Updated: Sunday, October 1, 2017, 8:29 AM
Years after the bloody back-to-back civil wars that roiled their country, villagers in Liberia’s northwestern borderlands still speak in hushed whispers about one man whose acts of sadism and butchery inspire anxiety to this day — a rebel commander they know only as “Jungle Jabbah.”
The crimes they say he committed — rapes, murders, and acts of ritual cannibalism, evisceration, and enslavement — are innumerable.
And, like many at the forefront of the West African nation’s decades of tribal ethnic conflicts, he left his wartime debts unpaid, vanishing in the mid-1990s with a trail of widows, orphans, and shattered lives behind him.
But now, 14 years after the cease-fire that ended the wars, an unusual proceeding set to play out in a Philadelphia courtroom could finally allow the warlord’s victims to put a real name to that nom de guerre.
In a trial opening Monday, U.S. prosecutors will aim to convince a jury that Mohammed Jabateh — a devout, 50-year-old East Lansdowne business owner and father of five — was the man behind that string of atrocities during another life decades ago and an ocean away.
At their core, the charges against Jabateh are a simple matter of immigration fraud. Prosecutors say he lied about his past in interviews and on forms to obtain political asylum and later permanent residency in the U.S. — crimes for which he could get up to five years in prison here for each of the four counts he faces.
But to prove his deceptions, the government must also tie him to Jungle Jabbah’s murderous misdeeds — a strategy that mirrors tactics the Justice Department used to expel dozens of Nazi war criminals over the decades. Immigration authorities have signaled they will seek to deport Jabateh whether he is convicted or not.
Outside the courtroom, the trial has taken on an outsized importance among Liberians both here and in Africa. More than 600,000 people died during the protracted conflict in their country, one smaller than most U.S. states. But, remarkably, no one has ever been held criminally responsible there for the documented atrocities committed by factions on all sides.
The nation’s former President Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes by an international court in 2012 — but for actions tied to a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. It took a U.S. court to sentence his son — known as “Chuckie” Taylor — to prison in 2009 for his own wartime barbarity.
Jabateh is only the second Liberian military commander to face trial for crimes associated with his actions during the conflict.
Over the next three weeks, prosecutors in Philadelphia are expected to call more than 20 witnesses flown in from Liberia — at a cost of more than $165,000 — to recount tales of unfathomably violent acts they say Jabateh committed.
Some, according to court fillings, will say he captured them and doled them out as sex slaves to his soldiers. Others allege they witnessed beatings and murders while conscripted either as child soldiers or as slaves in diamond mines under his control.
One woman’s account details a dinner Jabateh and fellow commanders allegedly made of an enemy’s heart, while another man says he once witnessed the warlord behead a woman, cut out her intestines, and use them as rope at a checkpoint.
“There is really no safe haven for war criminals,” one of the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright, said in an interview last week. “People should be held accountable for their actions – especially conduct as egregious as that alleged in this case.”
‘He was always working’ Hassan Amini / AP File A ULIMO soldier hitches a ride on the hood of a car on the way to a frontline position, in Monrovia, Liberia, Nov. 17, 1992.
For his own part, Jabateh maintains he has been open about his military history.
He told U.S. immigration agents upon arriving in 1998 that he led a band of rebel guerrilla fighters in a faction of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), one of the factions that battled Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
He has not denied using the nickname Jungle Jabbah. Nor has he, in pretrial hearings, disputed that the man in the photo often displayed by prosecutors — a faded image of a gaunt young fighter dressed in military fatigues with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder — is him.
But he has repeatedly maintained that he played no part in the atrocities described by his accusers.
“He is peaceful, deeply religious, and he is intensely loyal to the United States of America,” his lawyer Greg Pagano said.
These days, Jabateh wears an olive-green prison jumpsuit and appears thicker than back then — his head shaved, his chin covered by a growing beard.
