Following Up on Kristof in Liberia: Views on Truth and Reconciliation from the Ground

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has released its long-anticipated final report on the country's devastating 14-year civil war, and this small West African nation finds itself in an unfamiliar place: the news.

Well, sort of.

Since the war ended six years ago, Liberia has rarely made it to the headlines of any major American media outlet. The last week has been something of an exception, with articles on the TRC from and Voice of America and an appeal from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who asked his blog readers, "What on earth is happening in Liberia?"

The stir is over a handful of puzzling recommendations made in the July 2nd report, foremost among them a call to ban President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from politics for 30 years for her role in the war. Sirleaf is the continent's first elected female head-of-state, a darling of the international community, and by most accounts a flawed but dedicated leader. Like many Liberian politicians, however, she has a troubled past. At the outset of the war, she admits funneling food, money, and supplies to rebel leader Charles Taylor, now on trial at The Hague for the atrocities he committed at the helm of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

Sirleaf is under fire, it seems, because she failed to repent her actions, while more sordid characters were dropped from the TRC's list because they expressed remorse. Among them is the notorious Joshua Blahyi, alias Gen. Butt Naked, a warlord-cum-preacher known for his brutality and his penchant for entering battle wearing nothing but boots. In the TRC's peculiar calculus, Blahyi's compunction outweighed the more than 20,000 deaths he caused during the war. Asks Kristof: "Can anybody explain?"

Explanations abound, and the blogosphere in particular is abuzz with commentary on the TRC's report, much of it thoughtful and well-informed (see, for instance, posts by Chris Blattman, Shelby Grossman, and Myles Estey). All but absent from this online debate, however, are the views of those whose lives were touched by the crimes and intrigues that the TRC purports to document. I posed Kristof's question to five Liberians living in Monrovia. I picked individuals from disparate backgrounds to try to capture some of the variety in Liberian views on the TRC. Everyone I interviewed agreed that Sirleaf supported Taylor, but disagreed on just about everything else. These are some of their insights.

Bin Laden is a former instructor in Taylor's Counter-Terrorism Unit, known by his ironic nom de guerre. He now works as a carpenter, drug dealer, and sometime karate teacher in the Red Light district of Monrovia. Sirleaf, he says, is a war criminal. He remembers a day in December, 1989 when she visited the NPFL base where he was stationed, carrying with her a box of red "Freedom Fighter" T-shirts to distribute to the recruits. After that, her role in the conflict soured. He accuses her of financing terror and aggravating internal rivalries within the NPFL, pushing its leaders to greater and greater levels of brutality in their contest for power.

That may be a conspiracy theory, but Bin Laden is convinced: Sirleaf, he insists, should resign immediately, as should any other politician implicated in the conflict. "They were the ones that brought war," he says. "They were the ones that spoiled our lives." But "they" evidently does not include Gen. Butt Naked, with whom Bin Laden claims to have tussled in hand-to-hand combat. Factional rivalries dissipated quickly among many fighters in the wake of the war, and Bin Laden now identifies his former enemy as a brother. Blahyi became a preacher when he demobilized; Bin Laden, too, tried his hand at evangelism before he "gave up the God business" to join the military. "Gen. Butt Naked is a religious man now," says Bin Laden. "He reconciled with the Liberian people. His insides are clear."

Zeleh Kolubah disagrees. Kolubah is a former NPFL rebel who now works as second-in-command at the National Ex-Combatant Peacebuilding Initiative, an NGO that provides ex-fighters with psychosocial counseling; he is known as Zealous for his dedication to social work. Butt Naked, he says, was "one of the key players in the conflict. He should have his day in court." So too should Sirleaf and all the other "architects of the war" and instigators of "mayhem and atrocities in Liberia." Kolubah describes the TRC as "a mockery" -- Sirleaf, he says, "will not even survive another 30 years" to live out the ban on political participation.

Like Bin Laden, Kolubah believes that anyone who established or financed a faction during the conflict should face prosecution for war crimes. That includes former interim president Amos Sawyer, who created the paramilitary Black Berets during his tenure from 1990-1994 and is now a respected academic both in Liberia and the U.S., where he once taught in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. "From the highest up to the least," says Kolubah, they should all stand trial.

Sarah Passawe, in contrast, believes in forgiveness. The eagerness of many civil war victims to seek reconciliation with the perpetrators of violence has been documented in war-ravaged societies throughout the world; still, to hear it in person is a startling thing. Passawe's father and younger brother were both killed by the rebel faction Ulimo-J in the 1990s; her older brother was abducted into forced labor by the NPFL and never seen again. But that, she says, was wartime -- "many things can happen."

She believes that Sirleaf aided Taylor for legitimate reasons, both personal and political: to help overthrow the dictatorial regime of then-President Samuel Doe, who not only terrorized the Liberian people but also imprisoned and exiled Sirleaf when she tried to run for county office. Still, Passawe urges everyone on the TRC's list to apologize, if only to help Liberians "learn how to forgive one another," as she herself has done. She now works as coordinator for ex-combatant job training programs at the NGO Landmine Action. "These are the same people that killed my family," she says. "But I want peace in my country. Everyone should forget about the past. We should turn to a new page."

Twenty-six-year-old David Gibson's right leg was blown off in a firefight between rival factions in Monrovia. Like Passawe, he is a victim of war, but he is doubly stigmatized: as an amputee, he is often assumed to have fought in the conflict, though he has never held a gun; as a beggar and slum-dweller, he is subject to endless harassment. (During our conversation, a private security guard from a nearby supermarket hurried over and yelled, "Hey, hey, leave that white man alone!" Gibson shrugged: "That is exactly what I'm talking about.") Despite the indignities of his daily routine, he holds no grudge against the rebels or the country's current political leaders. "If you hold them responsible, it will not bring back my leg. It will not bring back my friends who died in the war. It will not bring back my life."

It remains unclear what will become of the TRC's recommendations. A Liberian journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, disputes the TRC's authority even to address questions of innocence and guilt. "Are they a court? Can they pass a verdict? That should not be the work of the TRC." She also cautions that the final report is probably not as final as it seems, and more names may be added to the list in the coming months. Even then, the report's relevance will remain an open question. As the Liberian News wrote in a July 3rd editorial, "Generally, it is believed that the recommendations will be debated for several weeks with lots of grandstanding and threats and then swept under the rug, and forgotten forever."

That may be true, but the debate is important. Here is an opportunity for dialogue not just in Congress, but among all Liberians, whose political landscape stands to undergo a major transformation in the (perhaps unlikely) event that the recommendations are made into law. As the views of Bin Laden, Kolubah, Passawe, Gibson, and the journalist make clear, this latest exercise in "truth and reconciliation" has yielded many truths to choose from. Reconciliation -- whatever that turns out to mean -- will happen in the discussion surrounding those truths, irreconcilable as they may be.