Liberia: Use Of Child Soldiers Dominates Day 5 of Woewiyu Trial

Court drawings by Chase Walker/Civitas Maxima

Philadelphia, USA – The use of children of soldiers by NPFL was at the center of most testimonies in Monday’s hearing in the case of Tom Woewiyu Vs the United States government. The prosecution presented three former child soldiers, a clinical psychologist who works with child soldiers and a soundless short clip of a video documentary that displayed NPFL child soldiers in action.

Report by Tecee Boley and Adrienne Tinga

UK journalist Mark Stucke took the stand to talk about two visits he took as a freelance filmmaker when he met Charles Taylor and filmed extensive video of him in his bush base during 1992.

In a clip of Stucke’s video played for the court child soldiers of the NPFL dressed in voodoo (Juju) amulets dressed in wigs, and women’s dresses and carrying RPGs, machetes and AK 47s.

The prosecution witnesses presented in court talked about Woewiyu’s direct involvement in the use of child soldiers and his knowledge of how they were committing heinous crimes. Woeiwyu faces 110 years and $4m fine if convicted of the 16 counts of immigration fraud with which he is charged.

One former child soldier known only as Witness 10 to hide his identity said he was forcefully recruited to be a carrier of supplies at the age of nine in his hometown in Nimba County.

He described a fighter named Zobon Johnson as the leader of his unit. “Zobon Johnson came back the third time to our town and it was very difficult for us,” he told the court. “He ran in the town. I was in front of my house. They came in a car with heavy speed and guns. I was so afraid I ran in the house under the bed. But they got me out. My sister cried and begging them not to carry me to the war front, but all was in vain.”

They took him to Gbarnga where he saw the defendant.

“One day he told us his boss about came. When he got there he told us he was Tom Woewiyu. He had on a pair military trousers, white T-shirt and a jacket. He said we were going to fight against Doe soldiers.”

Witness 11 was 15 years old when he was recruited. He told of how as a child soldier he had to undergo rigorous training to be a soldier of the NPFL.

“I did not join the NPFL because of food. I joined because I had no choice they will kill you if you said no. The first week of training was called Zero week. They clean our head sabu (bold) and make us to crawl in the mud. We ate only once a day. Two children died from the training.”

While the US government was focused on Woewiyu and the NPFL used of child soldiers, the defense team was busying themselves on convincing the jury that the prosecution is wasting a lot of tax payer money on this case.

They downplayed the use and impact of child soldiers in favor of questioning them why they did not participate in the TRC process back home in Liberia. They appeared to be trying to place doubt in the minds of the jury as to the credibility of the witnesses and their testimony.

The defense also tried to make the case that child soldiers behaved better when Woewiyu was around and that most of the worst of their atrocities happened when they were not under his direct control.

Still the defense faced an avalanche of testimony to the horrors of the war.

“Between Harbel town and Harbel Hill there was this checkpoint that was decorated with human intestine,” one former child soldier told the jury. “The people there were NPFL both child soldiers and older soldier. They killed a person and another and tied their intestine together and make it the checkpoint. They also had a human skull. It was a very scary place.”

The witnesses recalled detailed testimonies of encounters with the defendant and the rebel commanders he controlled including Johnson and Christopher Vambo, who has been alleged by American media house to have given the order to murder five American nuns during Operation Octopus. The witnesses also provided accounts of their time as part of the NPFL’s Small Boys Unit (SBU) which was the unit of child soldiers used by the NPFL to fight on the frontline and guard NPFL checkpoints.

The jury was also told of a time when Woewiyu oversaw the actions of Kuku Dennis who cut off the ears of two men they had captured.

“Than Kuku give the order to one ear each,” he told the jury. “They did. And Kuku said they should take them away. They took them away. At the time take him away means to go and kill him. They two men were crying and begging. Uncle Tom was there the whole time but he said nothing.”

During his time as part of the SBU, one witness recalled being ordered by the defendant to “disarm” ECOMOG peacekeeping forces. This alleged order from Charles Taylor by way of Thomas Woewiyu and Zobon Johnson against ECOMOG, was the goal for Operation Octopus in which NPFL soldiers sought to seize Monrovia from ECOMOG peace-keeping forces in 1992.

According to the witness, ECOMOG, at the time, possessed fighter jets, while the NPFL possessed anti-aircraft missiles left in the charge of NPFL unit commander Martina Johnson.

In his testimony, the witness also recalled the use of young women child soldiers referred to as the “Wasps”, who allegedly fought on the frontlines and guarded the NPFL commanders alongside the SBU.

Another witness’s testimony recalled his encounter as a 12-year-old with then defense minister Woewiyu after the witness was captured by NPFL soldiers in Zualay, Nimba County and taken to Gbarnga, Bong County. During this encounter, the witness recalled he and other captured men and children being approached by the defendant. The witness testified that the defendant proceeded to deliver ammunitions to the group, assuring them that he would “go assess Monrovia and come back”. According to the witness, the defendant, Mr. Woewiyu then told the group that they were going to be trained and deployed into Monrovia to “fight against President Samuel Doe’s forces”.

In the defense’s cross examination of the first witness, defense attorney Catherine Henry asked the witness if he had testified to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was another apparent effort to have the jury question the credibility of the witnesses.

The defense noted that Liberia, under the leadership of then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, implemented the TRC, but did not implement its recommendation of establishing a war crimes court or barring from public office specific names mentioned in its sanction list for their involvement in the Liberian civil war. It was a point the defense made in its opening statement – Liberia chose not to prosecute Woewiyu for war crimes, so why they asked, is the USA?

The witnesses recalled hearing of the TRC while in Liberia, but did not testify to being interviewed by them, or knowing of their work in detail. The defense also questioned the witnesses motives in testifying asking them about the state’s package given to them for testifying against Woewiyu. One witness testified only to receiving U.S. visa for the duration of their testimonies, as well as travel/hotel costs and daily per diem. They jury was reminded that witnesses that appeared last week, have already returned home to Liberia.

Also, in its cross examination, the defense emphasized that the defendant, Mr. Thomas Woewiyu was not part of the list of those recommended by the Liberia’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission for prosecution, or to be barred from public office.

Woewiyu was actively engaged throughout the testimony today. He approached journalists and again urged them to “pay attention” to the proceedings. The case continues tomorrow.

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