Since emigrating, Pagano said, his client has devoted himself to his family, his mosque, and a burgeoning Southwest Philadelphia-based business that packs shipping containers for export to Liberia. The sign out front bears his name — Jabateh Brothers Inc. — and declares its owner as “professional, reliable, trusted.”
Jabateh has no criminal record here. And, said his lawyer, he supports a fiancee, an ex-wife, and five children ranging from age 1 to 22 — all living in the United States. He also recently attempted to sponsor for U.S. emigration some of the seven other children he fathered with a woman living in Africa.
“He’s a very hard worker,” his cousin Voffee Jabateh, director of the Philadelphia-based African Cultural Alliance of North America, said during an interview last year. “Every time I saw him, he was always working.”
Still, the conflicts of his native country cast a long shadow over the 15,000-member Liberian expatriate community in Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County.
Nearly everyone consulted during a recent visit to the African hair salons and grocery that line Woodland Avenue seemed to have heard of Jabateh’s case. All had an opinion, exposing wartime wounds and rivalries that run deep.
Jabateh has dozens of supporters that have loyally attended his court appearances and are likely to do so for the trial. And when agents with Homeland Security Investigations — a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — arrested him last year, 25 offered to stake their houses to pay for his bail.
“The war still goes on outside of Liberia. Anything is possible during the period we are talking about,” Voffee Jabateh said. “But this is a country of laws. We have to be careful that we don’t over-exaggerate the circumstances.”
Long list of atrocities
Jabateh’s arrest came at the climax of an unusual, years-long international probe by ICE’s War Crimes Center, a team of historians, legal experts, and law enforcement officers dedicated to identifying and locating war criminals hiding in the United States.
The organization has obtained deportation orders for more than 590 known or suspected human-rights violators since 2004 and launched cases against hundreds of others, including two other Philadelphia-area Liberian nationals — Tom Woewiyu, of Collingdale, and Isaac Kannah, of Philadelphia. Both are awaiting trial in cases involving lies they allegedly told about their wartime pasts.
When investigators crossed the Atlantic to learn more about Jungle Jabbah’s history, they uncovered a trail of deeply held resentments — recounted in court papers — that stretched from Liberia’s capital in Monrovia to its border with Sierra Leone.
In the forests of Gbarpolu County, they found a bridge bearing a sign dubbing it “Jungle Jabbah Bridge” — a remnant of a 1992 incident in which the rebel commander allegedly tortured villagers he blamed for faulty infrastructure that collapsed, taking a military transport truck and several fighters with it.
And in the village of Dasalamu in the country’s coastal plains, whole families recalled the day in 1994 when Jungle Jabbah and his forces rolled into town.
Commandos with AK-47s and names like Ten Thousand Man Trouble and Tom Tomi sped into the village on pickups amid a pouring rain, stirring panic.
One man attempted to flee and was gunned down in the town square while relatives watched from a nearby grove of mango trees. Soldiers went house to house, shooting men and attacking their wives.
A woman identified in court filings only as Witness FF said she was raped in the streets in the downpour. When they were done with her, the same happened to her daughter, she said.
Dasalamu residents took to spending their days hiding in the brush surrounding the village, daring to return home only at night.
When the town chief, Jajah Kromah, marshaled a delegation to complain to a nearby West African coalition force, the repercussions were stark.
Two weeks later, Jungle Jabbah and his men returned to town in a fury, according to the villagers’ accounts, corralling the locals at gunpoint in the town hall, beating the men with rifle butts as the screams of their wives, daughters, and mothers rang out from an adjoining room.
Eventually, one villager said, Kromah was dragged outside and killed, while Jungle Jabbah watched one of his soldiers’ cut into the man’s back with a machete.
Hearing his screams from their home nearby, Kromah’s wife feared her husband was dead — a fact confirmed, when minutes later, the soldiers delivered his heart on a plate and ordered her to cook it.
Asked by investigators decades later how she knew who was behind the attack, she responded: They “were saying that everything they do, Jungle Jabbah told them to do it.”