BLAY TOWN, River Cess – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report recorded 30 massacres in River Cess, making it the county with the second highest number of mass killings during the wars. Only Lofa saw more. But people here in River Cess say there were many more massacres that the TRC did not cover.
One such massacre is the March 1994 attack on Blay Town, one of the most remote villages in River Cess. Witnesses say 15 girls were slaughtered here by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia’s ‘Jungle Lion’ faction which controlled half of River Cess at the time.
Mechen Barchue, now 45, is the only survivor of that massacre. Like many victims throughout Liberia, she is forced to live near the killers and see them day after day. As the push for a war crimes court for Liberia gathers steam, she is determined that the dead will see justice.
“We can’t forget about the girls just like that,” Barchue said. “Maybe the reason they never killed me is for me to talk for my friends. They are gone, but I am living and I will not be pleased if I don’t see any of the rebels or their big, big people paying for what they did.”
Barchue’s memories of the attack are harrowing. In March 1994, while returning from the battlefield, NPFL’s Jungle Lion, under the command of ‘General Sampson,’ captured several girls who were being used as ‘shields’ while retreating to their ITI base, according to Barchue.
One of the girls, named Margret Chia, was killed on her farm by one of the rebels known as ‘I Mean It’ before the rest were brought to Blay Town.
Barchue said one of the rebels named Jackson Willie, alias ‘Bypass Papay,’ took the rebels to their hiding place where Chia and one elderly man were beheaded.
Barchue, who was 19, said while in Blay Town, the junior rebels were sent to various guard posts by their commanders because it was already late and they could not continue the journey.
“We became their wives while their under men were serving guard,” Barchue said, meaning the rebels raped the women. “No one had special woman. This other person call you, when he’s done then the other call you and take over. We had no choice.”
Barchue said this continued until the break of dawn and when the junior rebels came back from their guard posts and found out that the girls they had captured had been raped throughout the night by their bosses, “they started to make confusion among themselves,” according to Barchue.
Barchue said a rebel named Ezekiel Isaiah alias ‘Monkpan’ told ‘I Mean It’ that he had no right over any of the girls because he was the person who killed Chia on her farm.
“Right away their big, big people [commanders] started saying ‘If you issue us grudge for these girls we will kill all of them,’” Barchue said. “They shot Esther Smith first in her arm and later in her head. The next person was Dugbohmah Fah. Then they just started shooting everybody.” All 15 girls were killed.
Smith was 22 and Fah was 16, according to Barchue. She did not know the names and ages of the other girls because they had been captured from different places.
Barchue said until now, she is yet to understand why one of the rebels chose to save her life by laying on her while the shooting was going on.
“His name is James Kabba,” Barchue said. “He lay down on me on the ground when they were doing the shooting. He told them that if anyone kill me that person would also have to kill him too. That was how I survived. By that time I thought I was already dead because it was scary to see all your friends killed in less than five minutes.”
The rebels had also killed a man named Morris Kangar in Peonwolor – one of the villages about three kilometers before reaching Blay Town. Kangar’s two sons, Emmanuel Kangar alias ‘Moname’ and Larry Kangar were members of the NPFL but assigned in Gbarnga at the time.
Barchue said before Kangar was beheaded, his hands and feet were cut off and a rebel named Moses Karpennon, alias ‘Bullet proof’ opened the man’s chest, cut out his heart and cooked it with potato greens and rice.
This night was just the latest in a string of horrors endured by Barchue. As she traveled the route to ITI, a lot of people were slaughtered along the road.
“In Neezwein, they were just knocking the babies on the walls – killing them just like that,” Barchue said. “There was this girl who they [the rebels] said they grabbed her first and she escaped before they grabbed her again in Neezwein. They cut off her head and carried her head to General Sampson in ITI.”
Barchue said the perpetrators were ‘Qaddafi,’ ‘I Mean It,’ ‘Bullet Proof,’ General Roland Duo, and James Kabba.
Twenty-seven years later, the trauma is not over for Barchue. She now lives in an old thatched hut that she constructed herself. She sells charcoal to survive. The stigma of the rape caused her to be rejected by her own since she returned home.
