BLOH TOWN, River Cess – For Elizabeth Byamue, 63, the horror of the day that destroyed her world has never gone away.
“I can still remember – it was on a Friday when the [National Patriotic Front of Liberia] soldiers came and said they had a message for us,” Byamue said, through tears as she spoke in the yard of her small house in Little Liberia village.
“After we gathered under the kitchen, they told us that two LPC [Liberian Peace Council] soldiers went to their controlled area and looted their belongings. They said that we had to pay with our lives because the LPC soldiers came from our town.”
With machetes, the soldiers slaughtered her husband first. Then they killed four of her young children aged between 2 and 5, one by one in front of her. They beat Byamue, who was seven months pregnant and she lost the pregnancy.
“The rebels beat me until I delivered by force, but at that time I did not know myself anymore,” Byamue said. “The next day, I saw myself lying in my own blood with dead bodies all around me.”
Byamue’s only surviving family member was her daughter, aged 11 named Baby-girl Zeogar. Now 24, Zeogar never had the opportunity to attend school. She stays with her mother in a shanty hut here.
By the time the soldiers, under the command of one Lamgo, left Bloh Town, more than 400 people were dead, according to survivors, making it the biggest single massacre in River Cess. Few of the 408 local villagers and 150 displaced lived through the attack. Those who did suffer terrible physical and mental injuries.
The call for the establishment of war crimes court in Liberia has resonated in River Cess with survivors like Byamue. 2,315 people suffered 3,566 violations in River Cess, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, mainly by the competing factions of former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor’s NPFL and George Boley’s LPC.
Byamue said she testified before the TRC, but the final TRC report only recorded the January 1994 massacre in Neezwein that killed 32 persons.
Many survivors, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens here have joined the campaign for justice. Byamue says to see the perpetrators of that day – including Boley who is now a legislator – live with no consequences is unbearable for her.
“I don’t even understand when they say ‘peace’ and we are living with the very people who got us in the conditions we find ourselves in,” Byamue said. “Someone killed your husband and children and you continue to see them live a better life than you. Let them go to court.”
Garrison Koon is a survivor of the Gbomqwini Massacre in 1995 which left more than 30 people dead, according to survivors.
The fighters were members of ‘Jungle Lion,’ one of the deadliest factions of the NPFL. General Roland Duo was the chief of staff of Jungle Lion in River Cess.
According to June 30, 1997, United Nations Liberia Humanitarian Situation Report, under Duo’s control in 1997, 450 former child combatants were used for gold mining in the ITI logging company’s concession area in River Cess.
Koon saw six people killed in front of him and many others tortured.
“Can you imagine, for someone to pull your teeth with pliers?” Koon said. “That’s how we were treated by the rebels and up till now, there is no justice.”
For Koon, the trauma was made worse by the fact that one perpetrator was a family member.
“John Tue, my own brother-in-law, brought the rebels to where we were hiding,” Koon told The Bush Chicken. “They tied 25 of us and took us in town before they started slaughtering people like animals.”
Koon said besides his brother-in-law, one “Teah” Jackson Willie, alias Bypass Papay, and an infamous NPFL commander known as General Qaddafi, were key players in the Gbomqwini Massacre.
Qaddafi, named after the Libyan leader who backed the NPFL, ordered Koon killed. Qaddafi was one of the notorious commanders of the Jungle Lion’s faction of the NPFL based in ITI.
But Koon got lucky. He had been generous with the rebels whenever they had asked for food. The one who was ordered to kill him took pity. He released Koon and told him to escape.
He now sees one of the killers often. Koon is so deeply cynical that justice will ever prevail that he doesn’t see the need for a war crimes court.
“The people who did the killing, most of them are in government so no need to hurt our head for a court,” Koon said. “Jackson Willie who did most of the killings all the way from Klaygbae is still here in our midst.”
Koon does not know the whereabouts of Commander Qaddafi and Teah, but he said Jackson Willie is in the district teaching. John Tue, Koon’s brother-in-law who led the troop to their hiding place, is working with Golden Veroleum Liberia in Sinoe.
