Last week's sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor took place in the Netherlands, far from the Twin Cities. That makes it tempting to tuck away the horror of his crimes against humanity as something that doesn't touch us here.
But as many as 35,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, said Ahmed Sirleaf, a Liberian human rights advocate. How many of them escaped, direct or indirectly, Taylor's brutal regime?
"Every single Liberian was impacted," said Sirleaf, an International Justice Program associate at the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights.
"Even if you were born here, you see your parents torn apart emotionally, or struggling financially, or trying to support relatives in refugee camps."
Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among his atrocities: murder, rape, torture, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns during the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.
He is the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
I knew blessedly little about Taylor until contacted many months ago by Pastor Harding Smith, founder of the Spiritual Church of God (www.spiritualchurch ofgod.org) in Brooklyn Center. Smith began to tell me his story over the phone, the details so horrific I didn't at first believe him.
After many in-person interviews, I realized that the pastor, a survivor of the Liberian civil war, had been protecting me from far worse details.
Smith was just another happy kid growing up in Monrovia, Liberia. His father was the police chief. He'd sometimes skip school to go fishing, or walk 14 miles roundtrip to sell bread to workers in the iron mines. He'd use the money to buy his school uniforms.
In 1980, the country's president, who was a family friend, was assassinated in a coup d'état. Smith, then 12, was not spared. Taylor's forces cut off his little toe and inserted a needle into his penis. He also was forced to watch a woman and her son from his village shot dead.
He came to the United States, but it is no surprise that he couldn't escape the demons. He married, had children. Then he began to hear voices. His wife left him. He lost jobs. He turned to drugs and alcohol. Eventually, he became homeless.
But the story I wrote about him this past Christmas was a story of triumph. He was found under a bridge by workers at St. Paul-based People Incorporated, who got him the mental health services he needed. Smith found God and is now adding to his flock, confident and kind as always.
So he's the first person I called after reading the news of Taylor's sentence. Will this bring relief? Will it help him sleep?
"This is something ... I won't say I wished for this, but this will bring closure," Smith said. "What we have been through ... the torture I went through ... the monster has finally been locked away."
That allows for the start of healing, he said. And yet, the stranglehold that Taylor held on Liberians remains powerful. For those who feel the 50-year sentence was excessive, and there are many who do, Smith explains that, with anything less, "people will still be walking on their toes."
Sirleaf confirms this. He was in Liberia a month ago, when rumors were flying that Taylor had been acquitted. Sirleaf knew that was untrue, "but it told me that Taylor still has lots of support. The country is divided on this. Some benefited from him," Sirleaf said, and warlords who committed crimes during the Taylor regime still roam the country.
Despite this, Sirleaf remains cautiously optimistic. "Lots of work needs to be done. It's still fragile," Sirleaf said.
But accountability, in the form of virtually a life sentence for Taylor, is an essential step.
"We can be very open," he said, "and address the issues that remain for Liberia."
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