Cutting The Head Off The Snake

Charles G. Taylor with NPFL fighters during attack on Monrovia in 1990

(Image Source) 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone  today sentenced former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict in the 1990s.   Mr. Taylor helped fuel bloody conflicts between 1989 and 2003, not only in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also throughout the sub-region of West Africa.  For thousands – if not millions – of West Africans, May 30 will now mark the anniversary of accountability.

Eight years ago, in May 2004, I was in Sierra Leone to monitor the efforts that were being made to bring justice and reconciliation to that shattered country.  In August of the previous year,  Charles Taylor had resigned as President and exited Liberia for temporary asylum in Nigeria, the result of a deal brokered to end Liberia’s brutal civil war.  His infamous last words as he boarded the plane were, “God willing, I will be back.” Almost everyone I talked to in Sierra Leone expressed fear of a return to chaos and war in the region if Mr. Taylor did not stand trial.  As one person explained,

“We have a saying in West Africa.  If you cut off the head of the snake, it is then only a rope.  That’s why Taylor must go.”

Mr. Taylor was indicted on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a United Nations-sponsored “hybrid” war crimes tribunal based on international and Sierra Leonean law that had strong support (including $20 million appropriated by Congress) from the United States.  The charges against Mr. Taylor included aiding and abetting the most serious of human rights abuses:  killings, torture, mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, conscription of children, abduction and forced labor perpetuated by Sierra Leonean rebel forces that Mr. Taylor actively supported.  Not to mention the part about fueling the conflict by trading arms for diamonds.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

Under construction in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May 2004

Yet, even after trials began at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor remained in Nigeria, immune from justice.  Even worse, he appeared to continue to meddle with affairs in Liberia.  Impunity for Mr. Taylor was an affront to the thousands of victims and their families.  Fortunately, international pressure finally resulted in Mr. Taylor being taken into custody and brought to the SCSL for trial in 2006.  Due to concerns about security and the potential destabilizing impact of holding the trial in West Africa, Mr. Taylor’s trial was moved to The Netherlands to a chamber borrowed from the International Criminal Court.  (Mr. Taylor complained bitterly about the food he was served.)

I interviewed Sierra Leonean staff members of the SCSL in The Netherlands about the Taylor case in 2008.  Their estimates at the time about the length of the trial proved far too optimistic. The trial, which included testimony from more than 100 witnesses in addition to the defendant (who testified during 81 trial days), took twice as long as planned.

When I traveled to Liberia in February 2008, I asked people about what they thought about the Taylor trial.  Many Liberians did not seem to understand that Mr. Taylor was being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia.  When I pointed out the distinction, most seemed not to care.  In general, the Liberians I talked to just seemed relieved that he was behind bars – and that those bars were controlled by the international community.  When I mentioned the analogy to cutting the head off a snake, I was uniformly met with wise nods of agreement.

The verdict of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April of this year marked a historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.    The sentence today of 50 years (which was consistent with the previous sentences of Sierra Leonean commanders tried by the SCSL) essentially means that Mr. Taylor will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone is important, but we must never forget the remaining impunity for the war crimes that he is responsible for in Liberia.  Liberian civilians were subjected to massive human rights abuses, exercised with direct command responsibility by Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and, after his election in 1997, the Liberian security forces and paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) .  Of a pre-war Liberian population of 3 million, an estimated 250,000 were killed and 1.5 million displaced, with tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee West Africa for safety in the United States.

I spent three years working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, taking statements in the United States, United Kingdom and Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.  The statement giver’s account of violence below is representative of the scope of the human rights abuses and level of brutality suffered by many Liberians:

At the initial stages of the war, I moved to Ninth Street in Sinkor, Monrovia…  The children were outside cleaning the yard. Suddenly they ran inside and said that they saw armed men coming. Moments later, Taylor’s men busted  in. One of them said, “This is the dog I’m looking for.” He told us to come outside. Myself, my ten children, and my wife obeyed.

The NPFL [commander] knew me…He had run against me in an election… before the war. He said to me, “You cheated me during the election, but now I am in power. I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” He told his NPFL boys to take my eldest daughter into the house. She was 11
thirteen years old. They dragged her inside and dragged me in after her. [The commander] raped my daughter in front of me. My father (my daughter’s grandfather) was still in the house. He rushed at the NPFL men, trying to stop the rape. One of the men – I don’t know his name – shot and killed my [father] right there.
[The commander] then brought me and my daughter back outside. He said, “I’m going to show you what I came here for.” He beat the children with the butt of his gun. He made two of my sons, who were seventeen and twenty, drink dirty water with the urine of one of the NPFL men in it. When the twenty year old refused, he shot him in the foot. [The commander] stabbed my other son, who was eighteen, in the elbow with his bayonet.

He then began to beat my wife. He told her to lay on her back and stare at the sun. [The commander] said, “You will eat your husband’s heart very soon.” He took the daughter who had been raped. [The commander] held her and said, “I want you to know how you all will die.” He ordered one of his men to cut off my daughter’s head. She was beheaded in front of our eyes.

