Former Liberian President Charles Taylor will go on trial in The Hague starting on Monday, under the jurisdiction of a hybrid court called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The charges result from the support Charles Taylor allegedly gave to rebel factions in Sierra Leone. Mr Taylor faces 11 charges of terrorising the civilian population, murder, sexual violence (rape and sexual slavery), physical violence (cutting off limbs), using child soldiers (under the age of 15), enslavement (forced labour) and looting. Taylor is distinguished in that as leader of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, whose aim was to unseat then-President Samuel K. Doe, he was one of the first warlords to recruit children, who were organized into a Small Boys Unit and christened with names like Babykiller.
What is the view of the trial in Liberia? The answer might shock you.
“If you start prosecuting war crimes in Liberia, you’ll prosecute every Liberian,” says ex-child soldier Paul Tolbert, 28.
After the war, Liberians chose not to establish a war crimes court on their soil, opting instead for a truth and reconciliation process which allows victims to tell their stories but does not have the power to punish perpetrators.
The desire to forget has allowed known war criminals to reinvent themselves. There’s General Peanut Butter, the nom-de-guerre of Adolphus Dolo, now a senator and a former Taylor commander, whose platoon is accused by rights groups of having thrown more than 100 people into a river, their hands tied behind their backs.
Prince Johnson, another senator, videotaped himself as he instructed his men to cut off Doe’s ears — a videotape still widely available at roadside stalls.
“They say that in order to kill a snake, you have to cut off its head. So maybe Taylor is the head,” says Reginald Goodridge, Taylor’s former information minister and one of 28 Liberians on a U.N. travel ban because of his close association with the ex-ruler. “But our Congress is full of war criminals. What about them?”
On a soccer field not far from where a pro-Taylor billboard faces traffic, a team of one-legged amputees vie for the ball, vaulting on crutches across the sandy turf. There are six one-legged teams in Liberia and several more in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Many of the maimed players were child soldiers fighting on opposite sides of the conflict and their coach has forbidden them from discussing politics in an effort to bury the past.
“Taylor? We’re here to forget that name. I’ve taken it out of my mind,” says Tolbert, their coach, who was 10 in 1990 when he joined the Small Boys Unit.
By 15, he’d become General Devil, reportedly one of Taylor’s youngest and most feared commanders, in charge of a platoon of 2,000 fighters known as the Evil Forces. They wore wigs and women’s dresses when they headed into battle, a technique meant to frighten the enemy. He routinely ate the hearts of his victims, a ritual adopted by Taylor’s rebels which was said to impart the dead man’s strength.
The UN does not fund the court and it relies on governments (primarily the US, UK, the Netherlands and Canada) for funding. The Taylor trial is expected to last for a year to 18 months, a lot better than the Milosevic trial went on for four years and the accused died in custody before it finished. The British government has offered to imprison Mr Taylor if he is convicted.