They may be the most unlikely group of people expected to support the push for a war crimes court in Liberia. More than 100,000 of them, now former combatants, laid down their weapons at the end of the civil wars in 2003. Now some of them say justice must be served.
“Establishing a war crimes court will help the country a lot, because people will be held accountable for what they did,” said Yekeh Kolubah, who fought for Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). He later became an officer in the Special Operation Division (SOD), an infamous section of the Liberia National Police (LNP) during former president Taylor’s government.
Kolubah is now a Representative for Montserrado County District #10. “See where we are, a container of money is missing in a country in which people are suffering from hunger and disease, while some are dying. This war and economic crimes court will help to end impunity,” he said.
Joshua Blayee, known as “General Butt Naked” during the war, is another well-known former combatant advocating for a war crimes court. Blayee, who fought alongside the Krahn ethnic group that was factionalized into the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J), Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), was one of 36 ex-fighters who cooperated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He admitted to his actions in the war and expressed remorse. The TRC recommended he must be set free from prosecution, but Blayee does not expect the court to respect that recommendation.
“I support war crimes court and I am willing to appear before it to account for what I did,” Blayee said. “Even if it will cause me to spend some years in prison, it will be better because I do not want society to blame my children for my action.”
Blayee, now an evangelist, said many of his Krahn kinsmen are angered by his support for the word crimes court.
“But there is no way genuine peace can come to the country if we do not account for what we did, and victims continue to grieve,” he said.
The fighters’ embrace of a war crimes’ court comes following an advocacy by civil society organizations (CSOs), including Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), Citizens United for the Establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court, and the Civil Society Organization (CSO) Platform for the full implementation of the TRC’s final recommendations that include the establishment of an extraordinary court to try people who bear the greatest responsibility in the 14-year civil war.
The official call for the establishment of a war crimes court was launched in May this year when Citizens United for the Establishment of a War and Economic Crimes Court, a coalition of CSOs, assembled at the Capitol Building to petition lawmakers to enact a law to establish the court.
The petition was sanctioned by Article 17 of the Liberian Constitution, which gives citizens the right to assemble in a peaceable and orderly manner to petition and instruct their lawmakers and other functionaries for redress of their grievances. This was the first major assembly of Liberians in the George Weah Administration to exercise this constitutional right.
Rep. Kolubah, like other former warlords, including Prince Johnson and George Boley, was elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2014 and 2017 elections.
Kolubah is one of a group of ex-combatants who say they are willing to face justice for their roles in the conflict. “I fought war in this country as everybody knows, and I am not afraid of war crimes court.” But because he was among tens of thousands recruited as child soldiers, he expects to receive leniency. “The war came when I was a teenager playing marble with friends, but we were recruited and given arms to fight,” Kolubah said. He hopes that a war crimes court would identify the big people who bought weapons that were put into the hands of children to kill people.
Kolubah’s constituents were aware of his role in the war but, during interviews, many said they have forgiven him, adding, “We knew he fought in the war.”
Spencer Glay was 17 years old when the war started in 1989. He was conscripted into the forces of the NPFL in Cocopa, Nimba County. He fought until he was shot in the leg and it was amputated.
Glay is now a petty trader in Nimba. He said ex-combatants witnessed a lot during the war that needs to be accounted for.
“Without justice, the horrible things that happened during the war will still be repeated,” Spencer said. He is frustrated that warlords have received prestigious public positions, but fears that it will make others believe they can commit evil and be rewarded the same way.
Johnson Marley, 53, participated in the war alongside the NPFL in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.
“The war crimes court is the best solution to attain total peace in this country,” Marley said. “Most of the atrocities committed during the war were not on the instruction of Charles Taylor, who controlled the NPFL, but done because of envy, jealousy, and grudges arising from land conflicts and other issues before the war,” he added.
Marley said a war crimes court is not for a single person or group, but anyone who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. He cited one crime he saw repeatedly. “Even the Geneva Convention on the rule of war says that you do not kill a soldier who has surrendered. If a fighter fought to save civilians, they [civilians] will free that person when he/she appears in the court.”
Since the call for the establishment of a war crimes court emerged, some Liberians along with lawmakers, including Senator Prince Johnson and Speaker Bhofal Chambers, have voiced opposition against the court. In their view, it is too late and that Liberia should take a restorative justice approach through dialogue and reconciliation.
The delay in creating the court came because former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf refused to implement the TRC’s recommendations, saying it would destabilize the country. Many believe Sirleaf’s real reluctance was because she was one of 52 people the TRC recommended to be banned from holding public office for 30 years.
Human rights lawyer Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe said it was not late to establish a war crimes court. He said there is a process a country goes through at the end of a war. After the ceasefire, the country must undergo disarmament and rehabilitation, and then return to constitutional rule with an election to restore the rule of law.
“There is no better day than now, because we have gone through all these and only justice is left,” Cllr. Gongloe said.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.