the road leading through town. “We here really know the man. When they said ‘Jungle Jabbah [is] coming’, nobody would remain in this town. Everybody used to jump in the bush. I was afraid to even lay eyes on him. Most of the times, I led the people to jump in the bush.”
“I really feel happy because those are the people who tortured our people here. I was very surprised to hear that he told the [court] that he did not fight war in Liberia, that he did not do anything. He is a liar.”
“When they said ‘Jungle Jabbah [is] coming’, nobody would remain in this town,” said George Massaquoi, now 51. “Everybody used to jump in the bush. I was afraid to even lay eyes on him. I really feel happy because those are the people who tortured our people here.”
Jabateh’s trial is the first case in a new legal push for the prosecution of Liberians who gained asylum in international countries after committing war crimes during the country’s bloody civil conflicts.
The push has been led by the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), the Liberia-based non-profit that documents war crimes and seeks justice for victims in collaboration with the international lawyers of Swiss-based Civitas Maxima. The campaign is running under the banner #Quest4Liberia. The trials of Thomas Woewiyu, Charles Taylor’s Defense Minister in Philadelphia and Agnes Taylor, Charles Taylor’s ex-wife in the UK will begin later this year. Alieu Kosiah will also face trial in Switzerland and Martina Johnson in Belgium. There are more cases in the works.
Pressure is mounting on President George Weah to hold a war crimes court. In a big change in their position the Liberian Council of Churches recently called on the president to hold a trial. In a visit to Liberia in March, UN Deputy General Amina Mohammed also called on the president to hold a trial.
So far President Weah, who said a trial was necessary in 2004, has refused to discuss a trial since he became president in January. Weah has appointed several people accused of war crimes to his government.
But speaking in Philadelphia on Monday Lenn Eugene Nagbe, Weah’s Information Minister, said the government is working on a plan that “takes into account the country’s fragility, reconciliation and possible prosecution while maintaining peace.” He said the plan would be based on the recommendations of the TRC report focusing on reconciliation through the Palaver hut process first.
President Johnson Sirleaf started a similar process headed Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee but it fell apart after Gbowee resigned saying the president wasn’t serious in her efforts.
Pressure will mount as the trials continue.
“We believe that no matter what happens, there will come a time in Liberia that suspected war criminals will be made to account for the deeds in the two Liberian civil wars,” said Bility. “This is very important for us; it is important for Liberia because if you want to build a democracy, you cannot overlook justice.”
“The head of this government, Mr. George Weah is not connected—to the best of our knowledge—to any warring faction, to any war crimes. So we believe he has the best opportunity. Majority of the people who voted for him are people who are poor. It is the poor people that suffer the war. It is they that were generally killed, massacred by the powerful warlords. And now is the time.”
Report by Tecee Boley in Lofa Bridge, James Harding Giahyue in Gbapolu and Jackson Kanneh in Philadelphia
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content.