By Joaquin Sendolo, New Narratives Justice Correspondent
For sixteen years Cynthia Yormie and Suzana Vaye (widows) have been searching for answers to the mysterious disappearance of their husbands John Wonpoe Yormie and Isaac Nuahn Vaye. The two men were both high-ranking officials in former president Charles Taylor’s government, and went missing just over a month before the former president’s departure into exile as part of the peace accord to end the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003).
The two women have appealed to two governments, and opened up a case against the prime suspect. But they are yet to recover the bodies of their missing husbands, who were confirmed dead in the aftermath of the war.
The prime suspect was Benjamin Diah Yeaten, or Unit ’50’, then head of the Special Security Service (SSS) under the government of former president Charles Taylor. Taylor was indicted in 2009 for first-degree murder of Mr. Yormie, the deputy for operations at the National Security Agency (NSA), and his friend Isaac Vaye, the deputy minister of Public Works.
By 2009, Yeaten had long fled Liberia and today remains at large. The man, believed to have been Taylor’s chief executioner, is said have left Liberia months after Yormie and Vaye went missing, and shortly after Taylor’s departure into exile, after the signing of the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
After a decade since the case was initiated and investigated by the National Security Agency (NSA), during the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Criminal Court “B” dismissed the case in June 14, 2019 because it “lacks evidence,” giving the state the option to “re-file when the need arises.”
But Cynthia believes political interference is the reason why those who are responsible for her husband’s death, and that of his friend, Isaac Vaye, have not been found or held accountable.
“I am not sure that anything will happen for killing our husbands, because there are big hands in government today that were connected to the war fought here,” Cynthia said in tears. “They will not allow justice to come for people whose husbands and parents were killed, because they know it will haunt them.”
Cynthina remembers the night of June 5, 2003, when her husband Yormie and his friend, Vaye mysteriously disappeared. A vehicle drove into her yard at 1:00 a.m. She immediately recognized that its plate belonged to the SSS director Benjamin Yeaten. Two men got out of the car and told her that Yeaten had sent for Vaye and Yormie, because President Taylor wanted to see them. Yormie was at Vaye’s house, so Cynthia called him home. After arriving, Yormie changed his clothes, and got into the car, but was never seen again, according to Cynthia’s voluntary witness statement obtained by the Daily Observer and Frontpage Africa.
“We have not been told the crime they committed for which they were killed,” said Cynthia in an interview with the Daily Observer.
In the same statement filed as part of the murder case, Cynthia claims Taylor ensured she and Suzana were personally informed of their husbands’ deaths.
“The President Charles Taylor, later on sent Moses Blah, Harrison [Karnwea] and Prince Myers to us to let us know that our husbands were killed, and that he wanted to give us some money so we (widows) should go and see him,” Cynthia said.
Yormie and Vaye, along with Moses Blah, Vice President during the administration of Taylor, were accused of attempting to overthrow the government at the time, while he was attending peace talks in Accra, Ghana.
Yormie, an experienced police officer, had allied himself with Prince Johnson and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), during the early stages of the civil war, and was believed to have been involved in the death of President Samuel K. Doe.
Since their disappearance, families of Yormie and Vaye had challenged Taylor’s government to provide their husband’s bodies for investigation.
Five years after their deaths, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) General Suah Debbleh, testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that Taylor had summoned Yormie to his house upon his return from peace talks in Ghana.
Debbleh, testified that there, in full view of everyone attending the called meeting, Taylor took out a penknife and plucked Yormie’s eyes out before dispatching for final elimination, according to TRC Commissioner John Stewart.
The TRC final report and its recommendations were presented months after Yeaten was indicted by the state for the murders of the two men. Among the recommendations are that those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the conflict be prosecuted and that those, who played a role in funding and supporting the war, be barred from public service for 30 years. The Commission also recommended that victims received reparations. None of these recommendations have been implemented.
Nevertheless, pressure is now mounting on the George Weah Administration for justice and accountability for victims and survivors of the civil war, with the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Yacoub El Hillo, and the Representative of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, Uchenna Emelonye, calling on Liberians on separate occasions to solidify the peace by ensuring that people account for what they did in the past.
President Weah acknowledged the “rising chorus of voices” calling for a war crimes court during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2019, saying he would consult the Legislature to work out a way forward.
However, the recent withdrawal of the war crimes resolution from the floor of the House of Representatives by Speaker Bhofal Chambers, who is also a member of Weah’s ruling Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), has raised questions in the public about Weah’s level of support for a future war crimes court.
Outside of the halls of political power, Liberian institutions and civil society groups continue to push for the establishment of a court. The Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) during a recent meeting in Kakata, Margibi County, resolved to carve a bill seeking for the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia.
The former United States Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, visited Liberia late last year and clarified that justice is never late as long as the perpetrators are living.
And the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States last year passed a resolution for Washington to assist Monrovia in the implementation of the TRC recommendations, including the setting up of a war crimes court.
Aaron Weah, Executive Director for Search for Common Ground, said in an interview that due to government’s failure to bring justice for the victims, reconciliation in the country is still challenging, because people are bitter with one another.
For her part, Suzana Vaye, the widow of Isaac Vaye, said despite delays on the part of government to bring justice for victims and survivors, because some perpetrators remain in office, she believes they will one day see justice.
“I do not want to go further because we have been saying this one thing over and over in the media and, as often as we say it, I grieve. But one day I know what needs to happen will happen.”
Bettie Johnson Mbayo contributed to this report. This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.