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Truth and Reconciliation

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From 1979 until 2003, Liberia witnessed a series of conflicts that left 250,000 people dead. In 2005, the new government of Liberia created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to collect testimony about abuses committed during that time. Now they are giving Liberian refugee communities in the U.S. a chance to participate. It's the first time a country has ever sent a TRC outside its borders, and Liberians in America are still trying to figure out what to make of it. TRC representatives recently made their pitch at the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church in Newark, N.J., where as many as 5,000 Liberians now live. Reporter Michael Kavanagh was there.

By Michael Kavanagh

It's a Sunday evening, and about 60 Liberians fill rows of metal folding chairs and sit on tables at the back of Christ Assembly Lutheran Church hall in Newark, N.J. A few of the older women wear brightly colored boubous and head wraps—the same clothes they'd wear for special occasions in Liberia.

"Those of you who are familiar with the Liberian crisis know that a lot of things happened," Massa Washington says to the crowd. Washington's work as a journalist during the war in Liberia was so widely admired that she was chosen as one of the nine commissioners on Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document atrocities that took place during the war.

"There were recruitment of child soldiers. There were incidences where the stomachs of pregnant woman were opened because people were betting to determine the sex of the child." Washington says individual stories, like the cold-blooded killing of pregnant women, need to be told to the TRC. "We are writing the history or rewriting the history of the country."

But by the looks on people's faces, it's a hard sell. Many here came to the U.S. hoping to forget the things they saw, and rebuild their lives. Washington insists that the TRC could help them do that. "All Liberians have suffered," she says. "The TRC is here to help heal the wounds."

Washington wraps up her presentation and the questions begin. The audience is skeptical the TRC will work, especially since many perpetrators are still in Liberia's House and Senate.

"We all know that there are people who now sit in Senate who've committed these crimes. Don't you think this a farce?" one man asks.

Washington has heard these concerns before. Over the past year, she's run more than a hundred meetings like this in both Liberia and the U.S. She explains that nothing is off limits during TRC sessions.

"Now if you know some of these things, give your statement. I encourage you to give your statement," she says.

But the wounds from Liberia's wars are deep and the history complicated. The people in the room are from different tribes, religions, and ethnic groups, which means—whether they wanted it or not—during the conflict they were on different sides.

A tall man of about 30 in a black fleece stands up. "I suffered. My generation suffered in the hands of certain other Liberians. The progeny of that generation should be able to come back to say I'm sorry for what I did."

He's concerned that the TRC won't address all the atrocities from Liberia's more distant past, atrocities that go back to the 19th century. That's when freed American slaves first came to Liberia, took over the country, and often treated native Liberians like second-class citizens.

His comments hit a nerve, especially given that descendents of the former ruling class are here in the audience. Some people nod their heads in agreement, others hiss at him, upset at what he's suggesting.

Washington tries to calm the crowd. "Everybody has done something to somebody." The stories need to be told, she continues, no matter when they happened.

For now, statements are given to the TRC in private and can be made anonymously. If people choose to come forward, they can tell their stories in public hearings next year.

Some Liberians, like 29-year-old school teacher Sheneesa Shannon, worry how they might feel after they relive their trauma. "I think that it's fair that people have the opportunity to express your story, but does the TRC provide any type of outreach counseling resources?" she asks. "Take for example a female who was raped. Once her story is explained, what happens?"

TRC officials reassure Shannon that counselors are available to people who testify.

When the war came to her home in 1989, Shannon was living with her family in the capital Monrovia. "The reasons why I left our home was that someone was killed outside the house. Right outside in the back yard. And the body started to stink so bad."

Her family walked for more than a week to escape. "The next town over—a bunch of bodies. We had to literally jump over bodies," she says. And if someone got sick, they were just left behind—you had to keep walking.

"Prior to us leaving our home—wow." She stops mid-sentence. "I can't even believe I'm going back to this. Because I never really so to speak explained this story. Because everybody have that story."

Shannon waves a green form in her hand that she's supposed to fill out and return to the TRC. But she's not sure if she'll go through with it.

"You know, I really don't know. I did the green form, but whether or not I'm going to give a statement..." Shannon's voice trails off. After years of keeping those memories buried inside her, she's hesitant to unearth them.

Her ambivalence reflects the feelings that many Liberians share—support for the TRC, but uncertainty about their own participation. In the end, Shannon says, you've told someone your story, but "What does it mean?"

TRC commissioner Massa Washington understands these questions. She has doubts, too. But she thinks no matter what, these stories need to be part of the historical record.

"Even at the commission we get scared sometimes. We say 'Oh god. Please let us be successful.' We go to bed and we pray, 'God please let us be successful. We have to do this for Liberians.' But in order to for this TRC to succeed, Liberians abroad have to be a part. Or else we have a partial story of what happened."

So the commissioner continues to visit Liberians throughout the United States—in cities like Newark, Minneapolis, Providence, Atlanta—and she tries to answer people's questions, even if she knows she can never answer the biggest question of all: Why did this happen in the first place?

Then ... We talk to Sara Kahn, a counselor who helps refugees in transition. Weekend America host Desiree Cooper speaks with Kahn about the difficulty of recounting horrors one might rather forget.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Michaela Melian
    CD: Los Angeles (Monika)


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