'The only good Krahn man is a dead Krahn man': How culpable is Delco resident for ethnic atrocities in Liberia?

The rebel fighters came early, barreling into the rural Liberian village of Bakiedou just after dawn and rousting locals from their homes at gunpoint.

They herded the villagers into the thatched-roof hut that served as a town hall for the small Muslim community. There, the town chief tried to placate the armed visitors with money and a prized cow.

In response, the rebels opened fire.

More than 125 locals were gunned down on July 12, 1990, by forces under warlord Charles Taylor in what became known as the Bakiedou Massacre, one of many mass killings of civilians during the brutal tribal war in Liberia between 1989 and 1997.

But as some of the survivors recalled that day in a Philadelphia federal courtroom this week, their testimony highlighted a key question in the case of the man they flew from West Africa to testify against:

Just how much responsibility should Thomas Woewiyu – the Collingdale, Delaware County, man on trial for allegedly hiding his past as one of Taylor’s top lieutenants – bear for targeted ethnic killings in which he played no direct role?

The Bakiedou villagers were singled out 28 years ago because nearly all were members of Liberia’s Mandingo tribe, a band of Islamic traders favored by Taylor’s enemy, then-Liberian President Samuel Doe.

But unlike earlier witnesses, who detailed Woewiyu’s alleged firsthand involvement with the conscription of child soldiers, smuggling of arms and leading troops on the ground, none of the village’s survivors who testified this week put him at the scene of the Bakiedou attack or even mentioned his name during their testimony.

Prosecutors maintain that as chief spokesman and defense minister for Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Woewiyu provoked ethnic animosities that led to the deaths of thousands throughout the war.

“Tom Woewiyu is responsible, directly and indirectly, not only for the acts that he committed but the acts that were committed throughout this conflict by the NPFL,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer said in opening remarks to jurors last week.

Woewiyu contends, however, that he was unaware that NPFL fighters were targeting noncombatants based on ethnicity. His lawyers have argued that prosecutors are using tales of atrocities like Bakiedou to distract from the central issue in their client’s case – whether he lied about his association with Taylor and the NPFL on his 2006 application for U.S. citizenship.

Specifically, Woewiyu answered, ‘No,’ when asked by U.S. immigration authorities whether he ever had persecuted anyone on the basis of their ethnic background, race, or religion.

“Tom firmly believed that the NPFL was trying to help people in Liberia by ridding it of [Doe], an evil dictator,” defense lawyer Catherine Henry told jurors last week. “This wasn’t persecution. This was war.”

The jury panel of eight men and four women has been tasked with keeping straight a complex web of tribal and ethnic groups caught up in a war nearly three decades ago and thousands of miles away.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Thomas Woewiyu is on trial on immigration fraud charges tied to his conduct during the first Liberian civil war has been playing out this month.

The conflict began in late 1989 with Taylor’s forces – primarily Liberians from the Gio and Mano tribes — attempting to unseat Doe, an ethnic Krahn who had his own bloody record of persecuting members of rival ethnicities. But as several witnesses testified this week, NPFL soldiers viewed all Krahns and Mandingos as enemies, not just those associated with Doe’s government or military.

At the time, Woewiyu was living primarily in the United States — his home since arriving in 1969 on a student visa. He later obtained a green card and supported himself and a growing family with jobs in auto parts sales and real estate, and as a shop steward. He, Taylor, and others formed the NPFL in the late 1980s with the goal of ousting Doe’s government, which they considered illegitimate. From his home at the time near Trenton, Woewiyu frequently appeared on radio broadcasts that aired in Liberia defending the NPFL.

Several witnesses this week challenged his claim that he was not involved in ethnic persecution. Their names are being withheld by the Inquirer and Daily News in deference to concerns that they could be targeted for retribution.

“The only good Krahn man is a dead Krahn man,” many of them repeated from the witness stand, recalling what they alleged was one of Woewiyu’s more famous catchphrases.

Eventually, other Krahn and Mandingo militias would spring up in opposition to Taylor’s forces using tactics just as brutal as those they were fighting against.

But entire families just looking to avoid the violence found themselves caught in the crossfire. Trying to flee, they were herded toward checkpoints that jurors this week heard described in terrifying detail.

Human intestines pulled from the viscera of the NPFL’s ethnic enemies served as makeshift gates. Severed heads leered from stakes at people waiting in line to get through. Child soldiers wandered up and down the lines, insisting they could sniff out Mandingos and Krahns and marking them for execution.

To disguise his Krahn heritage, one man – now 48 and living in Massachusetts — told jurors he survived by speaking the dialect of his mother’s tribe, which was not on the list of NPFL enemies. Still, reminders of the consequences of being found out as a fraud were all around him.

“They had fresh human heads with blood draining out of it sitting on a piece of stake sitting in the middle of the road,” he said. At another checkpoint, the man recalled, “not 50 feet away from us they shot [a man] just because he was Mandingo. … They were saying, ‘Mandingo dog.’”

Another man – a 58-year-old Mandingo — summed up the threat of the checkpoints for jurors this way: “Whether you say you’re a Mandingo or say you’re not a Mandingo, if they think you are a Mandingo, you’re finished.”

In Bakiedou, the Mandingo villagers thought they might ride out the violence, the brother of the town’s chieftain testified Wednesday. “The people said, this is our home and we don’t know any other place,” he recalled. “So when they come, we will tell them we are not in politics. We are Muslims.”

He survived, he said, by falling to the ground and playing dead next to corpses of his neighbors when NPFL rebels gunned down nearly every man in the village, including his brother.

Another survivor, now 46, said he emerged from the town hall after crawling out from under a pile of bodies. “I saw some people fighting for their lives,” he recalled. “I saw a man who was shot in the stomach. His intestines were out, and he was asking for water to drink. I saw children crying for their mothers.”

As the chaos subsided, those still alive fled the village, undertaking a three-hour journey on foot to cross the nearby border to Guinea.

They would remain there for seven years, they told jurors, having learned the same bitter lesson that so many of their countrymen would come to realize: Whether they were fighting or not, war in Liberia had come for them all.

Woewiyu’s trial is expected to resume Monday. The jury is expected to begin deliberating next month.