According to her, since her return, any man who comes her way and finds out that she was abducted by the rebels ill-treat her and eventually leave her. She supports two children, ages nine and six, as a single parent.
She often sees Moses Karpennon, alias ‘Bullet Proof,’ who cooked Kangar’s heart that day. He now lives in the jungle nearby with his wife. Barchue hears he lives in fear that relatives of his victims would go after him for vengeance. But every time Barchue sees him she is once again traumatized.
“Every time I see him I get scared because he knows I know everything about him,” she said.
Barchue is not the only person pointing fingers at Karpennon. Nearly everyone in the community has a story about him and no one wants to get closer to him. But The Bush Chicken tracked him down in the jungle where lives as a farmer with his wife.
Now 48, Karpennon told The Bush Chicken that he was forced to join a group called the ‘Freedom Fighters’ in 1990 when he was 19-years-old.
“Freedom Fighters killed my older brother right in front of me when we were coming from Monrovia during the war,” Karpennon said. “So I say if I don’t join these guys they will kill me too. That’s how I joined.”
Karpennon admitted to being at the Blay Town massacre but blamed ‘Qaddafi’ and ‘I Mean It’ for the killings.
“Those girls, yes it was during the same attack that I told you plenty people died,” Bullet Proof said. “We were in Blay Town when the two generals started to argue. I don’t know [why] that argument brought the killing of the girls.”
Karpennon said he was willing to testify in a court to prove his innocence.
Another perpetrator named by Barchue, Moses Garjay, admitted to The Bush Chicken that he was the commander of the bodyguard unit of General Sampson. But, in an interview in Buchanan, Grand Bassa, Garjay denied being with the group that day.
“You see this war we fought, you fighting it you use your own sense,” Garjay said. “The people, they are civilians they are subject to order. Any group come they use them. The other group can come they use them. So you can’t say this other group was here business you start ill-treating them, no.”
But Garjay was willing to name those he believes did the killing. He named Bullet Proof, Qaddafi, and Ezekiel Isaiah, alias Monkpan. Garjay said he did not know the whereabouts of Qaddafi but said Isaiah now works for SEGAL, a private security firm, in Monrovia.
Most of the perpetrators are dead now, said Barchue. But some key players are still alive. In addition to Karpennon and Garjay, she named James Kabba who saved her life, and ‘Small War Face.’ They are names, she said, she will never forget and she wants a chance to tell a court.
“Even ‘Small War Face’ is driving one bus on this Monrovia road. If they call me anywhere to explain what I told you, I can do it so long they will protect me,” she said.
The TRC found NPFL responsible for most of the atrocities committed in the county. The perpetrators named in the Blay Town massacre did not make the report but it found that General Christopher Vambo, alias General Mosquito of the NPFL, and his men in 1994 raped 14 young women and massacred 14 other civilians in Kangbo Town, Monweh District River Cess.
Case #9 code# RIV-00317 recorded that in 1993 General Kangar of the NPFL and his men hung two men, David Vah and Samuel Gbodon, over the fire hearth till they died in Cee Town Central River Cess District.
According to the TRC report, the NPFL is responsible for 63,843 (39 percent) violations reported to the TRC. The report further indicated that young girls became targets of armed fighters while women were targeted, raped, tortured, and abducted as bush wives or sometimes killed as they ventured out of their hideouts, as in the case of Chia.
No NPFL figures have faced justice in Liberia, but outside the country, they have paid a price.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, leader of the NPFL, is serving a 50-year sentence in a U.K. jail, but not for crimes committed in Liberia. A United Nations-backed special court for Sierra Leone has found him guilty for his involvement in the Sierra Leonean crisis.
Thomas Woewiyu was convicted in a U.S. court of lying to U.S. immigration authorities about being an NPFL leader during the war, a role he held at the time these girls were being abducted, raped, and murdered by NPFL troops. He faces 75 years in jail when he is sentenced on April 20.
Agnes Reeves Taylor was one of Taylor’s wives during the wars. She is facing trial in a U.K. court for her alleged involvement in rape-related torture incidents during the war years.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Australian Aid provided the funding. The funder had no say in the story’s content. Featured photo by Eric Opa Doue