By Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh with New Narratives
NGISAKONJA, Lofa County – Evelyn Pillo points to the spot where her father’s house once sat. It was here that her family endured the horrors that, she says, haunt them to this day. In 1993 when troops with the United Liberia Movement of Liberia (Ulimo) took control of this area for four months Pillo says they set her father’s house ablaze and murdered her youngest brother Augustine.
After they killed him, Pillo says, they cut off parts of his flesh, roasted it and ate it.
After a nearly four-week trial in the Paris Court of Appeal Kamara was found guilty of torture, barbarism and complicity crimes against humanity this week and was sentenced to life in prison. Kunti’s victims in Foya say the French court’s ruling is long overdue justice served.
“That Co Kundi man let him be killed!”
“That Co Kundi man, let him be killed!” Pillo says shaking with rage and using the war name by which most people knew the Ulimo commander in this district at the time. “But before killing him, let him suffer the same way he suffered my brother. They threw him in the fire, and while he was trying to run out, then they shot him again, threw him back into the fire, and then cut his flesh and ate him.”
Pillo, like many other victims here, says Kamara’s trial brought back fresh memories of the months Ulimo wreaked havoc this area bordering Guinea and Sierra Leone, dominated by people of the Kissi ethnic group. They were battling with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, for control of areas in that north, western and central parts of the country. Kamara was an infamous frontline commander for Ulimo which Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found committed the fifth highest number of atrocities among the 22,000 testimonies it heard.
After the end of the Liberian civil wars, Kamara, now 47, claimed asylum in the Netherlands and was eventually given Dutch citizenship. When Swiss authorities arrested Kamara’s former colleague Alieu Kosiah in 2014, Dutch authorities began building their own file on Kamara. Sensing the threat Kamara moved to France in 2016. French authorities caught up with him in 2018 when he was arrested.
Since Kamara’s trial began in Paris dozens of Liberian witnesses including nine plaintiffs in the case, have traveled from here to Paris to testify about allegations of rape, murder, cannibalism and torture of civilians.
Kamara has denied all the accusations victims calling the plaintiffs “criminals” and liars. He admitted he was in Ulimo during that period but insisted he only operated on the frontlines and never saw any atrocities committed by Ulimo in Foya.
They are the criminals. I am not a criminal. I can’t fool you, people,” making the unsubstantiated allegation that a network led by Global Justice and Research Project, a Liberian justice organization, had conspired against him. “All these people that are coming, you can see the network. When they are talking, they are giving information to each other.”
Theresa Gbotoe, another victim, broke down in tears as she told how she and her husband were among civilians here who were forced to march to the infamous “Vienna base” in the village of Sodu. Witnesses told FPA/New Narratives Vienna Base was considered a place of “No Mercy” where Co. Kundi executed people he perceived as enemies.
Gbotoe, a registered nurse, says her husband Saah Alex Ngiviay had been severely beaten by General Fayiah, the NPFL commander, while hiding in the bush. Kamara saw the marks from the beating as a sign her husband was an NPFL rebel. Kamara ordered her husband beheaded, Gbotoe says, and his head placed on a stick. Gbotoe says she was made to keep watch over the head and everyone passing was made to salute the dead man’s head.
In Foya other witnesses told how Kamara allegedly killed a middle-aged woman who was accused of witchcraft. He shot her in the head four times with his gun telling her to “practice witchcraft no more”.
In other accounts, survivors and victims’ families told FrontPage Africa/New Narratives how Kamara subjected civilians to forced labor. They were made to carry looted goods from Foya and nearby towns and villages across to Guinea under Kamara’s orders often without food or water. Refusal by anyone to carry goods would mean death according to old man Marcus Fayiah in Gbandu Kenema.
“Co Kundi and his boys used to go from house to house, collecting people and putting them in jail at the night,” Fayiah said. “When they put us in jail, the things they had looted, the oil and coco from those villages, early in the morning they will put them on our heads and take us to go Soduma. And when you reach Soduma, then they will leave us there, go across to Guinea and sell their things.”
Carrying the looted goods from Foya to Soduma was not the end. When Kunti and his men had completed their business transactions in Guinea, they would purchase salt, sugar, and other items and have those captives move them into their operating base back in Foya.
Fayiah described it as a “do or die mission”. Walking along bush paths, carrying heavy loads, the captives were easy pickings for rival NPFL rebels which attacked regularly.
“If you say you are tired, they will kill you,” Fayiah says. “And take those things you were carrying and divide them among the others.”
Though victims in Foya were pleased to see justice finally done many did not agree with the 30-year sentence given to Kamara who will be 77 when he is released and expelled from Europe. Most wanted him to receive the death penalty. Capital punishment has been banned in all European countries. Thirty years imprisonment is the largest sentence a French court can give.
Two former commissioners of Liberia’s TRC – Massa Washington and John Stewart – testified in Kamara’s trial. In an interview on his return from Paris Stewart said the trial was important for Liberia’s victims.
“The war has ended but people are still grieving, their hearts are still grieving for the loss of their loved ones whose lives were taken away by perpetrators of violence,” said Stewart in an interview in Monrovia upon his return from Paris. “Since the war ended, nothing has happened to any of those perpetrators and many of them have left the country and living in other countries such as Kunti Kamara. For victims, the trial represents hope and it affirms that we all belong to the same humanity and atrocities committed against humankind in Liberia can be atrocities committed against humankind everywhere.”
Kamara is the fourth Liberian held to account for his or her crimes in Liberia’s civil wars and the third Ulimo member. Alieu Kosiah, another former Ulimo commander was sentenced to 20 years in a Swiss court last year. His appeal will be heard in January. Two more Liberians – Mohammed Jabateh of Ulimo and Tom Woewiyu of the NPFL – were found guilty of criminal immigration fraud by a US court in 2017 and 2018 for lying about their war crimes. Jabateh is serving 30 years. Woewiyu died of Covid while awaiting sentencing. Chuckie Taylor is serving a 97-year sentence for the torture he committed in Liberia but the American born son of Charles Taylor was tried as a US citizen.
Sierra Leonean Gibril Massaquoi was acquitted of charges he committed war crimes in Liberia by a Finnish court last year. That acquittal is also being appealed. Kamara, Kosiah and Massaquoi were prosecuted under the legal principal of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows countries to prosecute individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity, regardless of where they occurred. The US does not have similar universal jurisdiction laws.
There are many more trials to come. During the Kamara trial a French investigator revealed that a second Liberian is under investigation there. Martina Johnson, formerly of the NPFL, is awaiting trial in Belgium. Two more Liberians in the UK and two in the US are awaiting trial.
The push for a Liberian war crimes court got a big push last month when Beth Van Schaack, the US Global Ambassador for War Crimes, visited Liberia demanding the government address war time accountability. The ambassador also promised the US would pay for the court. The costs of the court, likely to run to hundreds of millions of dollars, had been a big obstacle.
The only obstacle to a court now appears to be political will. Presidents Johnson Sirleaf and Weah both blocked the court out of fear of the political backlash that would come with indicted powerful political leaders such as Prince Johnson, senator for Nimba County, former rebel leader and top of the TRC’s worst perpetrators’ list.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia Project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.