Truth and Reconciliation, Stories from the Diaspora

Posted on Categories Human Rights, Immigration Law, International Law & Diplomacy, Uncategorized

TRC_Report_coverSeveral months ago I blogged about the situation of Liberians who fled their country for the United States (but who did not receive official status as refugees) and who have lived here for years in a “temporary” status, while it remained unsafe to return to Liberia. As I explained in those posts, these US residents face yearly the prospect of deportation to Liberia, unless Congress acts to pass legislation allowing them to stay permanently.  Last year the crisis was once again temporarily resolved by President Obama’s one-year extension of protection. It’s unclear whether any permanent status for this group is on the horizon, as legislation on the issue seems to be, at this time, stalled in committee in both the Senate and theHouse, so I may be posting about this again next spring.

Anyway, if you followed those posts with any interest, or if you are generally interested in the experience of refugees, then you may want to review the recently-released report from The Advocates for Human Rights, entitled A House with Two Rooms: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia Diaspora Project.  (Confession: as previously disclosed, I worked for the Advocates during and after law school, and I think it’s a terrific organization.)

A House with Two Rooms reports the findings of the Diaspora Project portion of the TRC’s work, which collected information about the experiences of the Liberian diaspora during the Liberian wars, during their flight from Liberia, and in the countries in which they resettled.  Amazon summarizes it this way:

From 1979 to 2003, more than 1.5 million Liberians were forced from their homes to escape civil conflict. Hundreds of thousands became refugees and many eventually made their way to countries of resettlement including the United States. Most of their stories have never been told. This report on the experience of the Liberian diaspora, entitled A House with Two Rooms, documents the experience of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law that forced Liberians to leave the country. It is based on an analysis of more than 1600 statements, fact-finding interviews, and witness testimony at public hearings held in the U.S. The report also tells the story of the “triple trauma” experienced by members of the diaspora during their flight through Liberia and across international borders, while living in refugee camps in West Africa, and in resettlement in the U.S. and U.K.

I reviewed the Executive Summary and some of the interior chapters.  I am a little ashamed that I can’t stand to read much more of it right now, because it reminds me too much of what I heard from Liberian refugees during the period in the late 1990’s when I worked with refugees. The atrocities of the wars in Liberia were beyond what I ever imagined human beings could do to each other, until I heard it for myself. If you care to read a representative story, here is one from the Executive Summary, at pages 10-11.  (Or, just take my word for it that it’s terrible, and skip over the block quote.)

At the initial stages of the war, I moved to Ninth Street in Sinkor, Monrovia… The children were outside cleaning the yard. Suddenly they ran inside and said that they saw armed men coming. Moments later, Taylor’s men busted in. One of them said, “This is the dog I’m looking for.” He told us to come outside. Myself, my ten children, and my wife obeyed. The NPFL [commander] knew me…He had run against me in an election…before the war. He said to me, “You cheated me during the election, but now I am in power. I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.”

He told his NPFL boys to take my eldest daughter into the house. She was thirteen years old. They dragged her inside and dragged me in after her. [The commander] raped my daughter in front of me. My father (my daughter’s grandfather) was still in the house. He rushed at the NPFL men, trying to stop the rape. One of the men – I don’t know his name – shot and killed my [father] right there. [The commander] then brought me and my daughter back outside. He said, “I’m going to show you what I came here for.” He beat the children with the butt of his gun. He made two of my sons, who were seventeen and twenty, drink dirty water with the urine of one of the NPFL men in it. When the twenty year old refused, he shot him in the foot. [The commander] stabbed my other son, who was eighteen, in the elbow with his bayonet.

He then began to beat my wife. He told her to lay on her back and stare at the sun. [The commander] said, “You will eat your husband’s heart very soon.” He took the daughter who had been raped. [The commander] held her and said, “I want you to know how you all will die.” He ordered one of his men to cut off my daughter’s head. She was beheaded in front of our eyes. They dragged me over to lay beside her body. [The commander] said, “You will be the next one.”

Then I heard heavy shooting. ECOMOG was coming. The NPFL scattered. Before [the commander] left, he made a remark. He said, “Anywhere in Liberia I meet you or your family, I will kill you.”

I do not know how human beings like the man who lived through that experience go on with their lives, but thousands of them do, thousands of them right here in the United States.  When I was practicing refugee law and hearing these stories, I was focused on how to help each individual, and didn’t take much time to think of the larger picture of how the refugee and asylum law systems function (or do not).

Since I began teaching refugee law here at Marquette, I became more aware of the strange gulf (strange to me, anyway) between the fields of transitional justice, which, as I understand it, seeks to help societies that are in the process of recovering from or transforming after widespread human rights abuses, and refugee law, which seeks to provide refuge from those fleeing the abuses as they occur.

It is striking that, as far as I know, this Diaspora Project is the first time that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought, methodically and purposefully, on such a large scale, to obtain information from the ones who fled the horrific violence and resettled elsewhere.

It seems to me that such interviewing of refugees should be a standard part of providing for their needs and giving them refuge.  And that it should be done at the time they are fleeing, not (or at least, not solely) years afterwards.  Not only because having their stories heard and believed is part of what they need, for healing, but because the evidence they could provide would be ammunition for investigating and, perhaps, stopping the human rights abuses as they occur, or even preventing them.

If you want to know more about the stories of the incredibly resilient, inspirational Liberian diaspora, a House with Two Rooms is available for purchase on Amazon or from the Advocates by mail.  It is also available for free download (in sections) on the Advocates’ website.

2 thoughts on “Truth and Reconciliation, Stories from the Diaspora”

  1. The atrocities committed during the wars in Liberia are unbelievably horrible, and surely those Liberians who escaped should be allowed to remain permanently in the United States. What does our country stand for if we do not give them a home? However, we should also guard against thinking of human atrocities as uniquely African or as the doings of uncivilized Third Worlders. The worst atrocities committed during the last century of world history were the work of Germans in camps located in eastern Europe and of Japanese in China. The human species’ ability and willingness to brutalize its own members is sadly neither region nor culture-specific.

  2. You are so right. I could tell similar stories that I heard from refugees from virtually all regions of the globe.

    Sometimes when I hear or remember stories of violence and deprivation like the ones from Liberia, or Bosnia, or Russia, or Guatemala, or here in the United States, I start to lose hope for our species. But happily there also seems to be a universal human capacity to endure and even rise above such inhumanity, to insist on one’s own humanity despite these experiences. I should post about those stories sometimes too.

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