A Culture Of Impunity Reigns, Former TRC Commissioner Tells Paris War Crimes Court

The jury in the French system is composed of three judges and six civilians who sit together and ask questions of witnesses. Credit: Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives.

PARIS, France – Day three of the war crimes trial of Liberian Kunti Kamara was all about setting the scene of Liberia’s civil war and the history that led up to it for the jury of six French citizens and three judges who will decide this case. The court heard from three witnesses including French photographer Patrick Robert whose photographs took the war to the world stage and John Stewart, a former commissioner of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In emotional testimony Stewart brought the first real sense of the tremendous suffering Liberians endured during the 14 years of war and the five years of turmoil that preceded it. He detailed many of the massacres, starvation and trauma he and fellow commissioners heard during the three years that they heard 22,000 testimonies across the country. As a journalist during the war Stewart had experienced much of it firsthand. He told the court that two out of every three Liberians had been forced to leave their homes. A million had fled the country.

“The crimes committed are too horrific for me to describe in detail but this is what we experienced. It lives in the memories of our people,” said Stewart, pausing to regain his composure. “We have not forgotten.”

Stewart rejected previous testimony from a French photographer who claimed the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf chose not to hold a war crimes court, as the 2008 TRC Report recommended, because it would reopen old wounds. Stewart said the decision was based solely on the refusal of accused perpetrators – including President Sirleaf– to face justice. The TRC’s only really controversial ruling had been to recommend Sirleaf be barred from holding office for thirty years for her support of Charles Taylor’s 1989 invasion. (She went on to win a second term as president and the Nobel peace prize.)

“Just imagine,” Stewart challenged jurors. “Senator Prince Johnson – the single most notorious person, with highest number of violations – is in parliament. George Boley, the second highest in terms of atrocities, is in parliament. We were threatened; some commissioners fled the country for their lives. I received so many death threats. All this because they do not want accountability.”

Stewart, 69, overcame fatigue from an overnight flight to rail against the culture of impunity that he said has carried into the administration of President George Weah. Weah has stopped a legislative push to create a Liberian war crimes court. The Weah government, plagued by corruption scandals, saw three top ministers placed on the US Magnitsky Sanctions List in August.

“A culture of impunity continues in so many areas,” Stewart said. “We failed to break this culture of impunity and fear. Because in Liberia human rights are violated with impunity. Journalists go to jail. Free expression is stifled. So for a combination of all these reasons we (the TRC) made these recommendations and because the Liberian people know that these acts will be repeated in the future if there is not accountability.”

On cross examination by Kamara’s defense lawyer Stewart said he did not know whether Kamara was one of 5,000 perpetrators named in the report or was among others named in the TRC archive of testimonies including some that did not make it to the report.

But he was very clear that if Kamara’s name was not among the testimonies, that did not absolve him of the war crimes for which he’s accused. The testimonies were not exhaustive, Stewart said. The TRC heard from 22,000 witnesses but he was certain there were many more who did not come forward.

Early in the day the jury heard from Patrick Robert, the veteran French photographer who visited Liberia dozens of times during the wars and whose graphic photographs – particularly of child soldiers – brought the world’s attention to Liberia’s war.

Robert covered many of the other conflicts roiling the world at the time – the Kuwait war, the fall of the Soviet Union – but in the dozens of trips he took to Liberia nothing seemed to change, he said. The other conflicts were moving fast but this one was not.

Robert detailed the ways in which depravity became routine and even something of which fighters were proud. He told of a fighter who had killed a woman holding a baby and asked him to take a picture of him with the body.

“Because the conflict went on so long the situation degenerated,” he said. Because the country’s timber and mining resources were under an international embargo the leaders had no choice but to fall into a “mafia-like” system. Diamonds were the easiest way of extracting wealth and so Taylor stoked a war in neighboring Sierra Leone and tried to do the same in Guinea, he said.

People were starving and desperate, including the combatants. Though Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia was not based on any ethnicity, NPFL recruits quickly turned on ethnic Krahn of then-President Samuel Doe and the long-maligned Mandingo. When the Mandingo formed the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) in 1992, the group Kunti Kamara joined, all leaders began using ethnicity as a recruitment tool.

It was no longer soldier to soldier, said Robert. Anyone from an opposing ethnicity was now someone you could kill. Everyone was the opposition. “Once you can die because of your ethnicity why won’t you fight for it instead of waiting to be killed?” he asked rhetorically. Robert showed the court a photo he had taken of a body with the chest cavity cut open and the heart removed. One of the charges against Kamara alleges he opened the chest of a victim and ate his heart. Robert told the court he had been told more than once that consuming hearts allowed the fighter to take the strength of his enemy.

Patrick Robert’s photographs took Liberia’s child soldiers to media around the world

The court worked hard to give the jury a detailed and nuanced understanding of the context in which the war took place – a radically different world from which the all-white French jury has come.

A 1996 documentary by French filmmaker Christophe Naigen detailed Liberia’s history and the failures of the Americo Liberian elite that settled the country in 1822. The film claimed the Americo Liberians subjugated the Indigenous population for the next 160 years until they were overthrown in a violent coup by an illiterate Indigenous army sergeant Samuel K. Doe.

The documentary and subsequent testimony by French author Thierry Paulais, who wrote a history of Liberia, described the despair most Liberians felt at Doe’s corrupt and incompetent rule by 1989. He said most Liberians initially welcomed the invasion of Charles Taylor that year.

Paulais detailed the essential role of Liberia’s traditional societies in the depravity that was unleashed by the war. Human sacrifices and sexual violence had long been part of the cultural practices he said. People ate body parts in initiation ceremonies and in rituals. Consuming an opponent’s heart meant absorbing his strength.