Mae Azango, New Narratives Justice correspondent
MONROVIA, Liberia – A former government soldier told the Finnish war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi, the former Revolutionary United Front commander, harrowing stories Wednesday of Massaquoi massacring women and children in Lofa County and roasting them.
“Gibril Massaquoi killed women and children and opened up the bodies and roasted them just like roasted meat,” said the soldier codenamed “Soldier 1” by the court to conceal his identity.
“Soldier 1” told the court his brother, a child, was among the victims. “He also killed my brother in Popolahun, when I was on the front line in Bellehfasama and someone told me but when I got there Massaquoi had already left the area.”
The former soldier said Massaquoi’s brutality was well known. He said his commander, also a witness in the trial and so the court has ordered his identity be concealed, had sent him to order Massaquoi to stop killing as the massacre at Waterside in Monrovia became known. Many previous witnesses have detailed what they said was Massaquoi’s murder and rape of civilians at Waterside.
“My commander sent me to Waterside to put a stop to Gibril Massaquoi, but he refused to listen to me, because I was lower in rank. When I told him what my boss had said, he took a gun from one of his soldiers and started shooting and killing the soldiers and civilians,” he said. “I saw Massaquoi himself killing 12 soldiers and many civilians. Just because Massaquoi had the power, so whenever he saw group of people standing, he would start shooting and killing them.”
He told the four-judge panel that after 2001 he never saw Massaquoi again even though he was looking for him to kill him in revenge for killing his brother.
Another witness, codenamed “Soldier 07”, was also an officer of the Special Security Service, (SSS) under President Charles Taylor invited by both prosecution and defense teams. He also spoke about the Waterside killings and said Gibril Massaquoi controlled the Waterside area in 2001. He said Massaquoi killed soldiers and civilians in the store in Waterside. The witness said Massaquoi also killed his bodyguard, a man known as “Bulldog”. After that the two nearly exchanged gunfire.
“When I went to collect Bulldog’s body, I saw Massaquoi executing some soldiers and civilians,” he said. “I started appealing with him to allow the civilians to go and kill the soldiers but he refused and said it was the civilians who had caused the soldiers to loot. While we were arguing, he took his gun and started shooting soldiers and civilians. I was so angry that we almost got into a battle, but Yeaten (his commander known by his call sign “50”) told me to forget about it, so we took my bodyguard’s body and left.”
The Finnish court visits the site of Massaquoi’s alleged killings in Waterside, Monrovia in March, 2021.
“Soldier 1” had echoed many previous witnesses in telling the four-judge panel that Massaquoi ordered the bodies of those killed in Waterside to be thrown into the river. But “Soldier 7” said he and others buried those who were killed in the massacre at the store at Waterside.
“Soldier 7” was the latest to contradict his own testimony in an earlier interview with police investigators, a fact that Massaquoi’s defense has made much of.
“Soldier 7” told the police that one of his men, who had gone ahead of him, called him to come quick because some execution was about to take place by Massaquoi. He said that when he arrived he asked Massaquoi why he was killing the people. In response, Massaquoi killed three civilians and five soldiers in front of him, seemingly to show “Soldier 7” that he did not care what he said.
Dates have been a key issue for the defense as it tries to show that the witness’s testimony is unreliable. Witnesses have given various dates between 2001 and 2003. The prosecution must prove Massaquoi’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The defense hopes that the disputes over dates will undermine the judge’s confidence in the witness’s memories of the events.
Aaron Weah, a former officer with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission currently undertaking a PHD in the United Kingdom, has been sitting in on the trial. He stressed that it was should not have been possible for Massaquoi to have been in Liberia in 2002 and 2003 because he was in witness protection in Sierra Leone as part of the proceedings for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he was a key informant.
“There are two accounts, some combatants who are witnesses are saying after 2001, Massaquoi disappeared but yet some are saying Massaquoi was present in 2003,” said Weah. “So to account for his physical presence in Liberia at the time he was actively monitored under witness protection in Sierra Leone is conflicting.”
Weah is expecting the court to explore the arrangements of Massaquoi’ role in Sierra Leone when the court moves there in late April, to see whether he was monitored and whether it was possible he could have come in and out of Liberia.
“So this trial has to cross check in Sierra Leone about Massaquoi’s whereabouts during 2002 and 2003, when he was said to have been in witness protection, to see if there was a weak witness protection program that allowed Massaquoi to keep crossing into Liberia,” Weah said. “If we are looking at a weak witness protection, then that may have been possible, but unless that can be established, it cannot be proven if Massaquoi was here in 2003 or not.”
A third witness codenamed “Soldier 04”, called by the prosecution, said he was with the government forces. He also spoke about the Waterside killings.
“I met ‘Angel Gabriel’ on the frontline and used to see him in Waterside where he was controlling,” “Soldier 4” said. “I can remember one day while we were going on another mission it was around “99 Stairs” (an area) in Waterside. We saw some people on their knees, who looked like civilians and when we stopped the car and asked what was going on, the men assigned to Massaquoi said “Angel Gabriel” had ordered them to kill the people, because they were enemies. We were going on another mission so I do not know if the people were killed but I believe they were killed because the soldiers could not disobey “Angel Gabriel”. He said after his assignment was changed and he went back to Lofa, he never saw Massaquoi again.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.
Main Photo: Gabril Massaquoi aka Angel Gabriel appears in the first day of his war crimes trial in Tampere, Finland. /ABC News