MONROVIA, Liberia – Adama Dempster still graphically recollects his first encounters with war. He was in 5th grade at a public school in Yekepa in Nimba County, when rebels with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia began recruiting school boys as child soldiers.
The NPFL recruitment of child soldiers was done discreetly, so some of Dempster’s “very close friends” were going missing by the day. They would later reappear. All were changed and clearly troubled by their experiences.
“I remember at certain point … they came back and wanted to recruit more young people including me,” recalls Dempster in a recent interview in Monrovia. “But my dad sensed the difference in my friends, who were good friends before. He warned me and later packed me up and sent me to Monrovia.”
In the next couple of months, the war advanced on Dempster again, this time in the capital. By then, he, like so many Liberians, became a witness to almost daily horrors including summary executions, other atrocities and more recruiting of child soldiers.
As the war dragged on into the early 90s Dempster, still a schoolboy, began his advocacy railing against those who abused his female school friends.
“I was born as an advocate because I started advocacy as far as in grade school, where we advocated for the rights of girls who were violated,” he says.
Now, he’s one of the country’s leading human rights advocates, campaigning for justice for the horrors Liberians suffered in the war. Within the past 15 years, Dempster has worked his way from being an intern with the Children Against Violence – a local advocacy group. He is now a lead advocate for the establishment of war crimes court in Liberia.
A Lifetime Witness to Violence
Born in the concession town of Yekepa in the late 1970s, Dempster was in his teens when the first shots were fired in what would eventually erupt into one of the bloodiest civil crises in Africa.
When the second phase of the war ended, Dempster had already graduated from university and formed a new front for advocacy.
Dempster went on to study international human rights law, becoming a transitional justice fellow at New York University’s prestigious Law School and later a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.
Jocelia Bailloe of the Independent Human Rights Investigators, an advocacy group based in Monrovia, describes Dempster’s work as “genuine and not the kind of advocate with a double standard.”
“Lot of opportunities [other than being a human rights advocate] have been around that he can easily heed to, like others will do, but for him, he’s been up to the task, head-up high,” says Bailloe, who has worked with Dempster for the past seven years.
“Once he’s going for something, he’s going for it.”
Dempster now heads the secretariat of a network of Liberia’s leading 30 human rights groups. The Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform coordinates civil society actors advocating for human rights, justice and the prosecution of alleged war criminals.
It collaborates with international advocates like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Center for Justice and Accountability amongst others.
The group has achieved many milestones in the last year including persuading the United Nations Human Rights Council last July to call on the Liberian government to implement a process to achieve justice for victims of Liberia’s wars by July 2020.
Dempster has been working with hundreds of survivors as well as local and international advocacy groups to profile survivors, victims and incidents of massacres and killings across the country. He says accounting for the crimes of the war and trying those who were responsible are crucial to Liberia’s development.
“I have analyzed over the time that in order to address current human rights issues – challenges that have been faced by society, we must be able to address the past abuses or violations,” he says.
Dempster says Liberians can’t move forward while perpetrators are sitting in government seemingly free from any consequences for their crimes.
“Those who allegedly committed those atrocities are seated at the top of power and enjoying at the expense of the victims, at the expense of the common people. These are melting points that will push any professional or anybody to take a stand.”
The network is credited for the presence of the UN Human Rights Commission in the country and the international justice conference last November in Monrovia, which followed a large “call-for-justice” protest march.
Time for a War Crimes Court is “Ripe”
It’s been 16 years since the end of the civil wars. Dempster insists now is the time for a court before witnesses age and die and the time for justice passes. He says the time is “ripe” because the campaign is enjoying big international backing, many perpetrators are even more visible, and victims and survivors have more energy and are willing to come out to testify.
“Once we don’t have people to testify, there will be no grounds to prosecute, so we think that having the victims around that are alive and conscious in their minds, it can help to prosecute most of the war crimes,” Dempster says.
Additionally, he says the current government has the “political will” since some of its key figures have previously expressed support for the court.
“We think they (the government) are the right people that can be reminded about the previous advocacy for us to sustain this advocacy. The political will of having a war crimes court is at the point that we can be able to get it.”
Madam Bailloe, a human rights advocate, agrees with Dempster that a failure to address justice for the civil war will have a big impact on the advancement of justice and human rights in the country.
She says Liberia has signed up to several international treaties and conventions and must uphold these basic human rights values and laws if it is to stay in good standing with the international community.
Bailloe is worried that ignoring the cause might prompt survivors and victims to take vengeance themselves.
“If Liberians today don’t see justice, I’m afraid that those that are seeking justice might likewise turn to perpetrators. So instead of risking the peace that we enjoy today, we should do the right thing,” Bailloe says.
‘Ploy and Detractors’
Advocates like Dempster are getting their fair share of criticism from Liberians opposed to a war crimes court. Critics contend that the court would stir-up tension and plunge the country into chaos and instability.
Others are claiming that “the time is not right” and that the advocacy is largely influenced by Western countries with an agenda to target certain Liberians who participated in the war.
Dempster warns the Liberian public to be aware of the “ploy and detractors”, saying “many of these misconceptions about our advocacy are ill-informed and are coming from people who want to undermine the campaign.
“People remain much more justifiable that the war that they brought on the Liberian people and all the heinous acts they committed are justifiable.”
With chapters across the country, the network is making gains in educating Liberians about the court process. His team goes into churches and mosques to engage religious stakeholders about the significance of justice.
“Crimes that constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are international crimes that no one can negotiate. Those are crimes that cannot even be reconciled. So as a human rights professional, I am under obligation to ensure that those crimes do not go unpunished and that’s why we keep engaging everyone.”
‘I Have Faced Threats’
Dempster has also faced threats. He’s cognizant that many alleged perpetrators are angry about his advocacy.
“We have heard threats have been made by former warlords that they will target advocates. The threats are there and you don’t want to overlook them but we are trying to guide ourselves so that people who want to harm us will not be successful in any way,” Dempster says.
‘Very Important Hero’
Peterson Sonyah, a survivor of the infamous St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre by AFL troops loyal to President Samuel Doe in July 1990, has worked with Dempster since 2008.
They met during the TRC process in 2004. Sonyah, who is the founder of the massacre victims and survivors association, describes Dempster as a “very important hero” who brings great relief to victims and survivors.
“We victims and survivors that have been calling for justice trust his work, and we I rely on him – he’s a general for this advocacy and he never gives up,” Sonyah says.
“People are coming and pretending that they are human rights advocates with their one foot in and one foot out, and even if they are offer political jobs they will relinquish their advocacy, but for Adama he has denied himself all these things many times and keep doing this work because he is focused.”
Running Out of Time
Dempster’s long career in advocacy is an emotion-charged task for him despite his resolve. As the years fade away, he says he has become concerned that the hope for justice for many survivors in rural communities is slowly vanishing.
He’s also worried that the community of war victims and survivors is dwindling. Many, he says, are suffering health and social problems and others have died.
“Some of them who taught that help has come have not seen that help for over 20 years. Some are carrying hope that the wheels of justice will turn and that there will be reparation for the crimes they suffered,” he says.
“Until we can find total healing, the real wounds of the civil conflict are still very fresh.”
This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.