How one Liberian helps others speak out

Aloysius Toe has spent – and risked – his life fighting against human rights abuses.

Tugela Ridley
Activist: Aloysius Toe helped start a network of volunteers that reports human rights abuses in Liberia.

Aloysius Toe's wife and children were crying, huddled together as a gang of armed men beat at the front door threatening to kill him. He could not call the police because the armed men were the police. Mr. Toe's crime was speaking out against Charles Taylor's violent regime in Liberia.

On that October night in 2002, Toe listened as 19 policemen kicked in the door and smashed up his house looking for him. When they did not find him, the officers dragged his wife into the street, threw her in the back of a truck and sped off.

Toe was not there, but he heard it all because she had called him and left the phone switched on so that he would know.

Toe lived through this and other nightmares in his fight for human rights in Liberia under the barbaric rule of Mr. Taylor, the former president now on trial in The Hague for war crimes.

During the 1998-2002 civil war, Toe was arrested and tortured. He fled into exile twice and was locked up without trial twice, but each time he continued to defend basic human rights.

As head of a coalition of activists, Toe used to remind himself that "If I falter the whole movement is going to die, and the lives of those we risked our lives for would be put at risk."

Not content simply to speak out himself, Toe encouraged others. He helped start more than 100 human rights clubs in schools and established a network of 245 volunteers recording and reporting cases of abuse across the country.

In 2005, this work earned him a Reebok Human Rights Award.

He led by example, and despite the personal persecution and targeting of his wife and two young sons, Toe did not give up. "[I believe] one cannot see others suffer when you have the power to raise your voice. All those who were involved in human rights activism in the country were either cowed into submission by the government [or] intimidated to flee the country. I took up the challenge."

Toe grew up in West Point, a hectic riverside slum in the capital, Monrovia. "I have felt the pinch of poverty," he says. This was during the early 1990s as various rebel factions including Taylor's fought for control of the country and civilians poured into the city from the rural killing fields.

In West Point, he worked for a local youth association and later at high school helped establish secret discussion groups where the students would talk politics – a topic banned at school.

Toe also read. Henry David Thoreau's 19th century writings on civil disobedience were an inspiration to the young Toe, as was the spiritual leader, Mohandas Gandhi, who advocated peaceful protest in colonial India. His other inspiration and strength came from God. "I can't really say how brave I am but there comes a time when everybody falls silent and then a voice that I refer to as God [picks me] up and says, 'It is by you that others are being kept alive,' " he says. "I take courage from that."

Toe says he speaks for those who have no voice and rails against the silent fearfulness that allows evil to go unchecked. "During the war people abused [human] rights because there was a large silence on the part of the population, many people withdrew from national life and community life and left everything to faith and to the intervention of God."

Following the midnight raid on his home in Oct. 2002, Toe – against the advice of his colleagues – turned himself in and was charged with treason. By then the high profile as an outspoken human rights activist that made him a target for the Taylor regime also made it difficult for him to simply disappear while Amnesty International and foreign diplomats were watching.

Despite a campaign for his release, it was not until the final rebel assault on Monrovia reached the jail at which he was held eight months later that Toe and his fellow prisoners escaped – shortly after the guards had fled in panic.

Now the war is long over and Taylor is on trial, but for Toe the fight continues: He is a vocal critic of the current government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, focusing his attacks on economic injustice and the corruption that he says keeps the majority mired in poverty.

But despite his youth it seems the years of activism have worn him down a bit, that his passion may be waning slightly.

As the interview ends, Toe says he is tired of the constant battles and wonders how much longer he can keep going. He thinks that maybe he has had enough. After all, as he himself pointed out, "there comes a time when everybody falls silent."

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