It is beyond my imagination that anyone would believe the president of Liberia would go into Sierra Leone because he wants to terrorize the people and take their wealth.
That was Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor testifying at The Hague this week for his role in the Sierra Leonean civil war, a conflict that raged for 11 years and claimed nearly 50,000 lives. Taylor has been alternately cogent and bombastic in his own defense. Not surprisingly, the more lurid details from the trial have provided the most popular grist for the media mill both in Liberia and abroad (see, for example, coverage in the New York Times, ABC, and the Liberian Analyst). With every headline, the charges that Taylor ridicules as beyond the imagination seem only more irrefutable, his crimes more outrageous and cruel.
Meanwhile, to many Liberians, Taylor remains a hero. For foreigners like myself, this is not an easy thing to understand. At times, his popularity seems a byproduct of his savagery. During the Liberian civil war, recruits for Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were often heard chanting a grim refrain: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll fight for him." A decade later, this mystique has not dissipated in many pockets of the country. While we in the international peanut gallery gape at the spectacle of the trial - a murderer defending indefensible acts - many Liberians continue to endorse Taylor and his charismatic brutality.
Over lunch the other day, I asked two Liberian colleagues and ardent Taylor fans to explain to me their views on the trial. Johannson Dahn and Zeleh Kolubah (featured in this blog post as well) once fought as rebels in the NPFL. They now work at the National Ex-combatant Peacebuilding Initiative, a local NGO that provides psychosocial counseling for veterans of the war. Taking particularly sharp aim at the U.S. and its inept meddling in Liberia over the past two decades, Dahn and Kolubah offered an eloquent if not always convincing defense of their former commander-in-chief. This is what they told me.
For my Liberian colleagues, the sham of Taylor's trial began with his election as president in 1997 and the almost instantaneous calls for his resignation from around the world. "There was a serious war being fought in Liberia," explains Dahn. "Taylor was elected by the Liberian people. He had a mandate to protect their lives and property." Of the voices demanding Taylor's removal, none was so hypocritical as that of the Americans. When the war erupted in 1989, some 2,000 heavily-armed American Marines were stationed just off the Liberian coast. But then-President George H.W. Bush refused to send a single American soldier to help diffuse the crisis, and when a smaller contingent finally grounded in Monrovia, they were ordered only to protect the enormous embassy compound and the American civilians hiding inside. Throughout the subsequent 14 years of war, the American government sat on its hands as thousands of Liberians were slaughtered. Asks Dahn: "What interest did the Americans have in telling Taylor to leave if they did not have any interest in protecting the Liberians themselves?"
Taylor's indictment was no more lawful or legitimate than his exile in 2003. Now it was Bush the Younger's turn to tinker with Liberian politics. "The indictment was carried to the White House for review and revision," says Dahn. "Why? Is that the advisory board to The Hague?" Taylor is accused of 11 counts of war crimes in Sierra Leone. This is the stuff you'll recognize from Hollywood: cannibalism, child soldiers, sex slaves, hands, ears, and noses hacked off as punishment for minor misdeeds or for no reason at all.
To Kolubah, this is nonsense. "I fought with the NPFL," he explains. "We did not forcefully amputate people." The fact that forced amputation never entered the NPFL's repertoire suggests that someone other than Taylor must have been calling the shots in Sierra Leone. "If Taylor cannot be linked to forced amputation," asks Dahn, "then how can he be linked to massacres and other war crimes?" Who, then, is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated there? Dahn offers a categorical answer: "The Sierra Leoneans themselves."
And what of the crimes committed in Liberia? In the press, much has been made of Taylor's justifications for the grisly NPFL tactic of mounting human heads at road blocks as warnings to passersby. "Yes, it's true," says Dahn. "When enemy soldiers got killed, the bodies were used to instill fear in the advancing enemy." But this, he argues, is no different from the signage we use in the West to warn each other away from hazardous things. "On some of the chemicals you produce, we see signs with human skulls and cross-bones. What do those signs mean? They mean death. They mean danger."
When I suggest that there is a difference between a drawing of a skull and the real thing - and that, in any event, the dead deserve a proper burial - Dahn agrees. "But this was a warzone," he says. "There was no chance to bury the dead because of sustained gunfire and enemy attacks. And which one will be more fearful? A head that is dead and rotting? Or a silly picture?"
Of course, the views of two ex-combatants are hardly representative of the beliefs among Liberians as a whole. Still, I have heard similar opinions echoed around the country, from people of wildly different backgrounds and political bents. These arguments may not persuade you of Taylor's innocence (for the record, they do not persuade me), just as the trial will not convince many Liberians of his guilt. Loyalties die hard. For those of us watching from the comfort of our Western sensibilities, it is tempting to explain away this devotion as the result of ignorance or dogma. How can so many Liberians still adore Taylor after all we've learned about his crimes? Don't these people read the newspaper?
In reality, loyalties survive for reasons steeped in culture and history, story-telling and myth-making. The same lesson that Dahn and Kolubah teach about Liberia applies to the U.S. as well, where our own political allegiances seem sometimes to defy empirical evidence. The experiences of our two countries are hardly comparable, but the point is the same.
Meanwhile, as Taylor takes the stand for crimes that Dahn and Kolubah insist he did not commit, the other architects of the Liberian crisis are free to live, work, and hold office in their home country. Dahn calls them Charlie's Angels: "They're clean. Pure from heaven. No spot on them. But they are imposters." Taylor is their "sacrificial lamb" - a "brave, generous man," a man "who does not lie," a "humanitarian." Says Dahn: "All these white collar guys you see around here in the big vehicles, supported by Americans. They are very good planners of very bad things. And they have met their match: Charles Taylor. Oh yeah."