I have a very personal – albeit indirect – relationship with Taylor.
Before backing the unspeakable acts of murder, rape, and mutilation in neighboring Sierra Leone, he invaded his home country of Liberia in December 1989, in an attempt to unseat the then-dictator, Samuel Doe. That was five days before my wedding to a US diplomat, Dennis Jett, who was the deputy-ambassador at our embassy in Monrovia. We went ahead with the ceremony anyway; Monrovia was a long way from the fighting upcountry and the invasion seemed a minor thing.
That illusion was dispelled in the following months. Taylor and another rebel hacked their way through the country in what became a civil war of remarkable brutality. Never, even as a journalist working in other parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, had I witnessed such wanton atrocities.
After a while, the original aim of the conflict – the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe – ceased to matter; only the killing counted. As a result, the State Department ordered me out of the country in June 1990, just as Taylor was about to march into Monrovia.
I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Dennis and our friends to likely disaster. Many of the other diplomats were hiding Liberians who were of tribes that were being hunted down by either government troops or Taylor’s rebels. (Shades of Nazi Germany.) So before departing, I told the stewards and gardeners and guards who worked at our residence to move into the first floor with their families. Although we didn’t have Marines protecting the place, I hoped the fact that it was an official US residence would dissuade soldiers from breaking in and spiriting people off to executions on the beaches around town.
A few years later, I received a letter from Mohammed, one of the stewards. He was illiterate and must have gotten a professional letter writer to pen the missive. In it, he thanked me for saving him and his family, and the families of the other employees; at one point, he said, there were upwards of 40 people, many of them children, living in our house. (Dennis had moved to the safety of the embassy compound almost immediately after my departure.)
That letter had enormous significance for me when I first received it; now, as a parent, I find it almost too poignant. I cannot begin to – nor do I want to – imagine the terror and sense of impotence in protecting their children that Liberians must have felt during the fighting. To say nothing of the unspeakable suffering that Taylor’s acolytes in Sierra Leone would later visit on children there, senselessly amputating their hands or feet to sow fear and submission among the populace.
Charles Taylor’s sentence today won’t erase any of that, but it does provide justice for the tens of thousands of his victims.