Liberians' search for truth begins in Minnesotaby Toni Randolph, Minnesota Public Radio
In the coming months, Liberians living in the U.S. begin to tell their stories about atrocities that occurred in their West African nation.
The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is gathering statements in one of the most ambitious efforts ever by such a commission. Some of the early training to collect those statements is underway now in Minnesota.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Massa Washington doesn't have an intimidating physical presence. She's a petite woman, who wears her hair pulled back in a pony-tail. She's also one of nine members of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is in Minneapolis to train volunteers.
On a recent day, about 60 volunteers are hanging on her every word as she tells them the most important part of their job is to let people tell their stories -- no matter how long it takes.
"And if the particular victim or witness feels the need to recount some of those experiences, even as far back as the riot in 1979, we've instructed statement-takers, let them speak," she said.
Washington tells the group the commission wants unfiltered stories from Liberians here. She says the information will help establish hearings and could be used in a court of law.
This four-hour meeting is held in a conference room of a big downtown law firm, which is providing pro-bono assistance to the truth commission.
Minnesota has one of the largest Liberian populations in the country -- about 7,000 according to the latest census figures, though Liberians here say the community is much larger.
Starting in January, volunteers will begin recording the stories of as many as 2,000 Liberians here.
There have been about 30 truth commissions over the years, but human rights advocates say this is the first time a commission has roamed this far beyond its borders to get statements. Massa Washington says it's important that Liberians living outside the country take part.
"Liberians in the diaspora, especially the U.S., are stakeholders in their TRC process. They are Liberians. They have made contributions to Liberia. Some witnessed and experienced some of these violations we are talking about," says Washington. "So it's very important to give them a voice in this process. The TRC is about Liberians, regardless of where they are."
The United States and Liberia have a long history, from the West African country's roots to today. Liberia was established in 1822 by freed slaves, and many of the Liberians who fled their country during the 14-year civil war that began in 1989 came to the U.S. Many of those who fled Liberia years ago made Minneapolis their home.
About a dozen Liberians attended a town hall meeting at St. Andrew Episcopal Church in North Minneapolis. They sat in metal folding chairs in the basement, as Massa Washington stood behind a long banquet table updating them on the commission's work.
They peppered her with questions about the guidelines for choosing the commissioners and statement-takers, how Liberians would be involved in the process and how the commission will protect those telling their stories.
Henry Gaypia says his main concern is accountability.
"We're trying to heal. I think in most people's eyes, including myself, I like to see people who committed and/or perpetrated certain acts of human rights violations in our country -- are we going to let them walk free? And if that's the end game, will that really enhance the peace process?" says Gaypia.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has only a short time to answer many questions about the decades of human rights abuses in Liberia. The process begins only a few months before former president Charles Taylor goes on trial for war crimes.
- All Things Considered, 10/10/2006, 6:20 p.m.