Global Policy Forum

In Land of War Criminals,

June 3, 2007

Ex-President Charles Taylor's men were known for eating the hearts of their slain enemies. They decorated checkpoints with human entrails. They sliced open the stomachs of pregnant women, taking bets on the sex of the unborn child. But as the toppled Liberian ruler heads to an international war crimes court in The Hague on Monday, his supporters are erecting billboards in the capital showing him waving triumphantly next to the words: "God willing, I shall return."

The long-awaited trial of the man accused of orchestrating acts of horror would seem to be a time of celebration in the country that witnessed many of his alleged crimes. Instead, the mood is one of outrage on the part of his former associates, who have launched a pro-Taylor Web site and have arranged for the shiny billboards to be shipped in from Europe. In their homes, they proudly display Taylor's portrait. His family is renovating his war-scarred residence, as if in anticipation of his swift return.

Although plenty of Liberians say they are relieved to see the 59-year-old Taylor face justice, many say they just want to move on. Their ambivalence -- even indifference -- underlines the country's complicated relationship to Taylor, as well as the nation's history of violence, a cycle of bloodshed and revenge that has left few untouched. "If you start prosecuting war crimes in Liberia, you'll prosecute every Liberian," says ex-child soldier Paul Tolbert, 28.

From 1989 to 1997, Taylor led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, whose aim was to unseat then-President Samuel K. Doe. Taylor is believed to be one of the first warlords to recruit children, who were organized into a Small Boys Unit and christened with names like Babykiller. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the first eight years of the 14-year war, but one of Liberia's great paradoxes is that in 1997, Taylor won a landslide victory in an election international observers deemed free and fair. One of the slogans chanted by those going to vote for him was: "He killed my ma. He killed my pa. I'll vote for him anyway!" Some say he won because Liberians feared what he would do if he didn't. Even with Taylor at the helm, fighting continued through 2003, when he was forced into exile. He was turned over to the U.N.-backed court three years later.

Books have been written about Taylor's alleged atrocities in Liberia, but one of the ironies of the current trial is that he has been indicted for war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. The murders, rapes and amputations there were carried out not by Taylor's men, but by Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front. Taylor allegedly backed the Sierra Leonean group, which was trying to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government. To the international community, the trial is a watershed, marking the first time an African president is being forced to account for the chaos he allegedly sowed not just in his own country, but throughout the region.

Siblings, senators alleged to have dirty hands

After the war, Liberians chose not to establish a war crimes court on their soil, opting instead for a truth and reconciliation process which allows victims to tell their stories but does not have the power to punish perpetrators. Because of the tangled nature of the war -- where in a single family it's not uncommon to find both a daughter that was raped and a son that was enlisted to rape somebody else's daughter -- many say they would rather just move on.

The desire to forget has allowed known war criminals to reinvent themselves. There's Gen. Peanut Butter, the nom-de-guerre of Adolphus Dolo, now a senator and a former Taylor commander, whose platoon is accused by rights groups of having thrown more than 100 people into a river, their hands tied behind their backs. Prince Johnson, another senator, videotaped himself as he instructed his men to cut off Doe's ears -- a videotape still widely available at roadside stalls. "They say that in order to kill a snake, you have to cut off its head. So maybe Taylor is the head," says Reginald Goodridge, Taylor's former information minister and one of 28 Liberians on a U.N. travel ban because of his close association with the ex-ruler. "But our Congress is full of war criminals. What about them?"

It's an argument frequently invoked by Taylor's family, who say Taylor was not in control of those that carried out the crimes. "He's taking the blame for what others did," says 25-year-old Charen Taylor, his daughter who grew up in the United States and dropped out of college to help organize her father's defense. On a gold chain around her neck, she keeps a portrait of Taylor which she routinely cradles protectively in her hands. Her father doesn't approve of tattoos, but she has one: the Chinese character for "Beloved Daughter" on her left shoulder.

Not all Liberians see Taylor as a beloved father, but even his victims express ambivalence about the trial. On a soccer field not far from where a pro-Taylor billboard faces traffic, a team of one-legged amputees vie for the ball, vaulting on crutches across the sandy turf. There are six one-legged teams in Liberia and several more in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Many of the maimed players were child soldiers fighting on opposite sides of the conflict and their coach has forbidden them from discussing politics in an effort to bury the past.

"Taylor? We're here to forget that name. I've taken it out of my mind," says Tolbert, their coach, who was 10 in 1990 when he joined the Small Boys Unit. By 15, he'd become General Devil, reportedly one of Taylor's youngest and most feared commanders, in charge of a platoon of 2,000 fighters known as the Evil Forces. They wore wigs and women's dresses when they headed into battle, a technique meant to frighten the enemy. He routinely ate the hearts of his victims, a ritual adopted by Taylor's rebels which was said to impart the dead man's strength. He cannot keep track of how many people he killed, nor how many women he raped. He doesn't see the point in prosecuting Taylor.

"We're all dirty," he says. "None of us have clean hands."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Charles Taylor


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