Liberia: Former Liberia TRC Commissioner Gives Emotional Testimony of War Atrocities to French Appeal Court

Jurors appeared visibly moved by Washington’s descriptions of the harrowing scenes she said she covered during the wars at the time she worked as a journalist with the Inquirer Newspaper.

PARIS, France – Massa Washington took many pauses. Her voice trembled with sorrow. When she could not control it, the former commissioner with Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sobbed quietly, a testament to the trauma she still carries as a victim of the war and from hearing the testimonies of 22,000 victims of Liberia’s civil wars.

Washington had been invited by the court hearing Ulimo rebel commander Kunti Kamara’s appeal of his 2022 conviction for war crimes here, to give background on the Liberian civil crisis and to help them further understand the country’s history, context, and the scale of atrocities in the wars. Just as she did in Kamara’s first trial, Washington testified for more than three hours.

“We are alive, but we live with the pains,” she sobbed. “Sometimes I think we are all walking dead because of the horrors we experience and saw. No human being should go through that.”

“If you had my experience as a journalist, given all that you have seen throughout the wars, and have to serve on the TRC to again hear all those stories from victims and survivors, was not an easy process,” she said.

Jurors appeared visibly moved by Washington’s descriptions of the harrowing scenes she said she covered during the wars at the time she worked as a journalist with the Inquirer Newspaper. She said one such incident was the Carter Camp Massacre, in which more than 600 people were killed by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) fighters. On the day the massacre took place, Washington told the court, she and a photojournalist had gone to cover the scene after news that a group of refugees who sought refuge on the Carter Camp Hill in Firestone reached the newsroom.

She also described covering atrocities in the controlled area of one of rebel group Ulimo, in Tubmanburg, Bomi County, after nine days of intense battle between the two splintered factions – Ulimo K. and Ulimo J. One group, Ulimo K. predominantly of the Mandingo ethnic group was headed by Alhaji G.V. Kroma, and the other, Ulimo J.  of Krahn ethnic group was headed by Roosevelt Johnson.  This incident was widely known during the wars as “the Krahn and Mandingo war.”

She said it was in Tubmanburg, she saw and touched a human intestine used as a rope for a checkpoint for the first time. She talked of the awful smell of rotten human flesh. Washington told the court that the Liberia war was terrible, and the suffering was too much, for the civilian population.

“The killings were too much,” Washington said. “An entire family would be killed by Charles Taylor’s NPFL or a family would be killed by either Ulimo K. or Ulimo J, then the Doe soldiers were on the other side also killing.”

The TRC Commissioner went on to describe how hard and frightening the Liberia war for the civilian population which faced extreme hunger while escaping the guns and fears of being killed by the factions.   

“I have a close friend of mine who died from starvation,” she said. “And I too got hungry to the point I thought that I was going to die, that’s how bad it was.”

Key among Washington‘s accounts was the St. Peter Lutheran Church Massacre in which more than seven hundred people, mostly women and children, were killed by Samuel Doe’s military, who were.  predominately of his Krahn ethnic group.

When the president of the court asked how important the formation of a war crimes court is for the victims and survivors of the Liberian wars Washington said, “21 years since the war, the only sign of justice Liberians have gotten is the international trials in France, the United States and Switzerland.”

“People may not understand how important these trials are for Liberia,” she said. “Every time Liberians hear that an alleged perpetrator of the Liberian war has been captured in the United States, France, or Switzerland, they rejoice and would often say, at least the international community has not forgotten us.”

With debate at the Liberian Senate, for the passage of a resolution to establish a war crimes court, Washington told the court that she is optimistic that senators who have no links with the wars, who believed in Liberian putting an end to impunity, will do the right thing and establish a court. She said they would overcome opposition from those among them who will likely be tried by the court including Prince Johnson.

“The people who played major roles in the wars like Prince Johnson who is in the senate have been putting out lots of threats and trying to oppose the establishment of the court, but we are keeping our fingers crossed,” she said. “But we know those senators who don’t have links with the war will make it happen this time.”

The trial continues Friday.

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