St. Paul hearings are Liberia’s experiment in healing from war

St. Paul is the temporary home to a Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the nation's civil war.

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Seyon Nyanwleh says he’s honored to testify before Liberia’s truth commission.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Seyon Nyanwleh is about to make history. A Liberian youth advocate who fled his country during its bloody civil war, he's slated to testify this week in St. Paul at a first-of-its-kind hearing in the United States.

Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with investigating human rights abuses that occurred during the nation's violent civil war, this week has made St. Paul its temporary home.

It's the first time a truth commission has held hearings outside its national borders, even though more than 30 commissions have been created over the years to heal nations ranging from South Africa to El Salvador.

"It's an honor to do this,'' said Nyanwleh, who fled Liberia with his parents as a teenager, witnessing death and violence along the way. "And it's an opportunity to get out a message that Liberians all over the world can hear.''

Minnesota is home to about 30,000 Liberians.

It is one of the largest Liberian communities in the nation, and most have never told their stories publicly, said Jennifer Presthold, deputy director of the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights. The organization, which does work around the globe, has been a partner of the truth commission, sending dozens of Minnesota attorneys into the community here and nationally to take written testimony about Liberians' war trauma and its effects years later.

From 1979 to 2003, more than 1.5 million Liberians -- or about half the population -- were forced to flee their homes to escape the violence, according to the organization. The violence left an estimated 200,000 people dead, and more maimed and wounded.

Over the weekend, the eight commissioners charged with investigating the violence flew to Minnesota. They'd already taken testimony at every county in Liberia. Now it was time to widen the lens, said commissioner Massa Washington.

Liberians in exile are a potent financial and political force, lobbying the Liberian Congress and financially supporting families, she said.

"Not to include them in a truth commission would have been an injustice,'' Washington said. "We're talking about healing the entire country.''

Washington said she's excited about this experiment with truth commissions.

"The world is watching us,'' she said.

Mixed reaction

Nyanwleh, like many Liberians contacted, didn't want to describe the details of the horror he witnessed in Liberia. He said he was a teenager living in Monrovia, attending school, when his family was forced to "run for our lives.'' Rebel fighters were indiscriminately murdering people.

"War is something that haunts you,'' said Nyanwleh, who runs a youth leadership program in Brooklyn Center. "You never knew who will be next" to die.

He said he would tell the commission that the trauma of war continues to haunt young people even after they've been moved to a safe place like Minnesota. That's especially true for the child soldiers forced into the conflict. The post-traumatic stress is there, although youngsters and their schools or communities may not recognize it.

Gang wannabes

While many youngsters are doing well, many "are caught up in the web of gang violence, gang wannabes.''

"Those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war in Liberia should be brought to justice,'' Nyanwleh said. His sentiments were echoed in the Liberian community, where members say they're honored to host the commission but eager for more than words.

"I have two takes on the issue,'' said Jackson George, former vice president of the Organization for Liberians in Minnesota. "I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be part of the healing process. But I think there should be a war tribunal. The people who committed the greatest crimes should be in court, since many of them are still in high offices of the government.''

Added George: "The question for me is, will their recommendations be implemented?''

Perhaps because of the uncertainty over how the "healing process'' will unfold, many Liberians, even in exile, are afraid to speak publicly about their war experiences, said Semantics King, a young journalist who runs a website of Liberian news. Even Liberians in Minnesota worry that somehow the political winds could shift again, and their words could end up endangering parents, children and other loved ones back home.

"I wouldn't talk about it,'' King said.

Nonetheless, King and hundreds of others -- attorneys, students, Liberians and international visitors -- are expected to attend the hearings, which started Monday and conclude with a town hall meeting Saturday. The hearings at Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University will be open to the public starting today.

Kerper Dwanyen, president of the Organization for Liberians in Minnesota, called the hearings "a wonderful opportunity.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553

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