MONROVIA, Liberia — Gladys Arthur doesn’t care about Charles Taylor or Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or any of the other warlords and politicians who are named for wrongdoing in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report.
The commission sought to understand both the causes and the consequences of Liberia’s chaotic 14-year civil war. They collected testimony of nearly 20,000 Liberians, including victims like Arthur and perpetrators like Prince Johnson, head of one of the rebel groups and one of the individuals listed as the single most notorious war criminals.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is publicly sanctioned in the report and it recommends she not be allowed to hold office for another 30 years. Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, is condemned and further prosecution is recommended.
But for Arthur, the only name that matters is on page 334 of the report, number 90 (she knows this off the top of her head) on the list of “most notorious perpetrators” recommended for further prosecution.
“M-A-N-G-O M-E-N-L-O-R,” said Arthur, 31, spelling out each letter decisively in her soft-spoken drawl. “Mango Menlor. That’s his name. That’s the man who killed my mother.”
Menlor killed her mother. And he also raped her, forced her to live with him as his wife, separated her twin brothers and gave away her baby sister to another commander.
Arthur was only 12 at the time. After several months, one of Menlor’s other wives helped Arthur escape by opening a side window when no one was looking after Menlor threatened to kill the young girl one time too many.
During the war, nearly a million Liberians were displaced, more than a quarter million died, and three-fourths of the country’s women were raped or sexually assaulted. In a country of only 3 million people, virtually everyone suffered.
For years, said Arthur, she felt shame and anger. But in 2007, a pastor at her church in a Monrovia suburb asked her what was wrong. She didn’t answer at first, but after weeks of quiet prodding, Arthur told her story. Then she told it again.
And now she’s telling it again and again.
Some of her friends and relatives who knew about her past judged her as part of an all-too-common blame the victim mentality. But, when her pastor didn’t, she felt better. He encouraged her to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and while she was nervous about doing so, she agreed.
Truth commissions to resolve the problems in African countries coming out of civil conflicts were spearheaded by post-apartheid South Africa’s approach, and have played important roles in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The emphasis is often on the victim’s opportunity to tell his or her own story.
After Arthur told hers to Liberia’s commission, she says she felt like a new person.
“When I put my story out, I felt better. I let go of the bitterness, of the burden I was carrying,” she said. “If you keep it, it can hurt you.”
It took her five hours of testimony to explain what had happened to her during the first round of hearings by the TRC, and a similar amount of time during a subsequent testimony. And now, every time she can grab a few minutes, she writes out more of her story on unlined white pages. First she used a blue pen, and then a black one. Her handwriting is careful and timid at points, bolder in some places, small and compressed in others.
The title page says, “A true story that happened to me.”
“Being able to unburden yourself as a victim can be really powerful experience,” said Lizze Goodfriend, a programs associate with the Liberia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “That’s what truth commissions can accomplish that a prosecution process can’t.” She also mentioned that hopefully human rights and justice groups will continue to create spaces that give victims a place to tell their stories and connect with each other on a community level.
To Arthur and many of the victims of the war, the TRC was less about what will happen next than a point in itself.
Menlor now lives in the same area in Monrovia as Arthur. “I see him every morning, and I feel bad, but I have been letting go. When I see him, I walk on the other side of the road.”
Arthur has high hopes that Menlor and other warlords will be further prosecuted for their misdeeds. Though it’s unclear if or when this will happen, what is clear is that for Arthur, the war is finally over.