M.A. Washington: Reconciling the Nation, One Community at a Time
Written by Massa Amelia Washington, Commissioner, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Monrovia, Liberia
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Spring/Summer 2010 issue
Pursuant to its core mandate to promote peace, justice, and reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia for three years embarked upon series of processes in the implementation of its mandate. A key component of the Commission’s work was the holding of hearings in the 15 counties of Liberia and the United States of America in accommodation of Liberians in the Diaspora. The hearings were both public and in camera. The public hearings often received record attendance as people flocked to the hearings hall to hear others tell their stories about what happened to them, their families, or communities during Liberia’s 14-year civil conflict. Perpetrators were also given the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
The following article was written for the media following the River Gee County hearings against the background of an interesting and unique approach toward reconciliation in the Liberian context popularized by Liberians residing in the rural parts of the country and adopted by the TRC in recognition of the country’s own traditional and cultural mechanisms of conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
The article is a narrative of a conflict situation in Youbor, Glaro District, River Gee County, South-Eastern Liberia, involving a young man, Washington Moore, accused of participation in the murder of three prominent citizens of the area and the persistence of one woman, Mrs. Martha Watkins, to get justice. The conflict which brewed as a result of the war threatened to rock the fragile peace and security that residents of that part of the country enjoyed. Save for the TRC and its intervention in resolving the matter by bringing the victim and perpetrator together with the help and involvement of the community, the village of Youbor in Glaro District would still be losing sleep, since the victim, Mrs. Martha Watkins, was determined that she would get justice in the case of her murdered husband.
Besides telling what happened and the horror that accompanies the narrative, the story validates a theory of transitional justice which states that Truth Telling in investigating violations of human rights brings closure to the victims of gross human right violations and serves as a catalyst for true healing and reconciliation.
Before this article, the public grasped only a fraction of the enormity and impact of the work of the TRC and commitment on the part of Commissioners to get the job done. The publication of the article accompanied by photos of various stages of the epic journey to Youbor boosted the Commission’s image and generated renewed appreciation for the work of the Commission.
The Hearings Officer commenced duty for the day. Every day since January 7, when the TRC launched its hearings, it has been his charge to usher in the witnesses. On Tuesday, February 26, he dutifully announced the first witness of the day in the second day of the TRC Hearings in Fish Town, River Gee County.
The witness emerged from a room in the back of the hall where he had been waiting out of the public glare. As if being cheered to move on, he confidently walked over to the witness stand and received the oath swearing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, then recited his name as is requested of all witnesses by the Chair of the TRC for the record. He was ready to tell his story – his side of the story.
Witness Washington Moore, 34 years of age, youthful and with a likable personality, was testifying as an alleged perpetrator, accused of participating in the arrests and subsequent gruesome murders of three of River Gee’s prominent citizens: Richard Watkins, Amos Suah, and Amos Nyenoh. Washington had come some 120 km from his village of Youbor in Glaro District to Fish Town on the day before to watch the TRC Hearings as it debuted in River Gee when he was implicated by the eighth witness of the day, Mrs. Martha Watkins.
In a heart-wrenching narrative, Mrs. Watkins, the first wife of the murdered Richard Watkins, on Monday, March 25, informed TRC Commissioners of how her husband and the two Amoses were arrested from their homes some time in mid April 2003 allegedly by Washington Moore and five of his (Moore’s) colleagues from the Citizens Defense Force (CDF) and later killed.
She said with Washington in the lead, the party had gone to her house looking for the late Richard Watkins, who was not at her home at the time but instead at the home of his second wife. According to Martha Watkins, the men proceeded to the home of the second wife, where they found the late Watkins and subsequently took him away.
Richard Watkins was striped butt naked, tortured, thrown in jail for few days, and then killed. Martha’s testimony was buttressed by that of her brother-in-law, Hilary N. Watkins, who also testified to the TRC.
The Watkins family had sustained heavy loss including the abduction and later murder of Oldman Joseph Watkins, Associate Magistrate and father of the late Richard Watkins and Hilary Watkins.
Before his death, however, Richard Watkins made Martha promise that she would one day explain to the world the story about his innocent death, according to Martha. The TRC hearings therefore provided Martha with the opportunity to keep her promise to her husband. Richard Watkins according to witnesses was a principled-minded person who denounced violence.
In April 2003, when news that the fighting force Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) was advancing on River Gee, some members of the government troops in the area headed by Major Paye Suah demanded that the citizens of River Gee form a defense force to assist the Government of Liberia (GOL) troops fight the rebels.
The late Richard Watkins reportedly called residents of the area and discouraged them from forming the defense force, advising that it was dangerous for the people to form a fighting force when they knew nothing about war and had no weapons to fight with. His actions were reported to government forces in the area, which led to his arrest and subsequent murder.
Washington Moore stood in the crowded hearings hall recounting his version of what happened, displaying a kaleidoscope of emotions. His case is what the TRC classifies as Window case (popular case); nearly everybody in Fish Town had heard about the Watkins’ story. Washington told Commissioners that he and five others from the CDF had gone to arrest Mr. Richard Watkins, Amos Suah, and Amos Nyenoh on the orders of their then commander, Paye Suah.
They arrested the men and took them to River Gbe the headquarters of their commanders. They never saw the men again and didn’t know they were going to be killed either. Washington insisted he only heard about the men’s deaths through a friend.
He named several individuals whom he alleged were responsible for the killings. As the accused testified, absolute silence filled the room. Members of the audience visibly hung on his every word. The victim’s two wives—Martha and her mate—were also in attendance to hear Washington’s account. Having been informed previously that the accused would be testifying, Martha had requested to be present.
