By Massa Amelia Washington(Commissioner),Monrovia
The Hearings Officer commenced duty for the day. Every day since January 7, when the TRC launched its hearings, it has been his charge to usher in the witnesses. On Tuesday, February 26, he dutifully announced the first witness of the day in the second day of the TRC Hearings in Fish town, River Gee County.
The witness emerged from a room in the back of the hall where he had been waiting out of the public glare. As if being cheered to move on, he confidently walked over to the witness stand and received the oath swearing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, then recited his name as is requested of all witnesses by the Chair of the TRC for the record. He was ready to tell his story – his side of the story.
Witness Washington Moore, 34 years of age, youthful and with a likeable personality was testifying as an alleged perpetrator, accused of participating in the arrests and subsequent gruesome murders of three of River Gee’s prominent citizens: Richard Watkins, Amos Suah and Amos Nyenoh. Washington had come some 120 km from his village of Youbor, to Fish Town on the day before to watch the TRC Hearings as it debut in River Gee when he was implicated by the eighth witness of the day, Mrs. Martha Watkins.
In a heart wrenching narrative, Mrs. Watkins, the first wife of the murdered Richard Watkins, on Monday, March 25, informed TRC Commissioners of how her husband and the both Amoses were arrested from their homes sometime in mid April 2003 allegedly by Washington Moore and five of his (Moore’s) colleagues from the Citizens Defense Force (CDF) and later killed.
She said Washington in the lead, and party had gone to her house looking for the late Richard Watkins who was not at her home at the time but instead at the home of his second wife. According to Martha Watkins, the men proceeded to the home of the second wife where they found the late Watkins and subsequently took him away.
Richard Watkins was striped butt naked, tortured and later thrown in jail for few days and then killed. Martha’s testimony was buttressed by that of her brother-in-law, Hilary N. Watkins who also testified to the TRC.
The Watkins family had sustained heavy loss including the adoption and later murder of Oldman Joseph Watkins, Associate Magistrate, and father of the late Richard Watkins and Hilary Watkins.
Before his death however, Richard Watkins made Martha to promise that she would one day explain to the world the story about his innocent death, according to Martha. The TRC hearings therefore provided Martha with the opportunity to keep her promise to her husband. Richard Watkins according to witnesses was a principled minded person who denounced violence.
In April 2003, when news that the fighting force, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) was advancing on River Gee, some members of the government troops in the area headed by Major Paye Suah, demanded that the citizens of River Gee form a defense force to assist the Government of Liberia (GOL) troops fight the rebels.
The late Richard Watkins reportedly called residents of the area and discouraged them from forming the defense force advising that it was dangerous for the people to form a fighting force when they knew nothing about war and had no weapons to fight. His actions were reported to government forces in the area which led to his arrest and subsequent murder.
Washington Moore stood in the crowded hearings hall recounting his version of what happened, displaying a kaleidoscope of emotions. His case is what the TRC classifies as Window case (popular case); nearly everybody in Fish Town had heard about the Watkins’ story. Washington told Commissioners that he and five others from the CDF had gone to arrest Mr. Richard Watkins, Amos Suah and Amos Nyenoh on the orders of their then commander Paye Suah.
They arrested the men and took them to River Gbe the headquarters of their commanders. They never saw the men again and didn’t know they were going to be killed either. Washington insisted he only heard about the men’s death through a friend.
He named several individuals whom he alleged were responsible for the killings. As the accused testified, absolute silence filled the room. Members of the audience visibly hung on his every word. The victim’s two wives-Martha and her mate were also in attendance to hear Washington’s account. Having been informed previously that the accused would be testifying, Martha had requested to be present.
At the end of his testimony, Washington asked Martha for forgiveness. “I am sorry for what happened Sis Martha Watkins, I am asking you to please forgive me. I didn’t know the men were going to be killed” he said.
The Commission turned the floor over to Martha and she expressed readiness to forgive the young man, stating that she had forgiven him but, it was left with God to purge him of his sins. Martha was than invited by the TRC to the front of the room but a distant away from Washington.
The latter repeated the words of apology to Martha and attempted holding her feet in contrition but she prevented him quoting tradition, that a man will not hold the feet of a women, that particular gesture of remorse she said, belonged to the male members of her late husband’s family.
For her, she had forgiven the young man. For the first time since the hearings, Martha was able to smile. “Wherever my husband is, I know he is happy, I have obeyed his wish”. Washington Moore also wore an expression of relief.
