One witness requested to stand through his testimony — the better, he said, for jurors to see the truth in his face.
Some were beseeching. Some broke down. Others spoke matter-of-factly of murders, rapes, and the moment they learned that soldiers had ripped out their town chief’s heart, intending to serve it for dinner.
But despite their varied demeanors, the Liberian villagers who strode into a Philadelphia federal courtroom Wednesday and described the shared horror they experienced more than two decades ago all said one man was to blame: “Jungle Jabbah.”
“There was no way to run away,” said one witness. “Everyone was afraid of what was going to happen to them.”
The 1994 occupation of Dasalamu — a small jungle hamlet in northwestern Liberia — is perhaps the most detailed and wrenching account in the government’s case against Mohammed Jabateh, 51, of East Lansdowne, who they say hid his past as a vicious warlord to obtain political asylum in the United States.
During several months in Liberia’s first civil war, soldiers with the rebel group United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO-K) and allegedly under Jabateh’s command took over the village, shooting, looting, and raping indiscriminately while sending terrified villagers fleeing into the brush. Tensions between ULIMO-K and the villagers eventually came to a head after the village’s chief, Jajah Kromah, rallied a delegation to complain to West African peacekeepers in a neighboring town.
And as the Dasalamu residents detailed Jabateh’s alleged retribution for that act of opposition on the fifth day of his trial, the jurors appeared to be noticeably moved. The Inquirer and Daily News are withholding the villagers’ names, in deference to concerns they could face retribution in Liberia.
One juror clutched her mouth in shock as Kromah’s widow discussed preparing a stock pot and fire after the soldiers who murdered her husband ordered her to boil his heart.
“I put it in a pot. I put the fire together. I was not myself,” Kromah’s widow said. “One of the soldiers came in and said, ‘Make yourself strong because if you don’t cook it, then they going to kill me.’”
Other jurors looked down uncomfortably as she later wept quietly, wiping her eyes with her skirt.
“It’s so sad,” she whispered to the courtroom interpreter by her side. “It’s so sad.”
Jabateh — who has denied any involvement in wartime atrocities and maintains that he, too, was a victim — sat quietly throughout, silently shaking his head.
Kromah’s cousin — now a lanky 41-year-old pharmacist — leaned over the witness stand, speaking emphatically as he described the moment when ULIMO-K commandos rolled into Dasalamu.
Waving AK-47s, commandos with nicknames like Ten Thousand Man Trouble and Tom Tomi rounded up men and women alike, beating with sticks those who resisted. One soldier strode up to a group resting in the shade of a mango tree and killed George Passaweh, the village’s first victim.
“They didn’t speak to nobody,” said Kromah’s cousin. “They just shot George.”
It was Passaweh’s death that prompted Jajah Kromah to file the complaint that drew Jabateh and his soldiers back to Dasalamu in force three months later.
Men and women were marched at gunpoint into the town hall and separated by gender, another villager testified Wednesday
. As he peeked through the window of the building, he said, he spied his brother’s body — covered with stab wounds and still bleeding from a gunshot wound to a leg — lying in the dirt road outside.
Eventually, the soldiers came for Kromah, the chief who dared to oppose them, the man said.
Kromah’s cousin — who spoke clearly and confidently throughout much of his testimony — fell silent, collapsed into a chair, and clutched a rag to his eyes when asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright to describe what happened next.
“They took him,” the cousin said. “We heard two gunshots … He only yelled.”
Jabateh’s lawyer, Greg Pagano, as he has done throughout the trial, asked the witnesses Wednesday why they never reported any of this violence before speaking with U.S. authorities in recent years.
One — now a middle-aged man standing in the witness box with his arms crossed — did not hesitate to answer.
“There was no one to complain to,” he said. “Except God.”
Jabateh is charged with counts of immigration fraud and perjury. His trial is expected to resume Thursday.