Area Liberians Recount Horrors for Commission

Civilians flee mortar fire in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2003. Liberian refugees in the Washington area are being asked to describe the brutality they witnessed.
Civilians flee mortar fire in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2003. Liberian refugees in the Washington area are being asked to describe the brutality they witnessed. (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

Now that she is here, with a warm Silver Spring apartment and a steady nursing job, Wilhelmina Brewer never talks about it: the day 17 years ago when armed rebels stormed her neighborhood and her father disappeared, the cross-country trek to safety outside the borders of war-wracked Liberia, the corpses she passed along the way.

But on a recent chilly Sunday, Brewer sat in a Georgia Avenue restaurant and agreed to speak. She filled out a pale green form, volunteering to tell her story for a historic attempt to bring a degree of healing to her homeland, where 14 years of ethnically charged butchery left as many as 250,000 dead.

Like similar projects in other countries, Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission aims to document the atrocities that occurred in that West African nation in hopes of avoiding their repetition. But the Liberian commission, its organizers say, is the first to gather testimony from refugees outside its borders, who, like Brewer, carried with them memories of abuse and horror.

"The main thing that was in our mind was to escape," said Brewer, a round-faced woman of 30, her sweet voice growing impassioned as she recently recounted her family's flight. "You see the bodies in the street. It's the only thing in your mind -- to escape."

At least 30 nations have established truth commissions. In some countries, such as South Africa and Argentina, they have drawn global attention and issued powerful reports. In others, such as Bolivia, they have disbanded midway because they lacked resources and political will.

Facilitated by a Minnesota human rights group, the U.S. statement gathering began in Minneapolis in 2006 and has spread to seven other cities with significant numbers of Liberians, who now guard their stories in urban apartments and suburban developments. In the Washington region, home to more than 5,000 Liberian immigrants, the project was launched recently with a modest event at a yellow-walled eatery, where about a dozen people listened as a commissioner visiting from Liberia made her pitch.

"This is our time as Liberians to see how best we can face our past," said Oumu K. Syllah, a nurse wearing a celery-color suit and a serious expression. "We know that it's difficult. But this is the time to reconcile. This is the time to do justice."

There were no questions. Near the bar, Edwin Lloyd, a pastor, sipped juice from a plastic cup and said he was unsurprised by the silence. He has seen it at his Beltsville parish, Whosoever Will Christian Church, where his Liberian congregants sometimes publicly thank God for getting them out alive but mostly don't describe their experiences.

"A lot of them have vivid memories of what transpired," Lloyd, 42, said. "I have the mental strength to endure what I saw. A lot of people don't have that."

This is what Lloyd saw, as he walked in a long line of migrants fleeing Monrovia, the capital: Bodies "every 10 steps." Fathers killed in front of their children. Starving babies abandoned by mothers who had no food to give them. Rebels who had just beheaded a victim holding up bloody knives like trophies. This is what he heard: the rustling of people being dragged into bushes, then the blast of gunfire.

"Most of the time I would just turn my back, not to watch," Lloyd said. "It's not something you want to see."

Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves, was relatively stable until a 1980 coup ushered in a repressive military regime. That government was overthrown by rebel leader Charles Taylor in 1989, leading to 14 years of civil war characterized by mass rapes and brutality. Some victims were burned alive or disemboweled, others hacked with machetes or shot by machine gun-toting child soldiers. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced.

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