Following the exchange, the traditional elders were invited by the TRC to bless the reconciliation. Paramount Chief Pah Saydee speaking on behalf of the chiefs and elders lauded both parties for reconciling especially Martha for her benevolence in forgiving Washington. He also thanked the TRC for initiating and facilitating the reconciliation and asked that this method be infused into the Commission’s reconciliation process.
Nonetheless, with tradition being observed, the Commissioners had one more task to perform- we must escort Mr. Washington Moore to his village to finalize the reconciliation at that level.
The Commissioners and team including River Gee Revenue Judge, Mr. Solo B. Teah, Statement Taker Thompson Woods and Washington Moore, set off for Youbor at about 10:50am with the three locals serving as guards.
We were informed that the trip would be not more than two hours. It took six hours instead to reach our destination. Nobody on the team not even the locals calculated the hardship it would entail to get to Youbor.
First, the road condition was bad and as we got deeper into the forest, we saw less and less tracks thus leaving us to literarily make our own road. We were informed that the last time a vehicle ply the road was seven months prior to our visit.
We were driving through thick forest stopping regularly to clear overhead tree branches for the vehicle and at other times, attempting to repair bridges in order to have the car cross which was only possible after everyone got out of the pickup and walked across leaving the driver to risk getting our vehicle across.
On one such occasion, we had to chop a huge log that fell in the middle of the road than use the car jack to lift the log before Commissioners and staff could get it off the road.
Half way into the journey, we ran into a group of men wearing red clothing who informed us that the male “mask” was out in the area. We therefore were confined to our vehicle for more than half an hour until the procession could pass. When we finally reached Youbor, it was after 5pm.
We had traveled approximately 120 kh (75 miles) from Fish town passing through several towns in Webbo District including; Sweaken, Martuaken, Jlatoken, than north to River Gbe Camp, Airfield, and Gbarkleh, traveling at a speed of approximately 20 kh(12.5 mph) due to bad road conditions.
Youbor is a picturesque village, a hidden wonder with clay earth and wonderful skylines. It is situated between the Dugbeh River from Liberia and the Cavalla River shared by both the Ivory Coast and Liberia.
It is the second town to the Ivorian border. There is no access by road into the village. So, we were doomed to use the only means of transport- the canoe. However, we were motivated to do so when the oldest of the Commissioners on the trip, Sheik Kafumba Konneh took the lead.
The river was black and looked menacing but we made it safely across though with some of us silently reciting the 23rd Psalm.
The welcome into Youbor was well worth the pain. We were received with great honor. The villagers came to meet us spreading wrappers on the ground for us to walk on amidst much jubilation.
They were so pleased to be receiving visitors from Monrovia especially the TRC. They had heard of the TRC from Statement Takers who went to the village once sometime last year but, the villagers never dreamt that Commissioners would visit their town.
The traditional welcome ceremony was held where cola nuts were chopped into pieces and passed around with pepper and salt. Each person dipped a piece of nut in the pepper mixture and ate it followed by water in a cup where everybody took a sip.
A white rooster was then presented to us followed by remarks from the Chiefs of the village and the Chairman of the TRC on behalf of our delegation.
We decided to kill two birds with one stone. We informed the villagers that we had brought back their son, Washington Moore to complete his reconciliation with his people at the same time expressing care and concern about the massacre of about 316 inhabitants of Youbor in 2003.
Witnesses coming to the TRC hearings in River Gee testified that about 316 villagers from Youbor, were intermittently killed by government militias. The witnesses claimed that some of the victims were carried from Youbor to River Gbe bridge and were killed under the bridge, while others were taken to a nearby pathway across the Dugbeh river where they were killed.
The reconciliation with Washington Moore and his village went well leaving everyone especially both sides grateful for the opportunity to reconcile their differences and once more coexist without fear, suspicion and malice towards any party.
Upon his reacceptance into the community, Washington Moore was left with much advice from the TRC and Elders for enhancing the peace. For example, it was suggested that he identify widows, the elderly and those living alone as a result of having had their families killed and render services to them.
He was also asked to be a role model to the youths of Youbor. Washington’s Mother, who also lost her husband in the conflict, was seemingly overjoyed for the reconciliation. Until the TRC intervened, Washington Moore wore the scarlet letter in Youbor but, thanks to the commitment of Commissioners and staff to the implementation of the Commission’s mandate, the young man can today move about his village freely.
Having done well in Youbor, we returned to Fish town arriving around 11:38 that night barely in time for a goodnight rest before taking off early in the morning for Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County for the next round of hearings.