/ 28 August 2008

Former Liberian warlord dodges questions at TRC

A former Liberian warlord whose drugged fighters appeared on camera holding up a human heart dodged questions on Wednesday and refused to accept any wrongdoing during his appearance before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Sekou Conneh is the former head of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or Lurd, the rebel group that encircled Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and heavily shelled it in the final months of Liberia’s 14-year conflict in 2003.

Conneh argued that he should be treated as a hero for having launched the attack that led to the defeat of former president Charles Taylor, himself now on trial for war crimes at The Hague.

Although Taylor’s forces are accused of numerous atrocities — including eating the hearts of their slain enemies — the rebel group Conneh led is equally tainted. Besides shelling the capital, his fighters have been accused of massacring entire villages.

Their siege of Monrovia led to so many deaths that Liberians began piling up the bodies in front of the United States embassy in a plea for help.

Conneh argued that the shelling was the work of Taylor’s forces, even though Lurd rebels allowed themselves to be filmed as they assaulted the city. During the war, both sides blamed each other for shelling civilian populations in the capital.

Dressed in a white flowing gown, Conneh made a brief opening statement, then said he was willing to answer questions. Soon the session turned into a debate, with the ex-rebel asking more questions of the commissioners than he answered.

”If a minister embezzles or carries out any act of corruption, would you hold the president liable? The president is not responsible for a minister’s mistake,” Conneh said in answering the question of whether he took responsibility for the actions of his men.

He expressed surprise that ”as a liberator you are questioning me, when you should be happy about my role”.

He described his group as a resistance force that only fought to restore democracy in Liberia.

”If we had not fought to get Charles Taylor out of your backs you wouldn’t be sitting here today to be called TRC,” he said. ”At least a monument could be built for Sekou Demate Conneh as a liberator, I would enjoy that,” he said.

Bloodcurdling display of brutality
Outside the hall, people listening to Conneh’s testimony carried live on UN radio disagreed.

”It is because of these lies and denials that this country truly needs a war-crimes court,” said Jerry Sumo, a university student.

”These are lies, pure lies; we were all here and we saw the carnage and mayhem Lurd unleashed on armless and defenceless civilians.”

Lurd was founded in Sierra Leone in 1998 and organised its attacks on Liberia from neighbouring Guinea with that country’s help. It was made up of members of the Mandingo and Krahn, ethnic groups that suffered under Taylor’s regime.

They first assaulted Liberia’s forested north in 1998. Over the next five years, they fought their way to Monrovia, attacking the capital in June, July and August 2003 — three battles that were so devastating Liberians refer to them as World War I, World War II and World War III.

The United States sent warships off the country’s coast. Cornered, Taylor and his family went into exile in Nigeria. He was later arrested on war-crimes charges for his role in fuelling an equally horrific rebellion in Sierra Leone, and sent to The Hague.

Liberia’s civil war began in 1989 when Taylor, then commanding a rebel army, invaded from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire in a bid to oust the unpopular former president. A different warlord got there first and videotaped himself ordering his men to torture President Samuel Doe in a bloodcurdling display of brutality.

It set off a cycle of violence pitting the members of Doe’s ethnic group against Taylor and the tribes that supported him.

Drawing on Liberian cult tradition, many of the rebels believed that eating the organs of their enemy would give them superhuman strength. A Lurd rebel allowed himself to be filmed in 2003, shaking the heart he had just carved out of corpse and vowing to eat it.

To try to air the past, the country’s post-war government set up a truth commission, inviting both victims and perpetrators to retell their version of events.

But critics say the commission is toothless since it cannot send war criminals to jail. Many argue that what is needed is a war-crimes court so that those most responsible for atrocities can face real justice. — Sapa-AP