Even amid a conflict marked by as much sadism and brutality as Liberia’s first civil war, Charles Taylor’s October 1992 bid to seize that West African nation’s capital, Monrovia, stands out as one of its bloodiest chapters.
Hundreds of armed rebels — many of them children as young as 10, drugged with pills and lugging AK-47s that towered over their youthful frames — flooded the city’s streets. Civilians fled in terror from artillery fire, only to be herded to checkpoints where many were indiscriminately killed.
By the time the fighting had subsided, thousands of innocents had lost their lives — including five American nuns, who Taylor’s soldiers mistakenly believed to be cooperating with the forces arrayed against them.
In the nearly three decades since that assault – known as “Operation Octopus” — no one has been held accountable.
But in a trial set to start Monday in federal court in Philadelphia, U.S. authorities hope to make one of its chief architects answer for the role they say he played in the atrocities committed during that campaign.
At its core, the case against Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 72, of Collingdale, Delaware County, is a simple matter of immigration fraud – akin to the one that sent his countryman Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh, of East Lansdowne, to prison earlier this year with one of the stiffest sentences ever issued in an immigration case involving alleged war crimes.
Prosecutors say Woewiyu failed to disclose his roles as spokesman and defense minister for Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to U.S. immigration authorities when applying for citizenship in 2006 and 2009.
To prove his deceptions, they intend to fly in former U.S. diplomats, journalists from across the globe, and more than a dozen witnesses from Liberia — who all say that Woewiyu stoked ethnic tensions that exploded into unspeakable violence.
Whether as a voice espousing NPFL rhetoric from tinny radio speakers in the ’90s or as a military adviser in the field who helped raise and arm an army of conscripted children, Woewiyu played an integral part in the horror Taylor unleashed on Liberia, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Linwood C. Wright and Nelson Thayer say.
“Perhaps no other member of the NPFL save for Charles Taylor was more prominent in the public sphere,” they wrote in a recent court filing.
Woewiyu’s trial, like Jabateh’s, is expected to draw intense attention from Liberians in the U.S. and Africa. More than 200,000 people died or were seriously injured, and millions more were displaced, in the protracted fighting between 1989 and 1996 marked by atrocities committed on all sides. Many of the perpetrators emerged unscathed and some now hold positions of power in Liberia’s government.
And although Jabateh’s conviction reignited calls in Monrovia for a home-grown war crimes court to address Liberia’s legacy of impunity for purported war criminals on all sides of the conflict, few concrete steps have been taken.
Taylor, who went on to become Liberia’s president, eventually was convicted of war crimes by an international court in 2012 – but for actions tied to another civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.
For his part, Woewiyu denies that he bears any responsibility for egging on the ethnic persecution unleashed by Taylor’s forces during his rise to power.
Unlike Jabateh — who fought on the opposite side of the conflict and lived in relative anonymity after fleeing to the United States in 1998 — Woewiyu maintains he hasn’t exactly been hiding.
In fact, since arriving in the U.S. on a student visa in 1969, he has been an outspoken pillar of the Philadelphia region’s sizable community of Liberian expats.
He had married, obtained legal residency, and was raising a middle-class family years before Taylor began dreaming up plans to take back his native country from then-president Samuel Doe by force.
Once fighting broke out across the Atlantic in the late ’80s, Woewiyu maintains he had frequent contact with U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers as a chief mouthpiece for Taylor’s shadow government and a founding member of the NPFL.
But now, decades removed from that role, he is a proud patriarch of a brood of American-born children and grandchildren and has lived peacefully in the two-story house he bought in 2005 for $138,000.
But like so many in the Liberian diaspora, Woewiyu has maintained a life on both sides of the Atlantic. When U.S. immigration officials arrested him at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2014, he was on his way back from Monrovia after announcing his intention to run for the Liberian Senate.
The charges caught him off guard, his federal public defenders Mark Wilson and Catherine Henry said. In an interview, they described his failure to initially disclose his positions within Taylor’s NPFL on his citizenship application as a mistake, prompted by confusion about the form’s questions.
“What incentive could he have possibly had to lie when he’s been on the record all these years?” Henry said. “He knows everyone in the [U.S.] government knows who he is. Everyone knows, and he knows that they know.”
The defense is expected to lean heavily throughout the trial on the dozens of interviews he gave to West African correspondents with the BBC and other news outlets throughout the war – a sure sign, they say, that U.S. authorities must have known as far back as the ’90s of the role Woewiyu played in Taylor’s regime.
But those archival interviews form a backbone of the government’s case, revealing policies and attitudes that they argue Woewiyu passed on to combatants under his command.
“We are going to fight … until all of us are dead,” he told the BBC in an August 1990 interview. And in an oft-repeated slam against one of the tribal factions arrayed against Taylor’s forces, Woewiyu opined: “The only good Krahn is a dead Krahn.”
In one of the interviews he gave in 1992, Woewiyu defended the NPFL’s reliance on child soldiers – a force Taylor purportedly preferred due to their malleability and willingness to take orders from authority figures.
“They’re not babies. They’re not 10 years old,” Woewiyu said at the time. “The AK-47 weighs maybe 10 to 15 pounds. If this young fellow feels like if he doesn’t fight, he will be dead anyway, he comes forward to do what he has to do.”
But prosecutors say his crimes extended well beyond rhetoric. Several witnesses – including some former NPFL commanders – are expected to testify that they received direct military orders from Woewiyu, according to court filings. Others will say they saw him amid the fighting, dressed in military fatigues and led by a security detail of armed children through checkpoints where NPFL soldiers had planted severed heads on stakes and left corpses piled to rot on the ground.
Many Liberians who fled to the U.S. to escape the violence still harbor deep memories of similar scenes, said Voffee Jabateh, director of the Philadelphia-based African Cultural Alliance of North America and a distant cousin of Mohammed Jabateh. But even as they have sought to put the past behind them, nearly all are eager for some sense of justice.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg of the psychological impact of what went on in Liberia for more than 30 years,” he said. “If trials like those of Mohammed Jabateh and Thomas Woewiyu will become a rallying point for international justice to enter the country, then they are a good thing.”