It has been ten years now since the release of the TRC report and it looks as though memories of traumatic experiences of the war have never really gone away and, instead, it appears these memories, long suppressed, can instantly come alive. All it takes is anything, anyone or any event to trigger a flashback and they will come pouring out, gushing forth like a fountain.
In this regard, a taunting question which keeps coming up time and time again is whether "Reconciliation" is possible in the absence of justice; but more importantly, whether ordinary people in their day to day interactions with seemingly unrepentant perpetrators can find within themselves the courage to forgive and find closure in some shape or form.
In my experience as a TRC field researcher and Inquiry Officer, mainly in the southeast, particularly in Maryland County, and my prior experience working with the UNDP Human Rights Violations Mapping Project, this was a question which I often found myself confronted with as I listened to some very horrific accounts of ordinary people's encounters with rebel groups during the civil war; the mere mention of which invoked deep fear was that of the self-styled General Noriega, whose actual name is Mark Guahn. During our work with the UNDP Human Rights Violations Mapping project as well as with the TRC in Sinoe, Maryland and Grand Kru counties, locals often said that stories of alleged wartime human rights abuses by the self-styled General Noriega are so many that if they are all written, no library in Liberia would have the capacity to hold the volumes.
Mr. Gabriel Cikar Madison, whose experience and story I am about to narrate, is my senior brother in-law. Following his graduation from the St. Francis High School in Pleebo, Maryland County, in 1975, he was employed in the Accounts Department at a company called Vanply, with the head office based in Greenville, Sinoe County, Liberia. So he worked and lived in Greenville with his family from that time up to the outbreak of the Liberian civil war in 1990.
During the conflict period, all normal activities ceased and thousands of people were rendered unemployed. For livelihood, many people resorted to petty trading in food and other items within their counties of residence, in other counties, and across borders. My brother in-law, who I will hereinafter refer to as Gabriel, was one of such traders. He traded in goods between Sinoe and Maryland counties, and between Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Every civilian traveling within and out of NPFL-control areas during the war was required to obtain a pass for security reasons.
According to Gabriel, one day in 1991 while traveling, along with other people on a pick-up from Greenville to Pleebo, General Noriega (Mark Guahn) stopped the vehicle he and other persons were traveling in at a road block, in order to search travelers' luggage and goods and for questioning. Irritating questioning by NPFL fighters at check points, he said, was a normal thing during those days.
He said during the search, Noriega pried open his traveling bag containing some of his personal items and brought out a transistor radio he had bought several years prior to the outbreak of the civil conflict. He said Noriega demanded a receipt for the radio; but he told the general that the radio was old and that he had lost the receipt fleeing and moving from place to place as a consequence of the war.
He said Noriega apparently was not convinced by his explanation because the general said that the radio was not for him but that he stole it from someone. Gabriel said he denied stealing the radio, insisting that it was his lawful property. He said his persistent denial apparently angered Noriega. According to him, the general threw him to the ground but that he (Gabriel) got up back on his feet with agility.
He said this seemed to have infuriated Noriega, prompting him to point a gun to his neck and pull the trigger. But for unknown reason(s) the gun did not fire. Then, according to Gabriel, the general pointed the gun in the air and pulled the trigger and it fired.
When that happened, Gabriel said, Noriega thrust the tip of the gun's nozzle in his lower neck, nearly piercing his esophagus. He said he felt choked and upon opening his mouth, blood gushed out. Not yet satisfied with his cruel and barbaric treatment of him, he said Noriega grabbed him with both hands, threw him to the ground, gave him several ferocious kicks to all parts of his body, and virtually trampled all over his body while he lay prostrate on the bare ground. Lastly, according to him, the general dragged him repeatedly on the rough gravel (laterite) road which resulted to lacerations on his head and other parts of his body, including his face, arms, legs, and back.
He said after Noriega had satisfied his cruel and inhumane appetite, he ordered the driver of the pick-up to take Gabriel alone to his destination, Pleebo, but turned back all of the other passengers because they did not have passes. That encounter with General Noriega left him with hard and bitter memories which he had since tried to suppress.
Moreover, he had since longed to settle scores one day with General Noriega but he had never ever had the slightest indication that one day in the future he was going to once again encounter General Noriega. But according to him, the opportunity came a few years later after the end of the civil war.
He had returned to visit Greenville where he had been previously assigned to work prior to the civil war. On this day during his brief stay in Greenville, according to Madison, he walked into a local entertainment bar to get a drink. Upon approaching the counter, he noticed a man dressed in Liberia Immigration Services (LIS) uniform who he thought looked slightly familiar.
Upon getting closer and exchanging greetings, he recognized the voice, the same voice he had heard on the Greeville Pleebo highway bellowing orders to terrified passengers. Suddenly, according to him, he realized after being dumbstruck for a few minutes.
"A chill came over my body", Madison explained, "and I felt very bad. I wanted to pick up some heavy object and just smash his head but I controlled myself at that point and I decided to talk to him". I greeted him and said "hello chief; he looked up at me and responded with a funny smile on his face. Then I offered him a beer, which he accepted, after which I walked outside to come to myself good", he said.
After a few minutes, he walked back into the bar and went straight up to Noriega whose face, according to him, lit up with a smile probably expecting another offer. But another offer was the least thing on his mind, Gabriel explained. Finally he mustered the courage and spoke out. "Oh chief do you know me", he asked.
Noriega responded, "you look like somebody I know but I can't remember from where". You remember the car you stopped with the passengers who were traveling to Pleebo from Greenville and how you pointed a gun to my neck and almost killed me?" Gabriel said, noticing a sudden change in Noriega's facial expression and the signs of embarrassment he started showing. "No, I can't remember" Noriega said with a tremble in his voice looking very ashamed and embarrassed".
Unlike a few years earlier when such a question would have meant a death sentence, Noriega looked helpless and could not take another sip of the beer according to Gabriel Madison. Feeling also uneasy by the questions he had posed to Noriega, Gabriel walked out of the shop for a few minutes pretending as though he wanted to urinate.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Noriega just staring blankly into space and, before long, he arose from his seat and walked out the door quietly and disappeared around a corner apparently out of shame and embarrassment Madison said. "Look Gabe" he said, that man was looking so embarrassed that I began to feel sorry for him but I felt so good man, because this thing that had been weighing on my mind for so long was finally off my chest and I felt so good that I confronted him", Madison declared in a triumphant tone of voice.
That experience my brother-in-law narrated to me left me asking myself even up today, if reconciliation is possible in the absence of justice as we know it. As for my brother-in-law, as far as he was concerned, he had received justice because he had confronted the once almighty General Noriega who trembled before him appearing just as distraught as he (Madison) on that trip from Greenville to Pleebo years earlier.
To my mind, Gabriel Madison's encounter with Noreiga was a kind of Palaver Hut encounter. Noreiga, though appearing visibly embarrassed, could not summon the courage to say sorry but his body language told it all. Whether such one-on-one experience can be replicated around the country is uncertain but the Palaver Hut mechanism, recommended by the TRC, could prove very useful in this regard.
Gabriel Wea Coleman (Freelance journalist) Former Team Leader, Statement Takers, UNDP Mapping of Human Rights Violations Project, Liberia, 2004-2005; Former Inquiry Officer, Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 2005-2008; Regional Coordinator, Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) Catholic Diocese of Cape Palmas, Liberia, 1999-2003. He can be reached via mobile phone: +231-(0)-77-771-2325 & +231-(0)-886-578-264 or via E-mail: [email protected] and [email protected]