Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Mercy vs. justice as Liberia heals itself

Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks a balance between punishment and forgiveness.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On a remote, palm-lined beach along West Africa's coast, inside a breeze-filled bungalow, an earnest cabal of nine men and women is plotting to overthrow the old order in their war-weary homeland.

With laptops blazing, and a bed sheet strung up for viewing PowerPoint presentations, they debate such issues as how to help victims of war testify in public – and whether to subpoena warlords-turned-members of parliament.

Meet the members of Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Theirs is the latest of the 30-plus truth commissions held around the world since 1974, including South Africa's, which famously charted a healing path for its postapartheid nation.

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The group includes a bishop who unconditionally forgave the men who killed his father, a former journalist who gave up the good life in America to help her homeland, and a young, untested chairman who'll be the ultimate arbiter as the TRC tackles a looming dilemma: Should wrongdoers – in this case warlords and fighters who carried out horrific wartime atrocities – be punished or forgiven or something in between? In short, what's the best path to healing: justice or mercy?

In a fragile nation emerging from 14 years of civil war, the TRC members know that too much rough-edged "justice" risks igniting backlashes and fresh violence. Yet too much well-meaning "mercy" may leave grievances unaddressed, setting the stage for future conflict.

Clearly, much is at stake, not least because Liberia is so connected with its war-prone West African neighborhood. Another Liberian war could reignite regional instability. Nor are there obvious institutions – besides the TRC – to help build a durable peace. As Priscilla Hayner of the New-York-based International Center for Transitional Justice says of the TRC: "This is sort of it."

At this early stage in the TRC's existence, there isn't yet unanimity of vision among its members. The Monitor profiles three key commissioners and explores their varying views of the best justice-mercy recipe for healing their nation.

* * *

A short, spry septuagenarian, Arthur Kulah didn't wait for the men who killed his father to apologize. He forgave them first. He did the same for their rebel commander – now a member of parliament – whose orders the men were following when they murdered Bishop Kulah's dad during the 1990-2003 war.

Kulah was a prominent leader, the head of Liberia's Methodist church. But that didn't save him or his family. His father and two brothers were killed. His elderly mother collapsed after fleeing fighting. His house was torched, and he was threatened with death.

Yet after the conflict, Kulah sought out and forgave those involved. It's what he calls "unconditional forgiveness" – not waiting for apologies before forgiving. And as the TRC wrestles with how to deal with killers, Kulah is one of the strongest voices for forgiveness.

One benefit of his approach, he says, is that it often prompts wrongdoers to confess and apologize: "When I take the initiative, people come and say they're sorry." In the case of his father's killers, the commander-turned-politician responded by taking responsibility for his deeds, apologizing, and explaining details about the incident and the war. Kulah says they're now on good terms.

"What if I hadn't forgiven him?" Kulah asks. "Each time I would see him, I would try to get even." Also, he says, "If you don't forgive, it's a burden you will carry through your whole life." Instead, "If you're able to get rid of that emotional hurt" – through forgiveness – "you can heal yourself."

These are high-minded words in a country where soldiers routinely decorated roadblocks with human intestines or made bets on the sex of an unborn child before killing its mother. In all, some 150,000 of Liberia's 3 million people perished in a war sparked by the warlord and eventual president, Charles Taylor. It involved fighters from many ethnic groups – and was fueled by illicit trade in diamonds and timber.

Yet in addressing even the most brutal wrongs, Kulah says, it's important to consider extenuating factors. "There are always reasons" for misdeeds, he says. In Liberia they included commanders' orders, drug use, fear, and previous mistreatment. And redemption is always possible, he says: "A good person can act bad, but if you forgive him, his God-nature can resurface." Yet, true repentance, he warns, requires admission, remorse, and transformation on the part of the wrongdoer. Turning stern, he has these words for any perpetrators who might fake regret to try to gain leniency from the TRC: "The grace of God is not cheap."

He hopes to shepherd Liberia's victims toward forgiveness – for their own good, and the country's. Unlike South Africa's TRC, Liberia's cannot grant amnesty. As its charter was hammered out in 2003, Western donors and Liberian civil society groups successfully blocked efforts to give it amnesty powers, which weren't seen as appropriate, given the severity of the atrocities. Nor were Westerners – who are heavily involved in Liberia's reconstruction – as supportive of amnesty as Africans tend to be.

So, the TRC's major function is to gather testimony – and decide whether to recommend prosecution for individual perpetrators. In doing so, it must consider each victim's desires. Consequently, whether victims are willing to forgive their perpetrators is crucial to the TRC's broader aim of reconciliation.

Kulah hopes Liberia's victims will take his approach, which he describes as, "forgive and forget – but remember." Indeed, he may have forgiven and forgotten the misdeeds visited on his family, but, especially on each anniversary of his father's death, he says, "I will always remember him."

* * *

Massa Washington was far from ready to leave America to come back here to Liberia. She didn't want to give up her beloved cat, or forgo the raise she'd just gotten at her job as a journalist in Philadelphia, or stop attending graduate school, or say goodbye to American friends who'd nurtured her after she fled Liberia in 1999.

