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An Especially Cruel War Makes Reconciling Tough

Liberia tries to heal the breach between victims and combatants. But those who saw relatives mutilated or young girls raped can't forget.

November 13, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — When Miatta Pasaweh hears talk about reconciliation, she matter-of-factly explains what happened to her three brothers, and what happened to her, and why forgiving is as impossible as forgetting.

First, she describes how the rebels in this country's brutal civil war cut her brothers' throats and mutilated their bodies. Then, in the calm voice of someone who has spoken the unspeakable many times before, she describes how the rebels forced her to eat her brothers' flesh, and then raped her.

"I suffer because when they gave me that blood and I drank it, I was sick. I was sick for nine months," said Pasaweh, 31, who lives in a repatriation camp with her three children. Her father was also killed in the conflict; the fate of her mother and husband are unknown.

Now the Liberian government has set up a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, which would allow victims of the 14 years of fighting to recount their suffering and the majority of killers to get amnesty in return for admitting their crimes and expressing their remorse. But to Pasaweh, no remorse could ever be enough.

"It makes me sad and it makes me angry because they killed my three brothers and I had no father to help me," she said. "I'm not satisfied. I want to cry tears."

After rebels kidnapped Quayquay Bonah when he was 9, the first thing they told him was "don't cry." The next lesson, just an hour long, was how to fire an AK-47. It was difficult for the boy to handle such a large gun. But the next day, he was sent into battle. When bullets were fired around his feet, he finally started to fight.

Attacking villages as a rebel fighter in the four years that followed, he fired indiscriminately. "As soon as the gunpowder gets into your nose, you'll be firing away," he said. "When you go into a town, you shoot everyone, you shoot everywhere. You don't know whether it's civilians or not."

At first, the endless battles were terrifying. He survived with little to eat, not much sleep and many prayers. After a year it was "like playing football," he said.

Bridging the rift between victims and combatants is key to Liberia's process of reconciliation, which is just beginning two years after the conflict ended. But it's a delicate balance: Pursuing too many former combatants deprives them of a stake in the peace. Pursuing too few of those responsible for the killings and atrocities fails to address the culture of impunity.

"If Liberia wants to make a break with the past, it has to re-establish the rule of law, and one of the ways to do that is to address the crimes of the past," said Corinne Dufka, who is with the West Africa office of Human Rights Watch.

"In Liberia, you had very serious and systematic war crimes that were committed. But we can't say that we think that every person who committed a war crime in Liberia should be prosecuted. It's just not realistic."

Recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Liberia are the most encouraging step toward peace since a 2003 pact saw former President Charles Taylor exiled to Nigeria. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, appears to have won the presidential election, defeating former soccer star George Weah in the second round of voting. Weah is claiming fraud but appealing to supporters for calm and peace.

Angry about the ballot results, a crowd of Weah's young backers, including many ex-fighters, clashed with U.N. peacekeepers Friday. Yet the elections have brought optimism and hope to Liberia. Expectations of change are high. Still, the country faces massive tasks in rebuilding ruined infrastructure, rooting out corruption, establishing a credible government and providing jobs for former combatants and others.

Bonah, now 15, shares a tiny room in Monrovia's crowded Red Light neighborhood -- named for the first traffic light in one of Monrovia's suburbs -- with two close friends who were kidnapped at the same time that he was. Sam Bonah, 18, and Junior Bonah, 19, share his last name and they call themselves brothers, but they are not related.

The Red Light is a neighborhood crammed with former fighters, many from opposing groups. Although they say they have no problem living alongside combatants from rival forces, some fighters are afraid to return to their own communities, where people know them and remember what they did.

The initial international focus in Liberia has been on 100,000 former fighters, who were seen as the key to peace and were paid $300 by the U.N. peacekeeping mission to give up their arms. That policy created resentment among many victims of the fighting who were unhappy to see the perpetrators of violence rewarded.

"It is not fair," said Andrew Johnson, 43, a resident of the Jatondo camp for internally displaced people outside Monrovia. He is waiting for the $5 promised by the government to repatriate him.

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