Many of the nearly one and a half million Liberians who fled their country during years of civil war reside in the United States. This past week, the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed public hearings for Liberians living in the United States as part of the process to heal the nation. The TRC was set up to look into the root causes of Liberia’s conflicts from 1979 to 2003, promote national unity and reconciliation, and make it possible to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights violations.
Jerome Verdier is chairman of the TRC. From Minneapolis, Minnesota, he told VOA the hearings provided valuable information.“It was a worthy engagement because it satisfied our purpose to inquire into conflict issues, who, why, when, where, and we were satisfied that there were adequate witnesses who shed light on their experiences on major events during the conflict, and then why the conflict came about in the first place. I think people make recommendations. So we are very pleased with the work of our partners and the Liberian community,” he said.
Also testifying at the Minnesota hearings was former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993 Herman J. Cohen. He told the commission that the United States made arrangements for then President Samuel Doe to be evacuated from Liberia.
But Cohen said the deal to evacuate Doe and his family was disrupted when rebel leader Prince Johnson of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia took control of Bushrod Island where Doe was to have been evacuated.
Cohen also told the TRC that when the United States was about to send an aircraft to carry out the evacuation, word came from Washington to stop all engagements to end the Liberian conflict.
TRC Chairman Verdier said Ambassador Cohen’s testimony shed more light on the role the United States played or should have played during the Liberian conflict.
“Ambassador Cohen and others who testified added some value to our work. We have been interested in what role the US played or what role the US could have played in avoiding the escalation of the conflict. And it was very useful that Ambassador Cohen came and shed light most of the outstanding issues,” he said.
Also testifying among many was one James Y. Hunder who said he served as a former senior officer in the Special Security Service of Liberia. Hunder testified how then head of state Samuel Doe ordered the killing of his former vice head of state Thomas Weh-Syen.
Verdier said such information would form part of a national narrative that the TRC would put together at the end of its investigation.
“We are doing a comprehensive review from 1979 to 2003. Liberians are interested in knowing factually, truthfully what happened. How come there was a rice riot that led to the destruction of property and lives? What were the mistakes made? What went wrong when hopes of Liberians were dashed immediately after the 1980 coup? How come the military initially planned to turn power over to civilian rule, and how come Doe changed his mind and decided to run? How did that contribute to the long-running conflict we had from 1990 to 2003? So there are many questions, and we are hoping that at the end of day we will provide answers to those,” Verdier said.
The TRC recently launched an investigation to look into allegations whether a member of the TRC, Massa Washington, bribed a witnessed to implicate Liberian’s singing sensation Sundaygar Dearboy for committing atrocities during the war.
Deayboy told VOA that that he was a member of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel movement.
Commissioner Verdier said a special magistrate investigated the matter and found witnesses David Sayweah and Brown Taylue in contempt of the TRC and for committing perjury during the investigation. The two are now in jail for their offenses.
Verdier called on Liberians to continue to support the work of the TRC.
“What I will say is that the work of the commission is proceeding unhindered and that Liberians should for once rally together and support a credible national process. I know our society has been polarized from a prolonged period of conflict and people have their own allegiances and biases. But how be it, this is the time in building our new society. We have to be honest with each other; we have to show respect for national institutions and national leaders, we have to respect and follow the rule of law, we have to be critical in our thinking, and just don’t jump to conclusions based upon what people just say,” Verdier said.
Many Liberians have been asking when the TRC would call some of the key leaders of the civil war like Alhaji Kromah, Sekou Conneh, Prince Johnson, and George Boley.
Verdier said the TRC is only an inquiry commission and would call people when they have been implicated by others in testimonies.
“I lived in Liberia from 1979 to 2003 because I think and believe or because I saw that atrocities were committed by the NPFL or the LPC, it doesn’t provide the basis for me to invite George Boley to Commission or Mr. Charles Taylor to the Commission and say I was here in Liberia from 1979 to 2003, and I saw NPFL operating in Buchanan or I saw LPC operating in Sinoe County so come and account to me. This is a healing and reconciliation process. We have to establish firmed, moral basis for compelling people to come before the commission,” Verdier said.