They dragged me over to lay beside her body. [The commander] said, “You will be the next one.” Then I heard heavy shooting. ECOMOG was coming. The NPFL scattered.  Before [the commander] left, he made a remark. He said, “Anywhere in
Liberia I meet you or your family, I will kill you.”

Will it make a difference that the international community has now “cut off the head of the snake”? I do, in fact, think it will.  Our international justice system is still in its infancy.  As of yet, it is neither swift nor strong; neither peremptory nor comprehensive.  But with the sentencing of Charles Taylor, not only can West Africans be confident in the knowledge that one individual who wrought destruction will not do so again, but we can all have hope that one day, as a matter of practice, all perpetrators of gross human rights abuses and war crimes will be held accountable.

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Children of the Rainbow v. Anders Breivik and Charles Taylor

Folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen and a crowd of 40,000 sing Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow) at the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo (Source: NRK)

I thought I would write about the Charles Taylor verdict today.  The verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone marks an historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity.     I thought today would be a day to write about the importance of holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone, but also about  the remaining impunity for the war crimes he was responsible for in Liberia.  I’ve been spent time in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, so I’ve seen firsthand the horrific  impact that Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Liberation Front have had on the people in those countries.  I’ve followed this trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone – and waited for this verdict – for years.

But I found myself this morning more powerfully impacted by events surrounding another trial, in another country where I have spent time. I speak Norwegian, so have been following the Norwegian media coverage of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.   Today, that coverage included an allsang with the well-loved Norwegian folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen.   In a chilly spring rain in Oslo, a crowd of more than 40,000 people joined Mr. Nilsen in singing Barn av regnbuen.  

This is a song that Mr. Breivik, apparently, detests.  He testified recently that this song, with its concept of living together in a multicultural Norway (“sammen vi skal lever“) was brainwashing children into supporting immigrants. Norwegians throughout the country sang it as a form of protest against his hatred.

This is a song that I learned many years ago.  It is actually a Pete Seeger song called My Rainbow Race, translated into Norwegian by Lillebjørn Nilsen.   My rough translation follows – with apologies for inaccuracies! I use the translated version as there are a lot of aspects that make this song feel particularly Norwegian.  The references to nature, for example, and the disdain for “plastic and synthetic food”.

Written in the 1970s, Lillebjørn Nilsen’s song has an obvious anti-war theme.   The lyrics of the song, however, seem especially fitting today.  “Some steal from the young, who are sent out to fight…” could well apply to Charles Taylor, whose recruitment of child soldiers stole the lives of thousands in West Africa.  “Some steal from the many, who will come after us.” Anders Behring Breivik’s acts of violence stole not only the future of dozens of young people, but the innocence of a peaceful nation.

I won’t write about Charles Taylor today.  Neither will I write about Anders Behring Breivik.   Instead, I will write about the voices raised today throughout our world – in celebration of justice and in a call for peace in the face of hatred.  Because today I remembered that  Lillebjørn Nilsen -and Pete Seeger – were right.  We do need justice for the Charles Taylors and Anders Behring Breiviks of the world, but we also need to share our hope for the rest of us.

Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Barn av regnbuen

En himmel full av stjerner.
Blått hav så langt du ser.
En jord der blomster gror.
Kan du ønske mer ?
Sammen skal vi leve
hver søster og hver bror.
Små barn av regnbuen
og en frodig jord.

Noen tror det ikke nytter.
Andre kaster tiden bort med prat.
Noen tror at vi kan leve av
plast og syntetisk mat.
Og noen stjeler fra de unge
som blir sendt ut for å sloss
Noen stjeler fra de mange
som kommer etter oss.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å del e et håp på jord.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Children of the Rainbow

A sky full of stars.
Blue sea as far as you can see.
A land where flowers grow.
Could you want more?
Together we will live
every sister and every brother.
Small children of the rainbow
and a flourishing world.

Some believe there is no point.
Others waste their time with talk.
Some believe that we can live on
plastic and synthetic foods.
And some steal from the young,
who are sent out to fight.
Some steal from the many
who will come after us.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

With thanks also to Pete Seeger for his song My Rainbow Race.  Words and music by Pete Seeger (1967) © 1970 by Sanga Music Inc.

CHORUS:

One blue sky above us,

One ocean lapping all our shores,

One Earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more?

And because I love you,

I’ll give it one more try.

To show my Rainbow Race

It’s too soon to die.

Some folks want to be like an ostrich,

Bury their heads in the sand.

Some hope that plastic dreams

Can unclench all those greedy hands.

Some hope to take the easy way,

Poisons, bombs, they think we need ‘em.

Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?

There’s no shortcut to freedom.

CHORUS

Go tell, go tell all—– the little children.

Tell all their mothers and fathers, too —

Now’s our last chance to learn to share

What’s been given to me and you.

CHORUS

For a related post on what I learned from the way Norwegians have dealt with the tragic events of July 22, see https://humanrightswarrior.com/2012/07/19/the-lessons-of-22-july/

Talking To My Kids About Death

Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not  in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure.  Why not?”

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long.  As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as  the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°.  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well.  We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn’t know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her.  The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar.  For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling  me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me.  “My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.”   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said.  “That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It is sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.

So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon.


 

I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.