MONROVIA –July 29, 2020, marked the 30th anniversary of the 1990 St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre, the single worst atrocity of the Liberian Civil War. An estimated 600 people—mainly women and children—were shot and hacked to death by soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The civilians, predominantly Gios and Manos, had gone to seek refuge in the church’s compound on 14th Street in Sinkor, Monrovia, as the war reached the capital. Victims are buried in three locations in the churchyard.
In this year’s observance of the tragedy, survivors gathered on the church’s compound—like each of the last 29 years—in mournful reflection of the day they will never forget.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that former President Samuel Doe and AFL soldiers including Youbu Tailey, George Dweh and Jerry Gban (all of them now deceased) face prosecution for war crimes. However, only Moses Thomas, the former AFL commander who some witnesses claim masterminded the killings, has been prosecuted in connection with the massacre—though not in Liberia. Four survivors filed a civil lawsuit against Thomas in Philadelphia, United States of America, in 2018.
The TRC recommended reparations for war survivors, including those of the Lutheran Church Massacre. But that recommendation also has not been implemented.
Three decades have passed since the church killings, but to some survivors with the severest injuries, the massacre is still as fresh in their minds as if it happened today.
Here are five survivors whose personal stories you may not have heard:
Rufus Kartee, 53, was shot by AFL soldiers in his knee and buttocks. He recalls that he was among men in the main church building when he saw armed soldiers with face masks forcibly entering during the night hours of July 29, 1990.
“As they entered, shooting began without control, and that’s how I felt the bullet piercing my body and I fell like a dead man,” says Kartee. “I just saw myself at a treatment center without knowing who took me there and where really I was. But as the war was getting tougher by the day, my family took me to the bush where I was undergoing herbal treatment.”
The wounds on Kartee’s left leg and buttocks have still not healed. Yet he is fortunate that he did not lose family members in the massacre as others did. His wife had refused to seek refuge at the Lutheran church after soldiers killed scores of civilians at the United Nations headquarters, then in Congo Town.
“I thought because of our tribal connection we may be hunted in our Gaye Town residence, and I told my wife that we should go to Lutheran, but she refused,” says Kartee.“Since she speaks the Kpelle local language in addition to Gio, she used the Kpelle language to save herself and the children, and I am the only person that got affected in the massacre.”
Kartee’s life has never been the same since the incident. He struggles to walk through pain. His wife, with whom he had four children, left him and lives in Tappita with one daughter. Two daughters, who were his breadwinners, died within the last two years of different health conditions. Kartee now depends solely on his son, who is a petty trader, for survival. Both of them live in Soul Clinic, Paynesville, in an unfinished building that has no windows and doors at the front and back.
“I am suffering,” says Kartee with a quivering voice. “The pain is too much for me. I have to buy pain killers weekly to reduce it, but it cannot stop. These sores on my leg and butt have not cured since [the massacre]. Let the government or some humanitarian workers help me get treatment.”
- Richard Duo, Jr.
Not far from Kartee, another survivor of the massacre, Richard Duo, Jr., lives with his two children, his mother and sister in a zinc shack in Bernard Farm, Paynesville. Duo, 32, was just two years old when a bullet severed his left leg from his upper thigh. He now uses crutches to walk.
Duo is unemployed. He depends on his mother, Victoria Duo, who is the major provider for the family. She peddles plantains in Monrovia’s busy Red Light Market. She also sustained injuries to her shoulders in the massacre and complains that she still has a bullet in her body. Richard Duo, Sr., died in the bloodbath from multiple bullet wounds.
“The living condition is actually bad off with me and my family,” says Richard Duo. “Since this thing happened, we the survivors affected by actions of other people have not been catered to.”
3. Bobby Sirleaf
Bobby Sirleaf, 42, limps on his left foot because he was left crippled from bullet wounds. “I was sitting and looking when the shooting started and, being confused about where to go, I fell to the ground,” says Sirleaf. “That’s how bullets hit my foot and swept away the muscle below the knee and one of the bones. Now I have no muscle but left only with one bone between my knee and ankle.”
Sirleaf was taken by the Red Cross to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital. His wound would not heal, but he refused to allow his leg to be amputated. After fighting intensified, humanitarian workers relocated him outside Monrovia and later to Ganta Hospital in Nimba County, where he spent many years receiving treatment and getting back to work.
