Healing Wounds By Confronting The Nation's Past

The war is over, but the battle is not yet won" is a common military maxim often used to describe how military solutions by themselves are not adequate means of resolving issues of great national concern. But rather a combination of political and non-military approaches are required to resolve such issues. This analogy holds true for the current Liberian situation. In spite of the fact that the seven year civil war has come to an end, that one no longer hears the "sound of guns", elections have been held and a president sworn into office, there are still lingering, unresolved socio-historical issues that are yet to be won. The underlying question therefore is: How does a nation emerging from the shackles of a bruising civil war address those issues that have caused deep divisions within the society?

Does an end of the civil war and the advent of an elected president abruptly end those century-old socio-historical problems that continue to challenge the Liberian nation? Should the nation simply shrug-off the civil war, forget about the past, and pretend that all is well and fine? How does the nation face the past and come to terms with injustice, heal itself and move on? Should the perpetrators of the war be brought to trial and face the wrath of justice by going to jail or face death? Should the nation simply seek the truth and forgive? What is more important, justice or healing?

These are serious questions that Liberians must deal with honestly, and with determined resolve to finding lasting, equitable answers. The times for equivocation, pretension and self-delusion of supremacy are in the past. We are faced with a dire situation, which could determine whether Liberians opt for realistic, lasting solutions to a multi-faceted, endemic predicament, and an opportunity to set our country on the right path for unity. On the other hand, Liberians could continue to indulge themselves in the diabolical class system, the paralysis of timidity, that sent the nation crumbling to near self- annihilation.

Civil wars are not new phenomenon. There are numerous examples of contemporary and historical civil wars. In Argentina, for example, the "Dirty War" of the 1970s and 1980s caused 30,000 people to be snatched away from their homes, schools and work.

In the 1970s, the military under dictator Allende of Chile killed thousands for simply seeking freedom. Mention must also be made of the death of one million people during the Chinese cultural revolution. Similarly, and in recent times, the mass murders of more than two million people during the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; and the mass genocide in Rwanda where thousands were killed. The horrors of these tragedies have remained etched in the memories of many who still suffer in silence, carry a gaping pain, and seek to forget the ugly chapter of their nation's past.

While civil war is sometimes inevitable, since it's a historical process of change in many societies, there are clearly, however, certain elements of war that are not acceptable by humanity, or established international laws. One such element is: "mass killings" - the wanton and indiscriminate murder, maiming, and elimination of innocent people who have no involvement in the war being fought. That is why the international community has not taken kindly to such evil acts that occurred during civil wars and has put in place an International Court of Justice to seek redress on these matters.

The Liberian civil war bears resemblance to such evil and inhumane acts that had occurred in other war-torn countries. It has been estimated that well over 200,000 innocent people died during the course of the Liberian civil war. These individuals have become faceless, nameless statistics. In essence, they have simply been forgotten. There has not been any real accounting of who they were, who their families are, and where they came from.

For the sake of our future stability and their memories, we cannot simply dismiss their loss as insignificant. Liberians must seek closure with justice, so as to avert recurrence of the tragedy.

As experts in the conflict resolution field put it succinctly: "...No country can completely escape the past, and no country can completely live with the past... there is a moral interest in making sure every crime is punished. There is a societal interest in healing, so the country can go forward."

How then does Liberia confront its past, such that the ghost of the past doesn't haunt us or linger? For Liberians to successfully confront the past, we have to understand the past in order to deal with the present, and prepare for the future. In this regard, we must break away from our old way of pretending that all is well. We must admit that Liberia has changed in a profound way, and adopt to the prevailing reality.

A sad commentary on our nation's history is our failure to confront the past, which also means confronting the truth. There have been several missed opportunities, and several false starts. That is why time and time again, the nation seemed unable to address the deep-rooted problems of the past. Two-and-a-half decades have been lost, by our failure to confront this hideous history. A classic example is the recently held "Reconciliation Conference" in Chicago, Illinois from April 17 - 18.

A few months ago, the government of Liberia called upon the Liberian people and proclaimed the need to begin a national conversation on reconciliation. While many Liberians considered this a positive move in addressing the nation's sad past, the attempt itself was a failure from the beginning.

Rather than initiating this conversation on reconciliation at home, in the towns, villages, and churches throughout the civil society where it matters most, the government of Liberia opted to bring the so-called reconciliation talk to the United States. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., was anointed to lead this initiative.

Since his appointment as President Clinton's Special Envoy on Africa, Reverend Jackson has been involved in a globe-trotting mission. He recently visited some African countries, carrying President Clinton's message about the need for improved human rights, democratic reforms and universal freedom of speech and the press. A message some regard as preconditions for U. S. support, and for being accepted into the international community of democratic nations.

Sadly, however, Rev. Jackson has allowed himself to be hoodwinked by Mr. Taylor, who has portrayed himself as a peacemaker, while terrorizing his countrymen since he took over the Liberian presidency. The fact that Reverend Jackson would thrust himself into Liberian politics, a nation which he doesn't understand, smacks off a patronizing tendency that is so typical of Black American leaders who, ironically, are often quick to blame whites for similar treatment of Blacks. Furthermore, Reverend Jackson demonstrated a lack of political sensitivity and evenhandedness by accepting to play such a role.

But the Reverend Jackson is really secondary to this crucial debate on reconciliation which Liberia must go through to be healed. There are, however, still a number of unanswered questions: If there was a real commitment to reconciliation, why didn't the government initiate such conference at home, rather than convening it in the United States? Why haven't we established a national commission comprising of elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens chaired by a neutral person to examine this important issue?

These questions do bear relevance as to how we proceed to engaging in a real, genuine and honest national conversation on reconciliation. Such a conversation should not be treated in a casual fashion. Importantly also, such a conversation must not involve a third party or external participation. How the people and their leaders seek to confront the nation's past will provide a defining framework that should give birth to a new nation and a better country.

There are several issues, therefore, regarding the nation's history and the war that must be put on the table as a starting point. There are those, for example, who want to reconstruct and revise Liberian history by situating our problem as starting 18 years ago. But in fact the Liberian civil conflict, which began in 1989, was only a culmination of a long-brewing and simmering crisis that had its roots in the founding of the nation. What went wrong in the founding of the state? Why was the majority population mistreated, brutalized and virtually excluded from the political process? How do we address this continuous divide? How do we reconstruct a country in which there could exist real mass participation and majority rule? Why has the nation been in denial of its ugly past?

Importantly, who were responsible for some of the "mass killings" that went on? For example, who were responsible for the Lutheran Church massacre, where over 500 Liberians fleeing for safety were hacked to death? How about the Harbel massacre of 1992 (who oversaw the raping of women and young girls at Carter Camp)? Who were responsible for the Tapitta and Sinje massacres? How were "child soldiers" - young boys, 8 - 14 years of age - recruited, then drugged, and then turned into ruthless killers? Who killed Jackson F. Doe, Gabriel Kpolleh, David Dwayen and several other prominent Liberian politicians? These questions must be answered.

A real conversation on reconciliation therefore must seek to confront the truth, the whole truth about our civil war, and nothing but the truth. It, therefore, must be comprehensive and inclusive, rather than a scheme designed to promote the Taylor government. Only by so doing, the people of Liberia who are victims of this conflict will have a say and be given the chance to grieve. Such efforts will bring a genuine closure to this painful ordeal. This exercise will surely heal our dysfunctional nation.