The alleged victims of former rebel fighter Otis Bleepea in Gbehyi Clan were not typical victims of the Liberian Civil War. In the early days of the conflict, Otis, who had allegedly belonged to the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), targeted members of the Mandingo and Krahn tribes. Residents of Gbehyi say Bleepea killed and tortured Mandingo and Krahn men, among them his own family members.
In one of his alleged attacks on his village, witnesses say Otis ordered his single-barrel brigade to kill Bantu Gaye, his very own cousin who was believed to be in his mid 20s and had just completed high school. According to family witnesses, after killing Gaye, he ordered his mother stripped naked and lit fire on her private parts. Otis was angry his aunty, Kaarzoeghon Bleepea, had had Gaye by a Krahn man.
Chiefs and elders of Gbehyi say they were left frustrated when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) hearings did not reach them to explain their horrible experiences during the war. Ten years on, a debate on the court is reviving hopes here that Otis could face a judge.
“Let this war crimes court come now so some of us can appear and give our accounts and recommend Otis and others to be prosecuted and punished for the rampant killings they carried out here during the war,” said Henry Lofen, an elder of Gbehyi Clan who spoke to the Daily Observer in the Mano vernacular.
“I believe the call for justice is the right thing, because if people commit evil and are not punished, they will continue it and others will follow their footstep,” says Samuel Kaintuah, 54, whose father was allegedly killed on Otis’ orders.
The TRC did not list Otis among more than 100 people it recommended to face a war crimes court. In fact, no one from Gbehyi participated in the TRC process between 2007 and 2009.
However, Hassan Bility of the Global Justice Research Project (GJRP) says it is possible for Otis to be tried if the court is set up in the country. Bility’s GJRP is collaborating with the Switzerland-based Civitas Maxima in the prosecution of Liberians in America and Europe in connection with the Liberian Civil War that killed an estimated 250,000 people.
“Because war crimes are violations of International Humanitarian laws, they are generally prosecuted under international law,” Bility tells the Daily Observer. “However, one can take, for example, a war crime of murder case to a local court and only accuse the perpetrator of murder, which is a capital crime under Liberian law,” Bility adds, referencing a lawsuit for murder against Benjamin Yeaten by the families of the late Isaac Vaye and John Yormie at the Criminal Court ‘B’ at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia.
Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, president of the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA), agrees with Bility. “Anyone who committed murder during the war can be prosecuted in our local court,” Gongloe says. “Again, when the court is established, a complainant with evidence can choose between the local court or the war crimes court depending on which of the two has greater punishment for the crime,” he adds.
During the civil war, NPFL rebels—predominantly Gios and Manos—Killed Krahns and Mandingos, and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL)—predominantly Krahns—killed Gios and Manos.
Tension between the groups actually broke out in 1985 after General Thomas Quiwonkpa, a mixed Mano and Gio, failed in an attempt to overthrow then President Samuel Doe, the TRC report found. General Quiwonkpa had helped Doe topple the government of the late President William R. Tolbert five years earlier, but had fallen out with Doe and fled the country.
Following his failed coup attempt on November 12, 1985, soldiers of the AFL purged between 400 and 2,000 Gios and Manos and supporters of Quiwonkpa in Monrovia and Nimba, according to the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in a 1986 report.
According to the TRC, Mandingos were targeted after Gios and Manos accused them of being informants of the Krahn-dominated regime.
Four years after the coup, Charles Taylor launched a rebellion in Butuuo, about two hours’ ride away from Gbehyi on a motorcycle, recruiting young men as well as boys of the Gio and Mano tribes.
Fury and Denial
Kaarzoeghon, Otis’ aunt, whose son he allegedly ordered killed, left Gbehyi out of frustration and settled in Monrovia, according to Robert Bleepea, Otis’ father. He says she did not return until she died about four years ago.
Mr. Bleepea says he, too, has been suffering from his son’s alleged crimes.
“I am embarrassed by what my son did,” says the light-skinned elder believed to be in his early 90s at his house in Gbeanpa, one of Gbehyi’s nine towns. “I thought he could come for us to go Gbehyi, meet people and talk to them to forgive him but he has not done so,” Mr. Bleepea says.
He says his son’s alleged crimes have haunted him and he always lives in fear of reprisal from his people. “I am embarrassed at all fronts because of what this boy did to me and others in this clan. This trauma caused me to adapt myself to drinking cane juice excessively with the belief that it would kill me to leave this place,” Mr. Bleepea tells the Daily Observer.
Kaintuah says he gets furious whenever he hears about Otis or sees him in Saclepea, where both of them live.
Samuel Kaintuah alleges Otis ordered his father, Moses Molee Munmusa, killed in April 1990 for being a Mandingo. He says Luaylay Zualuu, his mother—was married to Munmusa. Munmusa’s daughters, he further alleges, were turned into sex slaves and made to perform hard labor for Otis and his men.
“Whenever I see him here in Saclepea, I feel frightened and sorrow fills my mind,” said Kaintuah, who says he had to drop his father’s name for his maternal grandfather’s in order to survive.
More people accuse Otis of killing their relatives here.
Robert Kargo Gborlay, who lives in Gbehyi’s Duayee Town, accuses him of killing his half brother, Joseph Gaye, whose mother was a Mano woman and father a Krahn man.
Joseph Watson Wondei, who says the NPFL appointed him “Town Commander” of Duayee after outrunning the AFL, claims he witnessed some of Otis’ crimes.
“Otis had a group behind him that could not go to the war front, but were hunting children born by our sisters and aunts unto Mandingo and Krahn people,” he says, adding that he witnessed Otis’ men kill Bantu Gaye and torture his mother.
Otis lives in the Airfield Road community in Saclepea, and Wondei and others say he hardly visits Gbehyi.
He refused to comment on the allegations made by his kinsmen, saying he was on his way for a prayer meeting at the United Liberia Inland Church and afterwards he would go to attend to his rubber farm thereafter.
Visibly jittery over the presence of journalists, the light-skinned, middle-aged man lodged a complaint with the Saclepea Community Radio Board against a local journalist who took the Daily Observer reporter to his house. He complained that a journalist was led to his house by Journalist Robert Matally to dig up his past.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Joaquin M. Sendolo is a New Narratives Justice Correspondent.