The Bush Chicken located Jackson Willie in the ITI community – a settlement of former workers of the then International Timber Industry. ITI was one of the bases of the NPFL. Willie is now a government-employed teacher in the Fred Bernard Elementary and Jr. High School in ITI. The school is named in honor of the late Fred Bernard, one of the fearsome generals of the NPFL.
In an interview Willie admitted to being involved with what he called “the revolution” but denied any involvement in the Gbonqwini Massacre.
“I was not there when it happened. But on our way from Sinoe County, we saw the dead bodies and we were told that our men were the ones who did it,” Willie said. “Since then, people have been saying I was among those who did the killings. When they see you with the rebels they say you did the act.”
Willie confirmed that he was known as ‘Bypass Papay’ and that he was on the scenes of many of the atrocities that occurred during that period. But he insisted he was acting on the orders of his boss General Sampson. General Sampson also commanded the Jungle Lion faction of the NPFL in River Cess. He is number 13 on the TRC’s list of notorious perpetrators.
“We could not say no because we never had our own will,” Willie said. “When the general sends you and you say no, they kill you.”
Willie said he is ready to face justice.
“The war is finished, let’s forget about the talking,” Willie said. “When they bring the war crimes court, we all will go and explain ourselves.”
Samuel Tompoe is a survivor of the April 1995 massacre in Wodobune Town, in which LPC, under the leadership of General Zor, killed 25 people. The TRC reported that LPC roasted human beings to death on a meat dryer in River Cess. Tompoe lost his mother, brother and sister in the massacre (His father was killed in the 1994 Barkay/ Neezwein massacre, according to him).
In 1995, the LPC soldiers arrived in Wodobune Town at 3:00 a.m. “I jumped outside and saw a man with gun. That’s how I started to run. He tried chasing me but he could not catch me,” Tompoe said.
From his hiding spot, Tompoe saw his mother Mama Tompoe, his sister Kardyu Tompoe aged two, and his brother Edwin Tompoe aged five, captured by the rebels.
“My mother ran but she had to come back because my little brother and sister were crying,” Tompoe said. “That’s how they grabbed her and killed all three of them. They used sticks and cutlasses.”
Tompoe cannot live with the trauma in Wodobune Town so he has moved to Yarpah Town to continue with his life. He wants a monument built for those who lost their lives in the massacre.
“One reason why I left is during the Decoration holiday, when people are cleaning the graves of their families, I have no graves to clean.” Tompoe lamented. “Only two persons were buried but the rest were left just like that and they got rotten.”
Tompoe does not know the whereabouts of Zor, but believes he’s still alive. He is eager to testify in any court that will try the perpetrators.
“I will be happy to see those people in court because they are the ones who making us to suffer and they are enjoying,” he said.
Among the county’s other massacres, ‘Jungle Lion’ under command of Roland Duo, killed 32 people in a massacre in Neezwein Central River Cess in January 1994 according to the TRC. More than 25 were killed in Barkay Town about 5km from Neezwein that same day.
Roland Duo is number 81 on the TRC’s notorious perpetrators list for prosecution.
As local and international calls for a war crimes court in Liberia grow louder, survivors and families of victims have been joined by civil society and community-based organizations.
George Trokon, the chairman of the River Cess chapter of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, recently took to the airwaves echoing the call for a war crimes court. He said those who committed crimes against peaceful civilians of this country are being awarded positions of authority, “and if nothing is done, they will take over this country and turn it to rebel country.”
Benjamin L. Williams, the head of the group Timbo United for Development, a community-based organization advocating for community rights in River Cess, told The Bush Chicken that his organization has resolved to join the call for a war crimes court in Liberia.
“What we are doing now is going from town to town soliciting the views of people [while] at the same time campaigning for the establishment of the court,” Williams said. “At the end of the process, we will come up with our position statement, which we intend to share with bigger organizations as well as the international community.”
Mamie Toe or Zoe Mamie, head of traditional women of River Cess who was known for her role preparing charms for the rebels, recently broke her silence in an interview with The Bush Chicken.
“Those who committed crimes during the war should go to court,” said Toe speaking through an interpreter. Toe said she has long awaited this opportunity to speak her mind about the war crime court.
“If Charles Taylor can go, why Prince Johnson, Ellen and the other people can’t go to the court, too?”
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Featured photo by Eric Opa Doue