Two white stars painted on the basketball court at the Lutheran Church on 15th Street are all that mark the buried remains of more than 500 people killed in the infamous 1990 massacre here.
On that July night, Liberians fleeing for their lives thought they had found a safe haven in the church compound. Surely, they believed, troops would never storm a place of worship. But the Liberian army forces serving President Samuel Kanyon Doe proved even holy ground would not stop their effort to smoke out rebels.
Samuel Mehn, 41, a security guard with Liberia’s Mennonite Church, narrowly escaped the massacre at the Lutheran Church. He says it was a brush with death that he can still recall vividly.
“The entire compound was surrounded by men who had guns, cutlasses and axes,” Mehn says. “They said, ‘Finally we have gotten these rebels.’ They packed so so rebels in this compound and they saying they came to seek refuge…. and that’s just how the opening of the fire started.”
Mehn says he would like the dead to be remembered. “Well, like the Lutheran area where this massacre took place, I think there should be a monument built in remembrance of those people. It was very severe,” he says.
Mehn was among a handful of survivors. The others, all teenage boys, immediately sought revenge signing up to fight alongside former rebel leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, INPFL, and now Senator Prince Y. Johnson.
The Lutheran Church massacre was just one bloodletting among many — an estimated 250,000 people lost their lives in Liberia’s 14 years of civil war, according to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many thousands of those victims were buried quickly, in mass graves, with no proper burial.
Human remains are now turning up at several massacre sites around the city. Human rights experts and survivors say the time has come for demanding a proper burial.
Mass graves have been reopened and remains reburied after wars in Rwanda, Spain, Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere. It’s an expensive undertaking but one that is worth the investment, advocates say.
“It is important as part of our reconciliation process that we ensure proper burial for our people,” says Jerome Verdier, former TRC Chairman. “Our people’s traditional and religious beliefs are tied to the proper burial of our loved ones. It’s a way of remembering them and it’s a way of ensuring that they rest in peace. “
The violence which began in 1989 quickly turned into an ethnic conflict, with the armed forces loyal to Doe, of the Krahn tribe, targeting members of the Gio and Mano tribes.
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under Doe carried out thousands of executions in Monrovia that year as it sought to eliminate rebel factions. The TRC has identified more than 200 sites of mass graves in the capital but only a handful has been investigated.
“Monrovia alone has nearly 100. The report catalogues nearly 200 around the country. There were killing fields and we discovered some, we identified them,” Verdier says.
Seven years after fighting ended Liberians come across bones while playing soccer on the beach or digging their garden plots. The thousands who died were buried in shallow graves or tossed carelessly into the sand, left to decompose under the hot Equatorial sun.
Jackson Gbeyor, an ex-combatant who lives near the Barclay Training Center, says he and his friends find bones on the beach behind the barracks. “Sometimes you will see some bones rooted out. Sometimes when we’re playing football, we search for bones and take it out,” says Gbeyor.
Isaac K. Weede, 57, a construction worker in Lakpazee, West Point, shows a reporter dozens of skulls and bones at the bottom of the James Spriggs Payne airstrip where he lives. At the end of the runway, the remains of those buried in mass graves have become visible after years of erosion.
“As I clean up I will see these bones and bones upon bones…I buried bones here myself, even these few days I found one bone here. The bones are always around here,” Weede says.
David Targbe 45, acting head of news at Radio Veritas in Monrovia, escaped the AFL’s bullets in a firing line at the airstrip by feigning his own death.
“The idea of escaping occurred to me. I started running towards the runway. When they saw me running they shot behind me and the bullet skinned my head. I dropped myself into the valley pretending that I was dead and that’s how they left,” he said. Targbe’s relatives were not so lucky. His female cousins and a sister were raped and four male cousins and an uncle were executed.
“If we could have a national day, a memorial in honor of those who lost their lives, that would be okay,” Targbe says.
Citizens and survivors say they want the bones to be exhumed and buried for good, closing a chapter in Liberia’s recent violent history.
”We planning but the time never reach yet that all. Anytime we will get together we will do it. We will call all the Liberia people, we all come because the people that under this ground it not easy,” said Mayoupleh Jeffley, 39, who lives at DuPort Road waterside, another scene of deadly massacres during the war.
Weede hopes that there will be proper burial for these people. “We will feel very happy were the international community or our government were to come and have a reburial,” he says.
Reliving the massacres can be very painful for relatives and communities according to Aaron Weah, Program Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice, (ICTJ), which helps communities reengage with places that were once scenes of massacres.
“Many people we’ve talked to, they tell us the trauma, the extent of re-victimization of trying to revisit the horrors of these of massacres. But courageously many of these villages are either engaged into memorial exercises, trying to build monument to remember what happened in different ways,” says Weah.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government has no plans to excavate these mass graves, according to Isaac Jackson, Assistant Minister for Information Services at the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism, MICAT says. Jackson commended victim communities in their effort to memorialize those buried in mass graves. The government will also hold a memorial for slain former presidents William R. Tolbert and Samuel K. Doe, whose bodies were thrown into mass graves, on Decoration Day, March 9, 2011, according to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights.
The civil war ended more than seven years ago but the bones of those buried in mass graves are still awaiting proper burial. The TRC’s Verdier said addressing the mass graves is part of Liberia’s reconciliation process. “There can be no better investment than to invest in peace and reconciliation,” he says.