Twelve years on, massacre still haunts Liberian town

Twelve years after rebels butchered thousands in this tiny central town, Martha Yarkpawolo spends her days sitting on the rock where so many were slain, singing sorrowfully.

The trauma is still fresh for survivors of one of Liberia’s worst wartime massacres.

“She has been like this for the past five years,” said town chief Bonituelleh Pelawoe Kennedy watching Martha, hands clasped under her chin.

“Sometimes she runs in the forest calling her brother who was also killed. Her father was killed too,” he said.

The slaughter lasted three days, one of many in a quarter-century of conflict that claimed about 300&bsp;000 lives and shattered this West African country.

But hope may lie in the recently appointed truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). Inaugurated on February 20, the commission aims to lift the lid on past atrocities and to lay the groundwork for reconciliation.

Residents recall the day in September 1994 when fighters from the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), a faction opposed to then president Charles Taylor’s rule, set upon the town and turned it into a killing field.

Their locality is only 54km from Gbarnga, a provincial capital of central Bong county that was then headquarters to Taylor’s National Patriotic Forces of Liberia (NPFL) and the scene of heavy clashes.

Though trouble started in 1979 with food riots and a coup a year later, it was the NPFL’s 1990 rebellion and assassination of president Samuel Doe that intensified the conflict and turned it into one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars.

Pastor John Kerkeh, a town religious leader, said anti-Taylor LPC fighters descended on Kpolopkpalah, which stretches over an area only about three square kilometres, at dawn and cordoned it off.
They rounded up all residents into the central square and started killing them one by one, he said.

“It was on September 18, 1994 and this town was packed with people who had fled Gbarnga where serious fighting was going on,” Kerkeh recalled.

Kennedy said there were more than 5 000 people in town that day and that about 3 000 of them were killed.

“They asked everybody to sit in the centre of the town, and then began to kill ... one by one,” said Kennedy.

The nightmare lasted three days as LPC forces went on indiscriminately slaying civilians in cold blood then cannibalising their victims.

“They were using knives to kill. When they took you from the group, they lay you on this rock and cut your throat,” said Kerkeh pointing to the rock—where Martha sits—that serves as a reminder of the chilling murders.

“It was like play for them. At the end of each day they asked those of us who were still alive to pile up the bodies of the dead ones,” said Kerkeh.

He said some people “chose the bullet”, deliberately breaking from the group and running away, knowing they would be shot and die a quicker death.

The psychological impact of the massacre has yet to be assessed but clearly affects many.

One of the women forced by the fighters to prepare them food said the daily meals were as depraved as the killing.

“They opened the stomach of some people and asked us to cook the intestines,” said Lorpu Kollie, breaking down in tears.

“I was afraid to touch human flesh but I had no choice because killing was just play for those boys,” she said.

After three days, those still alive and unable to bear any more took their chances and fled en masse towards the forests. Bullets rained down on them but some, including the town chief and the pastor, managed to escape.

“We were lucky to be among those who survived because that day, more than a thousand people died from bullets,” said Kennedy.

Closure has been difficult. There are six mass graves around the town. Even worse, Kennedy said the perpetrators still roam the area but there has been no way to seek justice or redress.

“The people who did the act, we can see them. [There is] nothing we can do,” he said.

To help cope, Kerkeh said he is “constantly preaching” and the town has set up a farm, but it feels abandoned.

Town chief Kennedy said people who claimed to be from an Italian human rights organisation visited the area in 2000 and took pictures of remains from the mass graves, but there has been no follow-up.

“We are just disappointed in human rights groups,” he said.

Kennedy had never heard of the new TRC as the area has no access to news.

When its aim was explained, he said only: “We will wait and see what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will decide.”

Modelled on the lines of South Africa’s TRC, the commission will probe violations including murders, extra-judicial killings, economic crimes and sexual abuse committed by all parties to the country’s conflict.

TRC head Jerome Verdier has vowed “no Liberian is immune from the process”.

This presumably includes Taylor, now in exile in Nigeria and indicted on charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone, Liberia’s equally war ravaged neighbour, though President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has repeatedly said bringing Taylor to justice in Liberia was not among her priorities. - AFP

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