Liberia: Witnesses Tell Paris Appeal Court that Ulimo Brought Terror and Anarchy to Lofa County

Kamara looks on to his lawyers from his protective glass box in 2022 trial. Credit: Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

PARIS, France – Witnesses from Foya in Lofa County gave the court hearing former rebel leader Kunti Kamara’s appeal of his 2022 war crimes conviction a deeper sense of the terror and chaos that his group, Ulimo, rained down on the town during the rebel group’s occupation in 1993. On Tuesday the court heard that after Ulimo had destroyed the county’s referral hospital, raped and murdered dozens of citizens including chopping open a schoolteacher’s chest with an axe and eating his heart, dozens of men were forced to carry parts of the town’s power station across the border to Guinea. There Ulimo sold parts for cash and food.

Four witnesses, men who were in Foya at the time, told the court that they had seen Kamara kill people. One of the witnesses said he and his brothers were caught by Ulimo rebels. He said Kamara took one brother a short distance away and the witness heard a gunshot. He then saw his brother’s dead body. There was a moment of levity in the court when the witness said he was one of his father’s 150 children, prompting some laughter. But the heavy mood returned when he said Ulimo killed 15 of his uncles. They killed a sister and a neighbor was “put on a stake”, meaning his head was put on a stake at a checkpoint. Witnesses’ names are being withheld to protect them from credible fears of retaliation.

“Why do you think he killed your brother?” presiding judge Jean Marc Lavergne asked. “I don’t really know,” replied the witness.

In another case, a witness said a Ulimo rebel known as Mami Wata, heard that his brother had been killed on the front line. Seeking revenge, he killed nine civilians. He chopped up their bodies and forced civilians to buy the body parts from a wheelbarrow.

That witness listed the names of the Ulimo rebels he encountered as Physical Cash, General Dayku and CO Kundi, the name used for Kunti Kamara. He said Alieu Kosiah, who was convicted of war crimes in Switzerland in 2021, was the chief commander.

Several witnesses testified that the most depraved of the Ulimo rebels was Ugly Boy, a commander who went around with an axe and killed the schoolteacher. He was later killed by fighters with Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia.

“If you look at the stories of what Ulimo did in Foya you will see no end,” the witness told the court.

Judges and jury in Kamara’s first trial in 2022. Credit: Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

One witness described a day known as “Black Monday” when Ulimo commanders “Major Fofana” and Kosiah called all the men of the town together. He said they chose 16 young men that they believed were working with their rivals, the NPFL, who were in the bush after Ulimo had driven them out of Foya. Everyone but the sixteen men were told to go home. The witness said the sixteen young men were slaughtered.

“I thank God a war crimes court is coming to Liberia and Fofana can face justice for what he did,” the witness told the court referring to the recent passage of a bill to establish a war crimes court through the lower house of the Liberian legislature.  

One witness said he had seen atrocities committed many times when Kamara was in charge. People believed he was instilled with special magic that protected him from death. If you stood behind him, the witness said, you would not be hit by bullets.

One of the witnesses told the court that he had seen Kamara kill his sister’s son. Kunti arrived at the family house with “so many bodyguards”, he said. Some were children, some were full grown men, he said. The only name he remembered was a rebel known as “Saddam Hussein.”

The man was asked if he recognized Kamara, sitting in a protective glass case, as the man he saw in 1993. Without looking at Kamara, the man confirmed that Kamara was the same man.

Another witness explained looting and forced labor by Ulimo – some of the 11 counts for which Kamara was convicted. The witness explained that Ulimo leader Alhaji Kromah was called to a meeting with town leaders. There was an agreement that Ulimo would stop killing people if the town’s men carried looted goods to Guinea border for them.

Under Ulimo commanders, scores of men were forced to dismantle the generator from the town’s LEC power station. The parts were then put in a pick-up truck that was not working, and were forced to push it more than 20 kilometers to a town near the Guinea border.

The labor was extreme and exhausting and some men could not keep up. Witnesses said several men who could not go on were shot along the way.

A policeman from Lofa appeared late in the day and told the judge that he needed protection from the French court. He said he had been told by his own boss that he would be suspended from his job if he did not bring back money for him after he testified in Paris. He also said Ulimo allies in the county would threaten his life and that of his family for coming to Paris to testify. He said the other witnesses who have testified are also in danger.

The judge and defense lawyer have zeroed in on inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimonies. Two of the witnesses have given slightly different versions of their testimony in this trial from the first one and in interviews with an investigating judge in Liberia in 2018. It is not clear to what extent that is because of the consistent challenges of translation. English language translators have struggled with the Liberian English spoken by witnesses. The court had difficulty sorting different definitions between French culture and African culture for words such as “brother” and even “know”. For example, Liberian witnesses asked if they “know” someone might take that word to mean a deep, long relationship, whereas the French understand it to simply mean to have met or seen a person before.

The defence is hoping the inconsistencies will sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury that the witnesses’ testimonies can be trusted 30 years after the events. A majority of the jury must be convinced of Kamara’s guilt to the legal burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” for his conviction on the 11 counts to be upheld.

The trial continues Wednesday when Kamara will be given a chance to testify on his own behalf. On Thursday convicted Ulimo commander Alieu Kosiah will travel from his Swiss prison to testify. Kosiah, who is serving a 20-year sentence in Switzerland for atrocities committed alongside Kamara in Lofa, was combative in Kamara’s first trial, voicing a range of accusations against human rights defenders. But that happened before his own appeal was heard. A Swiss appeal court upheld Kosiah’s conviction in 2023. Now Kamara has exhausted opportunities for exoneration, court watchers are curious to see if Kosiah will have a different message in this appearance.

This story was a collaboration with FrontPage Africa as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.