In the West African country of Liberia, thousands of people are telling their stories about human rights abuses that took place in the country, especially during the 14-year civil war. Their comments will become part of a report by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The aim is to promote healing in Liberia. A large Liberian community in the U.S. midwest city of Minneapolis, Minnesota is also providing testimony for the report. VOA's Deborah Block has more.
A recent event in Minneapolis encouraged Liberians to come forward to document atrocities during their country's years of civil war and conflict between 1989 and 2003.
The conflict began when rebel leader Charles Taylor tried to overthrow Samuel Doe, who had taken over the country in a military coup. Various rebel factions also battled each other. It is estimated that the violence left at least 200,000 people dead and displaced a million more.
A private group, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, is coordinating the Liberian testimony in the United States.
Director Robin Phillips says the views of Liberians who live in the U.S. are crucial. "A lot of the people who fled Liberia were victims of the atrocities there and if they don't include their statements then the record won't be complete."
Momolu Getaweh was the minister of information under Doe, who was assassinated in 1990. He says he was astounded how Liberians turned against each other. "To see students kill their teachers. It's very gruesome some of those things that we saw, that we witnessed."
After Doe's death, ECOWAS -- The Economic Community of West African states -- formed an interim government, but Taylor's rebels and other factions refused to recognize it. Peace accords failed until Taylor agreed to another transitional government. After major fighting ended in 1997, Liberia held democratic elections. Taylor won the majority of the votes and became president.
During his six years as president, Taylor left Liberia bankrupt and in ruins. Under intense international pressure, he resigned in 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria.
Then in 2006, after being jailed in Sierra Leone, the United Nations sent him to The Hague, Netherlands for trial. He faces charges of allegedly backing rebels in the Sierra Leone civil war.
The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission says its report will not be used to prosecute Liberians who may have committed crimes. But Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told VOA the information could also be used for other purposes. "The whole process will enhance contrition and forgiveness. And at the end of the day if the recommendations lead to other forms of justice, we'll go that route appropriately."
Ben Browne is editor of a Liberian magazine in Minnesota. He is not testifying for the truth and reconciliation report because he says it is a waste of time. "There should be a war crimes tribunal set up for people who perpetrated crimes against the Liberian people. People should pay the price for what they did during that time."
Maimen Wopea says he was tortured during the civil war and both his parents were killed. "I know those who did it. And the first time I saw one of my torturers here, my friends will tell you I shed tears, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to grab him but I was able to tell him, 'do you remember me?' And when he said 'no' I told him about our interaction and then he said 'I'm sorry.' Then I broke down in tears."
Law firms in Minneapolis are providing free services to take testimony from local Liberians. Attorney Jim O'Neil spoke to one man for four hours. "Things that were done in this conflict are almost hard to believe. They are hard to imagine and how people could do that to other human beings."
O'Neil recently visited Liberia where he says a man on the street opened up to him. "And the story this gentlemen told involved murder, rape, cannibalism and a mass grave where he said children were buried alive."
But what if these stories are not true, or they are exaggerated? Since all testimony is confidential the commission hopes most people will tell the truth.
Liberian Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Massa Washington says confidentiality is the only way some people will find out what happened to their loved ones. "For example, the woman whose son disappeared who is still waiting after 14 or 15 years. How does she get the answer as to what happened to her son? Someone out there might know."
There are plans to take testimony in other U.S. cities with large Liberian populations. The Liberian commission's report is scheduled to be released in 2008.