But in November 2005, after a process that involved public nominations and extensive winnowing, she was picked as a TRC commissioner.

At first she resisted. She loved a lot about the US, including its rights-based, justice-focused culture. "Even the least-educated American will tell you they have rights" – and defend them in court, she says, in awe. Even debtors, she marvels, have the right not to be harassed by creditors.

By contrast, Liberia has a "culture of impunity" that routinely "violates peoples' rights." Liberians either "don't know about their rights" or don't defend them, she says, because they believe, often rightly, that "nothing will happen."

Indeed, it was the realization that she could put her five years of experience in the US to work for her homeland that finally helped her decide to come back.

But it has been a big adjustment. Once, when a Liberian colleague was phoning incessantly to argue a point with her, she finally blurted out, "If you call me again, I'm going to sue you for harassment." She quickly realized such a suit wasn't possible in Liberia's rights-anemic legal system. "It was my American-ness coming out," she says with a resigned smile.

She does see positive elements in Liberia – and Africa's – communal-based culture. In her family, as in many families, "We were taught to look after everyone else." Since her arrival, her brothers and cousins have treated her "like a queen." They constantly ask if she needs a meal cooked or clothes ironed.

Yet this community-based ethic has downsides, she says. When a woman is raped, for instance, she's often seen as a blot on her community and cast out – ostensibly for the good of the community, which is often male-dominated. Or if a father sexually abuses a child, and the mother tells others in an attempt to prevent it, the mother is typically told by elders to keep quiet – to preserve family and community honor. Such lack of justice is an outrage, Washington says, and, "Indirectly the community should be held liable."

It's this American-style approach to justice that she hopes to infuse in the TRC's deliberations and Liberian society. "I'm a Liberian, and I believe in upholding our values," she says. "But certain things here have to change."

* * *

An easygoing and boyish-looking human rights lawyer, Jerome Verdier doesn't seem intimidated by the fact that, despite being the youngest TRC commissioner, he was voted the group's chairman. That means he'll have extraordinary influence on the future of his country. A tall, gregarious guy, he's not above teaching visitors goofy handshakes or drawing smiley faces on notes to colleagues. He's more like a favorite uncle than the gravitas grandfather Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa's TRC.

Yet people close to Mr. Verdier say he's unflinchingly direct, strategically savvy, tenderhearted, and ready for the task.

"He's the face of the new era we're trying to create," says Ezekiel Pajibo, head of the Center for Democratic Empowerment in Monrovia and a friend of Verdier. It's an era also symbolized by the choice of Africa's first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Indeed, four of the TRC's nine commissioners are women.

Talk to Verdier about how he plans to balance justice and mercy, and it's clear he wants both – but in the right sequence. "First we need to strengthen the social fabric," he says, striking a mercy-tinged tone that may be prudent, given that many former warlords today hold positions of political and economic power. For instance, the speaker of parliament is a close ally – and ex-son-in-law – of Mr. Taylor, who's now in The Hague facing war-crimes charges. "Justice should be upheld," Verdier adds, "but at a later stage." This appears to deflate support for a domestic war-crimes court, which some in Liberia advocate.

Yet such conciliatory words worry those who are concerned the TRC will continue Liberia's tradition of "selective justice" – where the powerful get impunity. To those concerns, Verdier says, "We will try to build relationships" with powerful ex-warlords, he adds. "But if it is necessary to go after them, we will."

Hinting at his strategy, he talks about wanting Liberia's many young ex-combatants to tell their stories before the TRC. Such tales would probably implicate their commanders. These commanders might then scurry to testify – to try to persuade the TRC not to recommend them for prosecution. In turn, they may implicate even-higher commanders. Such a layer-by-layer uncovering of the truth about Liberia's past may open the door to justice, especially for top commanders – and to forgiveness for many others.

Earlier this month, the TRC began sending its staff across Liberia – and even to Liberian communities in the US – to collect individual statements about the war. Public hearings are expected to start early next year.

During those sessions, Verdier knows he'll have the Bishop Kulahs of Liberia talking in one ear – and the Massa Washingtons in the other.

The middle road he takes between them, he hopes, will be one of peace for a county and a continent that he says have been "rolling in violence for far too long."

At a glance: How Liberia went from stable to war-ravaged

• Founded as a haven for freed slaves – mostly from the US – Liberia became Africa's first republic in 1847 and was relatively stable until a 1980 coup.

• After a decade of economic collapse, Charles Taylor led a rebellion that ousted Liberia's first indigenous president, Samuel Doe, in 1990.

• This set the stage for a complex, brutal civil war that spilled into neighboring countries and lasted until 2003, killing more than 150,000 people and displacing more than one-third of the population.

• Mr. Taylor was arrested in March and is now awaiting trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

• The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – set up in February to investigate human rights abuses between 1979 and 2003 – began gathering evidence this month.

Source: BBC, Reuters

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