Sinje, Grand Cape Mount County - The best wish of Varney Fahnbulleh, a survivor of the 1996 massacre in which 75 people were killed, is that those who personally carried out the killings face justice in Liberia.
Report by James Harding Giahyue
But for him the trial taking place next week in Philadelphia is the next best thing.
Fahnbulleh will be one of many here paying close attention to the trial of Mohammed Jabbateh, former commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), accused of carrying out the massacre.
“I love that because if something happens and you don’t follow up with investigation, you will not know the real person that did the act,” said Varney Fahnbulleh. “So, for that I am happy. I want them to continue to know the main doers.”
Jabbateh, who went by the name Jungle Jabbah then, is not being tried for any crimes he allegedly committed in Liberia.
He faces two counts of fraud and two counts of perjury for allegedly not telling American immigration officers that he played an active role in the first Liberian civil war (1989–1996) while applying for asylum beginning 1998.
According to the indictment, Jabbateh, during his time as a ULIMO commander either personally committed, or ordered ULIMO troops to commit these acts:
- The murder of civilian non-combatants;
- The sexual enslavement of women;
- The public raping of women;
- The maiming of civilian non-combatants;
- The torturing of civilian non-combatants
- The enslavement of civilian non-combatants
- The conscription of child soldiers;
- The execution of prisoners of war;
- The desecration and mutilation of corpses; and
- The killing of persons because of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion
Jabbateh will face up to 30 years in prison, a fine of US$400 and a period of supervised release if he’s found guilty.
He will not be deported to Liberia over this prosecution state’s lawyers told reporters last year.
His trial will include 20 witnesses flown in from Liberia who will testify about crimes he or his men committed in places like Like Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount County, ULIMO strongholds during the crisis.
Members of the Jabbateh’s Mandingo tribe in Philadelphia are poised to protest before the court at the start of his trial according to sources.
Fahnbulleh said he could not say whether or not Jabbateh was the one behind the killings but he said he the former ULIMO-K commando was well known throughout Grand Cape Mount County.
“He cannot look in my face and tell me that he doesn’t know about the Liberian civil war,” said Jabbateh.
“He was a strong commander,” said Fahnbulleh..
“He knows about it, but mainly he was stationed in Lofa Bridge in Gola Konneh, the diamond area.”
ULIMO was founded in May 1991 by soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) who fled abroad from the first Liberian civil war and men from the Mandingo tribe, who were targeted by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of then rebel leader Charles Taylor.
However, in 1994 the group split into two separate factions — ULIMO-K, led by Alhaji G.V. Kromah and ULIMO-J, led by Roosevelt Johnson.
Johnson died before the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006.
Kromah denied that the group was heavily involved in combats and did not commit any heinous crimes against civilians when he appeared before the TRC in 2008.
The Sinje massacre took place on September 28, 1996.
Investigation into the killing conducted by the United Nations, the Ministry of Justice and human rights groups found that it appeared to be done by ULIMO- K fighters.
However, the investigation did not find any links to senior officers.
Fahnbulleh said he still remembers that horrible event 21 years ago very well. His life has not been the same since that day."
Close to 75 people were killed, and most of them like 16 members of Fahnbulleh’s family, were buried in mass graves.
“When they fired three persons first, I ran upstairs (in the attic) with my wife and three children,” Fahnbulleh recalled.
“While we were there, they started asking for me. I came out. I was the first person that they fire with G3 gun, but that particular hour I was just numb. I felt that the shot was in my body but I could not feel no pain."
"So God blessed me the shot did not touch me, so I ran back in one of the rooms."
"One of the soldiers came in with AK 47 and he stepped the door.
He started asking: ‘Who here? If anyone is here I am going to kill you’”.
"God so helped me I was just sitting behind the door. When he stepped the door an empty drum was sitting behind the door. I entered in that drum"
"He came in and checked around and could not find me. The back door was opened."
"When he saw the back door open he said ‘Well, the son of a bitch is gone, I was going to kill him’. So, he left.”
Fahnbulleh left from the drum and went back into the attic as soon as the soldier left, he said.
His wife and children had left the attic also and were in one of the rooms, in fact the room this reporter interviewed him.
His wife suggested that they flee into the bushes but he insisted that they go back in the attic.
He was afraid that the soldiers would kill them if they stepped outside of the house.
“We were there, they entered the room, they fired my father down to his waist and he fell down. He wanted to get up but there was no way.”
Fahnbulleh said he also helplessly watched his mother cry for water to drink after she was hacked by the soldiers.
At one point, he recalled, he almost jumped down to pick up the gun of one of the fighters wounded in an exchange with a handful of ULIMO-J fighters who were in the town and wanted to stop the killings.
“He (the wounded fighter) [yelled] and said ‘enemy! Enemy!’ and he dropped the arm."
"I wanted to get down and take it but my wife said no. She said they would find out that people were in the ceiling.”
Fahnbulleh said he was left to watch his dying mother calling his name, asking him for water to drink.
"We checked the bodies and there were 16 persons — my mother, sisters, aunties, father, children.
"He said there were more than 50 bodies found after the early morning massacre.
“When you went in the bush to find food, you would see bones [all over].”
Fahnbulleh said four of his six children were killed, leaving him with the two who were with him in the attic.
Prior to the massacre, the road to Grand Cape Mount was closed for nine months and had only been opened a day prior to the killing for the distribution of the food and relief items to needy civilians by the Liberian Islamic Union for Reconstruction and Development (LIURD).
Fahnbulleh, who was the Town Chief for Sinje at the time, said that ULIMO-K combatants did not move to Lofa Bridge as they had agreed to.
They occupied the then unfinished Sinje Technical High College.
“ULIMO-K was the one that came here and did the act. That day before it happened people could not leave this zone and go to that zone."
"If you left and came back alive then God was with you,” Fahnbulleh recalled.
He said his house was jammed because external relatives had come from other towns and villages and lodged in his house in Sinje.
He said it was the same with other families in Sinje at the time, bringing the population there to more than 18,000 people.
Fahnbulleh’s and other families were caught up in the buffer zone.
ULIMO-J was based in Sinje and other towns in the lower Garwula District of Grand Cape Mount, while ULIMO-K controlled the upper Garwula and the Gola Konneh District toward the Mano River area.
The ULIMO-K fighters accused them of collaborating with ULIMO-J, but he said he believes that the soldiers who carried out the massacre were looking for food.
“Every one of us used to look for bush yam, palm kernel and cassava that made over six years."
"I think they did it because of hunger."
"Can you imagine, they (humanitarian workers) brought food and gave it to certain people and told them to go out?”
Fahnbulleh fled to Vohnzuan nearby Sinje after the massacre and with the help of ULIMO-J fighters he came back and buried all 16 members of his family in one mass grave.
“Some people warned not to come but I said ‘That’s my parents. It will be better let me go back and bury them myself.’”
Fahnbulleh left Sinje and went to Monrovia after the massacre and stayed there for seven years before coming back to Sinje in 2002.
He resigned as Town Chief in 2016.
He said he has been able to get on with his life but keeps the memory of his family alive. “I have been feeling bad before but people talked to me to forgive.”
He currently has three wives and nine children, including the two children who survived with him.
“When the thing happened I was alone with my wife."
"So, I look at it and asked God to bring back my family."
"For that I took three wives to replace them right away,” he said with a chuckle.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives. See more at www.newnarratives.org