[A Liberian Woman in Staten Island, on Truth and Reconciliation Commission volunteers:] “These two lovely white men came to my door, to say that the truth heals. They were well meaning; they had taken time off from their weekends to help us poor Africans. They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.”
That’s a quote from Jonny Steinberg’s fantastic new African Affairs article, “A Truth Commission Goes Abroad: Liberian Transitional Justice in New York.” (I can’t find the article online yet, but I imagine it will be up very soon.)
600 TRC volunteers took only 237 statements from all Liberians in the US. Looking at Liberians in Staten Island, Steinberg accounts for the lack of participation by analyzing the intersection of intra-community fighting and distrust, suspicion and confusion about TRC motives, and the TRC’s approach to statement taking.
Steinberg explains how the TRC has been clouded in confusion since its inception. When warlords agreed to stop fighting, they did this under the implicit assumption that the TRC would be like South Africa’s, and grant them amnesty. Though no one wanted to explicitly ask for this to be put in writing. In fact the TRC was prohibited from granting amnesty for those accused of especially bad crimes, and had the power to recommend prosecution. Many warlords inaccurately believed they had been granted amnesty, and would not have stopped fighting if they understood the TRC’s real mandate. This confusion extended to Liberians in State Island, where few understood the TRC would recommend prosecution. (Here Steinberg draws on this riveting 2007 ICTJ report.)
Moreover, the TRC’s mission was so vast it was almost meaningless. The TRC claimed it reached out to the diaspora to collect information that would contribute to a narrative about the war and its causes, yet it did not have the tools to do serious investigation. Steinberg implies the TRC reached out to the diaspora for mostly symbolic reasons.
The TRC’s final report recommended that more than 100 people be prosecuted for war crimes. Steinberg notes that in many cases individuals on the list were not mentioned elsewhere in the report, and that, “[p]rivately, TRC commissioners acknowledged that this [list was included in the final report] to salvage the credibility of the TRC.”
Steinberg’s discussion of the politics of division among Liberians in Staten Island reflects the enormous amount of research he has done on this topic for a forthcoming book. He describes how the Park Hill housing project became a space for Liberians who had trouble “making it” in the US. He explains the origins of high levels of distrust and secrecy; many have overstayed visitor’s visas, and others told stories about war time suffering to officials who would determine asylum status that were not entirely true. Why should you share information about your past when your enemies could use it against you? “The most dangerous information one might share about oneself was one’s experience of the war,” Steinberg writes.
Yet as the Liberian war was ending, “these codes of silence were broken dramatically..[and] something of a proxy war began…ostensibly for control of the elected body representing Staten Island’s Liberians.” Steinberg tells the story of Rufus, a leader of the community who had political ambitions back home. “Park Hill’s relation to America was like Liberia’s relation to the global economy: marginal, excluded, knocking forever on the door. And Rufus A. was the gatekeeper, accruing a handsome fee for keeping the gate between Park Hill and America. Never mind that Roza’s money came from American philanthropies rather than the Firestone Rubber Company. The principle was the same.”
A party not under Rufus’ sway emerged to contest the elections. So Rufus created his own party, which won elections twice. But the elections were deeply contentious and accusations of fraud followed. This led to a period of turmoil in the community, where its associations lost lots of money from New York donors. Rufus’ soccer association–which had branches in Minnesota and the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana–went broke.
The TRC and Park Hill
While this was happening, Liberians in Staten Island followed TRC hearings back home. They saw how warlords openly mocked TRC commissioners. When there was a knock on their door, and two white people representing the TRC, and a Liberian community leader (who was inevitably part of the community’s political in-fighting) asked the resident to tell their story, I find it shocking the TRC even got 247 people to agree to talk.