Liberians tell stories of torture, painby Toni Randolph, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota will host Liberians from across the United States who are coming here to describe their lives since they fled their homeland.
A special Truth and Reconciliation Commission from Liberia will take testimony during historic public hearings this week in Saint Paul. This is the first time such a commission has held hearings outside of its own country.
St. Paul, Minn. — For more than a year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been tracking down the stories of people like Yende Anderson. The 33-year-old Liberian woman told the Commission about her family's plight. Her grandfather, former Liberian President William Tolbert, Junior, was assassinated in 1980. After that, she says the authorities came after her father and arrested, imprisoned and tortured him.
"He went through a lot of suffering from the beatings. And he still has tiny stripes on his back. They were beaten with the rods from inside tires. He was stripped in public, made to eat human feces twice. If he didn't eat it, they were going to shoot him. He dug his grave on several occasions, but they never killed him," Anderson said.
Five years after her grandfather was assassinated, Anderson's family was able to move to the United States.
Some 20 years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate human rights abuses during Liberia's civil war and the unrest that followed. In an unprecedented move, the commission collected statements from Liberians around the world and now, in another first for such panels, the Liberian commission is taking testimony in a public hearing outside its own country.
About 40 people will appear before the commission. Their testimony will focus on why they left Liberia, and what professional and personal challenges they've faced since they were uprooted.
Minnesota was chosen for this hearing, in part, because it 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.
Massa Washington is one of 10 members of the commission, also known as the TRC. Speaking by phone from Monrovia as she was wrapping up the first round of hearings, she said she wanted to include Liberians in the Diaspora, because she wants them to be enfranchised.
"We just wanted to make sure that all Liberians felt ownership of the process, and will have a voice in the TRC process, because the TRC recommendations in our final report will be effecting the lives of Liberians forever," Washington explained.
But there is some doubt about how effective the commission will be. Kerper Dwanyen is the president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, which is trying to make sure Liberians here know about the public hearings. He says not everyone has faith there will be true reconciliation at the end of this process.
"The TRC has a huge challenge in making sure that people are not pouring out their horrors and reliving their bad experiences all for naught," Dwanyen said. "So there is a degree of skepticism in our community as to what is this actually leading to, but there's also some hope and people want to tell their stories, people want to do it either to set the record straight or to honor their loved ones who've been victimized."
If the testimony in Minnesota mirrors the pattern in Liberia, the hearings could be emotional. Commissioners say some of the stories they've heard have brought them to tears.
The hearings will be held at Hamline University through Saturday, June 14, and are open to the public.
- Morning Edition, 06/09/2008, 7:25 a.m.