In Liberia there have as yet been no decisions about whether anyone will be brought to justice for the horrific war crimes committed during its brutal 14-year civil war – a war in which hundreds of thousands of Liberians were killed, maimed and displaced. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up in 2005 as a central part of the peace agreement between the warring factions. Since then, it’s been holding hearings to identify abusers, victims and perpetrators, and is scheduled to make recommendations to the government by 2009 on how to heal the country. But the TRC has its own dilemma – in a country where so many of the population were caught up in the fighting, how far should they go in holding individuals to account for their actions? And if they decide to hold all the civil war perpetrators to account, do they just risk reigniting the violence?
In ‘The Unforgiven’ – the fourth film in the ‘Life on the Edge’ series – TVE explores the dilemma through one of Liberia’s most high profile cases – that of the notorious former warlord General Butt Naked, now turned preacher Joshua Milton Blahyi. Half of Liberia’s people fled during its bitter civil war. Hundreds of thousands died. There is peace now, but prosperity is a long way off. But if Liberia is the oldest independent state in Africa – is to recover fully after the war, it must decide whether to forgive, or to punish those who committed terrible atrocities.
During the war Joshua Milton Blahyi was the feared rebel commander known as General Butt Naked. He launched into battle naked to scare the enemy and for spiritual protection. He has admitted responsibility for the deaths of 20,000 people and confessed to cannibalism. He says he was initiated as a child into his tribe priesthood, and later became an adviser to murdered President Samuel Doe. Now Joshua is an evangelical Christian pastor in the capital Monrovia, preaching peace and forgiveness. Liberia’s new government must decide whether to forgive Joshua and dozens of other ex-combatants. Should they prosecute the killers as war criminals because of the horror of their crimes? Or is reconciliation the only way forward for such a war-torn and devastated country?
Joshua is committed, he says, to doing God’s work, trying to rehabilitate 50 hardened criminals and ex-combatants. As he explains: These ones were very small when they started fighting.
After the war their parents expected children, but they were no longer children, they were adults They felt abandoned, felt they were not catered for, so they became more enemy to society. So nobody used to like them. So I decided to come and be a bridge to them to be a bridge between them and society.
One of the former fighters says: If you knew me before you would be afraid of me. I used to rape young girls I used to put people under knife-point and take their belongings. But now I am happy because I have received Jesus Christ through Joshua Milton Blahyi.
Joshua now faces a dilemma made more acute by his Christian conversion: should he be forgiven since he has repented? Or should he be held to account?
Liberia’s civil war was one of the most bloody in West African history. Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission the TRC was a central plank of the Peace agreement made between Liberia’s warring factions. The TRC began its work in 2005, documenting abuses and identifying the perpetrators and their victims. It will make recommendations to the government on how to heal the country. But the TRC is facing a dilemma of its own. If they try and hold all the perpetrators to account it could rekindle the fighting. But it also wants to encourage people to speak out.
As Jerome Verdier, the Chairman of the Commission puts it: ‘It is a delicate balance that the TRC has to provide: how do you pursue the peace, how do you sustain peace, and how do you promote reconciliation? You don’t want to aggressively pursue one approach, and then create another problem… It is natural that people traumatised will be afraid that their victimisers are still around and will have security concerns and will be reluctant to come forward. And so one thing we are doing at the TRC is trying to break the culture of silence in this country about crimes’
Two years after demobilisation, in November 2005, Liberia held democratic elections and renewal began in earnest. It is a huge undertaking to rebuild all of the destroyed infrastructure and to restore the Liberian peoples faith in state authority. The former President, Charles Taylor, is on trial at The Hague for war crimes.
Liberia’s new President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, knows that providing a future for ex-combatants is one of Liberia’s most urgent priorities. Finding jobs for our thousands of young people who were either victims of the war or ex-combatants and giving them skills to enable them to become viable citizens, that’s our biggest challenge because they are unemployed and that means they are very vulnerable to being recruited for other things.
The United Nations is working with the government to strengthen the rule of law, and build up legal institutions, but the UNHCR Representative admits: The issue of mob violence and mob justice is very prevalent in the county, and the country as a whole. If people are not getting justice, their cases are not being heard, then definitely they will take the situation into their own hands and avenge their perpetrators.
The Justice Minister says that not everything can be dealt with by the TRC. There are people who have said that we should just proceed and forgive what has happened in the past. In some instances that may be appropriate, but in others we think that it would indicate the wrong signals. There are others in our community and I was one of those who subscribed to it because I thought that some of the atrocities committed were of such magnitude that it will require us to address them beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and there are individuals who have proposed the setting up of a war crimes tribunal.
As the government waits to hear the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, Joshua Milton Blayhi is caught on the edge of justice. He can see the argument for punishing him. He can also see the case for forgiveness. The last time I gave the government and the nation two options. I said that they should collect every one of us, dig one big hole, put us in there and cover us to die. Or they consider us and work with us to give us some discipline and use us as rebuilding tools.
The President maintains: Victims or victors, we must get them together with one interest to keep Liberia safe for all and to have equal opportunities and justice for all. We must find a way to reconcile without compromising justice wherever that is necessary. And this government is committed to that.
Listen to news and music on Star Radio, broadcasting in English and other languages with the support of the EU, UK Government and other international donors.
Read here what else the British Government is doing to help Liberia.
Between 2002 and 2008 the European Union has given 93.2 million euros for humanitarian assistance in Liberia. Read about the EU’s other programmes in Liberia here.
Joshua’s evangelist website is here.
Reuters factbox gives the details of former President Charles Taylor and his trial. The case against Taylor is continuing at the Special Court in The Hague. When the court is in session, the Taylor trial proceedings are streamed over the internet, and can be seen at Hague Link 1 and Hague Link 2.
The website of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is here.
The UN Security Council has reported on Recent developments in Liberia.
Don Bosco Homes in Liberia has worked for Monrovia’s street children since 1992.
Visit the BBC website pages on this series.