Sirleaf is a shoemaker. He sits by the side of the road at 72nd Junction, Paynesville and repairs shoes – the trade he learned at various vocational institutions.
“I saw that there was no help when this thing happened, and I fought my way limping to attend the Booker Washington Institute, Don Bosco Vocational Training Program, and the Liberia Opportunity Industrialization Center (LOIC) where I learned shoemaking and building construction,” says Sirleaf. “It is the shoemaking idea that I am living by, sending my four children to school and catering to my wife.”
But life is not easy for Sirleaf. He has to limp to and from the Monrovia Vocational Training Center (MVTC) community everyday to work at his makeshift, roadside spot under an umbrella. He goes to the clinic every three days to get his wound dressing changed.
Sirleaf lost his father, two brothers, two sisters and an aunt in the massacre. They got separated and died in different locations on the church grounds.
“When I think about this condition that I have, coupled with the killing of my father and siblings, I feel afraid to even enter the Lutheran compound,” he says.
- Linda Yormie
Linda Yormie suffered gunshot wounds to both hands and her back in the Lutheran Church Massacre. Like others taking refuge in the adjacent school building, she was confused and terrified when she heard the sporadic gun sounds.
“When the bullets hit me, I could feel severe pains in my body, but did not know where I had the wounds until after some days when I was taken by the Red Cross for treatment,” says Yormie.“Today, I still have a bullet in my back, and my hands are crippled.”
Yormie cannot use her hands anymore, not even to perform home chores, and struggles to get by on her own.
Her husband was killed in the massacre. One of her two sons has earned a college degree, while the other is out of high school. But neither son has been able to find a job, and they have moved on from her 72nd community of Paynesville.
Neighbors help Yormie wash clothes and do house work that she cannot do for herself. The house in which she lives is in urgent need of repair.
“My boy children have no job to do, and I am in this old building alone without even a mattress to sleep on,” says Yormie. “Who is the man that will come around me to help in my condition?”
5. Saye Dolo
Saye Dolo was 12 years old and badly wounded on the night of the massacre. Dolo can still recall seeing armed men in masks enter the classroom in which he and others had taken shelter. The men started firing at him and the other refugees. Soldiers with cutlasses and machetes slaughtered those who did not die from the gunfire.
“After the shooting, plenty people were lying dead in the school building we were in, and I laid down like a dead person [even though] I was feeling pain after my leg had been shot with all my bones shattered,” says Dolo. “In the morning, Dr. Robert Kpoto came and asked who all were living, and I talked. That’s how he took me to the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital in Congo Town, where my leg was amputated.”
Doctors tried in vain to save Dolo’s left leg, but the bullet damage was too severe. Without a leg, he needed crutches to walk.
Dolo lost his father, Joseph Dolo, during the massacre. His mother, Dorothy Cooper, was taken by the Red Cross from St. Joseph Catholic Hospital to Phebe Hospital in Bong County for treatment of her bullet wounds.
“When the pain became severe for my mum, she gave up and died at Phebe, but my father died on the Lutheran compound from gunshots,” says Dolo.
Having lost his parents and other relatives and left all alone, Dolo lost hope too until Catholic Sister Mary Laurene Browne took him from Phebe Hospital to her home to live.
Browne hosted Dolo for years. He later was turned over to the care of other Catholic nuns at the Don Bosco campus, where he spent more than six years. During that time, Dolo was given the prosthetic leg that he walks on today to replace the crutches.
Dolo makes a living as a construction worker, a trade he picked up at the Don Bosco Youth Center like Sirleaf. He lives in Sinkor with his wife and two children.
Unlike other survivors of the church horror, Dolo yearns for justice more than he does for reparations. The TRC recommended a war crimes court for Liberia in its 2009 report, but that has not happened for more than a decade now. Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ignored it. Hopes were revived when President George Weah took office in 2018, but the football legend has not shown sufficient support for the court.
“I feel that if what happened in this country remains as it is without justice, others will continue to do the same and go free. The society is becoming a don’t-care environment where people can do anything at anytime,” says Dolo. “No one should believe that we can continue to protect peace without justice in this country. My concern is that we, the survivors and victims, must have justice.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project