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Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hears Public Testimony

Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has entered its final phase: public testimonies by victims of civil war and by those they accuse. Many Liberians say airing the crimes will help the country heal from the psychological wounds of war and instability. But others say Liberia should focus on moving forward and not look back. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the accord that ended the civil war in 2003. It has collected more than 20,000 written testimonies covering the period from 1979 when Samuel Doe seized power in a coup, to 2003 when a large force of U.N. peacekeepers arrived in the country. The testimonies tell of widespread rape, massacres, and children forced to be soldiers.

Now victims have begun testifying in public hearings.

James Makor of Liberia's non-governmental organization Save My Future says the public statements still contain surprises.

"One musician around here, I had never knew that he was a general, but during the public hearing we got to know that he was a general," said Makor. "So in that case now, most of his songs he had always won public sympathy that he was victimized, instead people now know that he was one of the guys that had a lot of power to himself."

Makor is referring to Michael David, known as Sundaygar Dearboy. Witnesses have accused David of rapes and beatings. One of Liberia's most popular stars, he sang the campaign song for Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she ran for office in 2005.

Makor says it is good for Liberians to know the truth about what happened.

"It is necessary that we get to know some of the people, what they did. For us to have the past information, so we can know how to interact with them," added Makor.

But some Liberians say the information could be dangerous.

Lamii Kpargoi of Liberia's Media Watch says he feels it is too soon to stir up these wounds.

"There are a lot of people walking the streets in Liberia that committed heinous crimes that have never owned up to their mistakes. Hearing some of the testimonies that have come out over the past few days, it may well just make people become rowdy and try taking things off on these people, especially if they come out and they deny these things when everybody knows that they actually did them," said Kpargoi.

He says there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, so the issues can be addressed later.

"I think this TRC thing has come a little bit too soon. I think what Liberia needs presently is to get political and economic stability," he added. "Then when we are stable, then we can go after these people who have committed crimes and try to see how we can best forgive each other and move on."

The Commission will hear from victims first and then allow the accused to respond and apologize. When it finishes hearing testimony, the commission will give its recommendations to the government on how to use the information to foster reconciliation.

This is not enough for some Liberians.

"Crimes against humanity are not pardoned by amnesty or whatsoever form of saying sorry," said Boakai Jalerba, the secretary general of an organization that pushed for a war crimes tribunal, with power to prosecute. He says the country cannot move forward while people who committed atrocities remain free and, sometimes, hold powerful positions.

One man who will likely not face Liberia's TRC or prosecution in Liberia is former president Charles Taylor, whose attempt to overthrow the government in 1989 instigated the worst phase of violence.

Taylor is currently on trial for crimes against humanity in neighboring Sierra Leone's civil war, in which he is said to have participated in exchange for diamond money. The trial, in The Hague in the Netherlands, is being held by a special court for Sierra Leone.

Jalerba says Taylor should be extradited to Liberia and face charges there.

But Steve Marvie, acting chairman of the Youth Empowerment Program, a pro-democracy organization, says most Liberians are content to let the Sierra Leone special court handle that prosecution.

"We, Liberians, we are moving along with our lives, we are generally happy with our situation, and we do not think we want to turned back into our crisis days," said Marvie.

Media Watch's Kpargai says bringing Taylor back to Liberia could lead to greater instability. And Kpargai says, as a former head of state, Taylor benefits from amnesty under Liberian law for any crime committed after he became president.