At the end of his testimony, Washington asked Martha for forgiveness. “I am sorry for what happened, Sis Martha Watkins. I am asking you to please forgive me. I didn’t know the men were going to be killed,” he said.
The Commission turned the floor over to Martha, and she expressed readiness to forgive the young man, stating that she had forgiven him, but it was left with God to purge him of his sins. Martha was than invited by the TRC to the front of the room, but a distance from Washington.
The latter repeated the words of apology to Martha and attempted to hold her feet in contrition, but she prevented him, quoting a tradition that a man should not hold the feet of a woman. That particular gesture of remorse, she said, belonged to the male members of her late husband’s family.
For her part, she had forgiven the young man. For the first time since the hearings, Martha was able to smile. “Wherever my husband is, I know he is happy. I have obeyed his wish.” Washington Moore also wore an expression of relief.
Following the exchange, the traditional elders were invited by the TRC to bless the reconciliation. Paramount Chief Pah Saydee, speaking on behalf of the chiefs and elders, lauded both parties for reconciling, especially Martha for her benevolence in forgiving Washington. He also thanked the TRC for initiating and facilitating the reconciliation and asked that this method be infused into the Commission’s reconciliation process.
Nonetheless, with tradition being observed, the Commissioners had one more task to perform: to escort Mr. Washington Moore to his village to finalize the reconciliation at that level.
The Commissioners and team, including River Gee Revenue Judge Mr. Solo B. Teah, Statement Taker Thompson Woods, and Washington Moore, set off for Youbor at about 10:50 am with three locals serving as guards.
We were informed that the trip would take no more than two hours. It took six hours, instead, to reach our destination. Nobody on the team, not even the locals, calculated the hardship it would entail to get to Youbor.
First, the road condition was bad, and as we got deeper into the forest, we saw fewer and fewer tracks, thus leaving us to literarily make our own road. We were informed that the last time a vehicle had plied the road was seven months prior to our visit.
We were driving through thick forest, stopping regularly to clear away overhead tree branches for the vehicle and at other times attempting to repair bridges so the car could cross them. This was possible only after everyone got out of the pickup and walked across, leaving the driver to risk getting our vehicle across.
On one such occasion, we had to chop a huge log that had fallen in the middle of the road and then use the car jack to lift the log so the Commissioners and staff could get it off the road.
Half way into the journey, we ran into a group of men wearing red clothing who informed us that the male “mask” was out in the area. We therefore were confined to our vehicle for more than half an hour until the procession could pass. When we finally reached Youbor, it was after 5:00 pm.
We had traveled approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Fish Town, passing through several towns in the Webbo District, including Sweaken, Martuaken, and Jlatoken; then we headed north to River Gbe Camp, Airfield, and Gbarkleh, traveling at a speed of approximately 20 kph (12.5 mph) due to bad road conditions.
Youbor is a picturesque village, a hidden wonder with clay earth and wonderful skylines. It is situated between the Dugbeh River of Liberia and the Cavalla River shared by both Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.
It is the second town from, the Ivorian border. There is no access by road into the village, so we were doomed to use the only means of transport, a canoe. However, we were motivated to do so when the oldest of the Commissioners on the trip, Sheik Kafumba Konneh, took the lead.
The river was black and looked menacing, but we made it safely across though with some of us silently reciting the 23rd Psalm.
The welcome into Youbor was well worth the pain. We were received with great honor. The villagers came to meet us spreading wrappers on the ground for us to walk on amidst much jubilation.
They were so pleased to be receiving visitors from Monrovia especially the TRC. They had heard of the TRC from Statement Takers who went to the village once sometime last year, but the villagers never dreamt that Commissioners would visit their town.
The traditional welcome ceremony was held where cola nuts were chopped into pieces and passed around with pepper and salt. Each person dipped a piece of nut in the pepper mixture and ate it, followed by water in a cup where everybody took a sip.
A white rooster was then presented to us, followed by remarks from the Chiefs of the village and the Chairman of the TRC on behalf of our delegation.
We decided to kill two birds with one stone. We informed the villagers that we had brought back their son, Washington Moore, to complete his reconciliation with his people; at the same time we expressed care and concern about the massacre of about 316 inhabitants of Youbor in 2003.
Witnesses coming to the TRC hearings in River Gee testified that about 316 villagers from Youbor were intermittently killed by government militias. The witnesses claimed that some of the victims were carried from Youbor to the River Gbe bridge and were killed under the bridge, while others were taken to a nearby pathway across the Dugbeh River, where they were killed.
The reconciliation with Washington Moore and his village went well, leaving everyone on both sides grateful for the opportunity to reconcile their differences so they could once more coexist without fear, suspicion, and malice towards any party.
Upon his reacceptance into the community, Washington Moore was left with much advice from the TRC and Elders for enhancing the peace. For example, it was suggested that he identify widows, the elderly, and those living alone as a result of having had their families killed and render services to them.
He was also asked to be a role model to the youths of Youbor. Washington’s mother, who also lost her husband in the conflict, seemed overjoyed at the reconciliation. Until the TRC intervened, Washington Moore wore the scarlet letter in Youbor, but thanks to the commitment of Commissioners and staff to implement the Commission’s mandate, the young man can today move about his village freely.
Having done well in Youbor, we returned to Fish Town, arriving around 11:38 that night, barely in time for a good night’s rest before taking off early in the morning for Zwedru in Grand Gedeh County for the next round of hearings.
Originally published in the New Liberian, April 9, 2008; reprinted by permission of the author.