Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Quietly, life in Monrovia has become routine. A week goes something like this. Monday evening: Mongolian barbeque at the Mamba Point Hotel. Tuesday evening: usually at home, drinking a Club beer, reading, watching a movie, or playing cards. Wednesday: Lebanese pies at the Mamba Point Hotel. Thursday: home again, perhaps a jog, or maybe beers at the casino next door (more frequently the latter now that Rich, our casino patron par excellence, has returned). Friday: party-hopping. There’s always a party, as somebody here is always coming or going, sometimes permanently, sometimes on extended leave, but regardless providing a never-ending stream of pretexts for revelry. Saturday: out to a bar or nightclub, maybe The Pepper Bush, Taboo, Agenda, or Zanzibar Blue. Sunday: sleep in, perhaps a breakfast of homemade oatmeal pancakes, and then to Silver Beach for an afternoon of sunning, swimming, football and euchre, followed by a large bowl of mango and pineapple gelato at a restaurant in Sinkor. And then the week begins again …

Now, I don't mean to suggest that life here is monotonous or repetitive. Far from it. I simply mention its regularity to note how easily and unconsciously you acquire customs and habits no matter where you find yourself, whether in the American suburbs, in the city of Manhattan, or in a tiny, tropical country on the edge of West Africa. Of course, there is variance to our Liberian routine. There are afternoons shopping in Waterside’s markets for lengths of cloth known as lappa, later to be sewn into African clothing; explorations of the city and its neighborhoods on foot; walks along the beach in Congo Town; night swimming in the ocean; field trips to leeward counties; a day at Robertsport beach in the north; a visit to an orphanage; or the launching ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, by and large, the weeks here pass consistently and predictably.

Always looking to shake things up, we jumped at the chance to attend the 2006 Miss Liberia Pageant this weekend. A necessary caveat: If I was anywhere else in the world, I would have scoffed at the idea of attending a beauty pageant, and I'd certainly never pay US$25 for a cheap seat. But in Liberia the idea of the pageant seemed altogether novel, and the price tag didn’t even make me blink. It was, simply, an event not to be missed. So, on Saturday night, six of us piled into two cars and drove across the Mesurado River and past the Monrovia Freeport stoplights (the only two working traffic lights in Liberia) to a conference center in the suburb of Virginia, originally built for the 1979 summit of the Organization for African Unity.

Less than half of the seats were filled when we arrived at 10pm, and the program didn’t get underway until well after midnight. We divvied up the contestants beforehand for our entertainment. I laid a quick claim on Miss Bong County. She didn’t let me down. At around 12:30am she debuted covered in ivy from head to toe (above, looking rather like a thicket of kudzu), with her front covered in a breastplate resembling the puffed chest of a cobra. Another contestant apparently took her cue from Björk’s infamous Oscar appearance as she did her runway walk wearing the full-fledged plumage of a peacock, as well as its neck and head (below).

The pageant's pace was excruciatingly slow. By 2am only the the first phase—-the ‘traditional’ African costume competition—-was completed. Our stamina caved mid-morning, and we left with three quarters of the show to go despite the magnificence of our seats (we snuck backstage to inhabit three dusty and abandoned press boxes positioned above and just to the right of the runway). I will therefore leave a more thorough description of the contest to the fine reportage of the Monrovia newspaper, The Analyst, below.

On Miss Bong County, Patrice Juah, crowned Miss Liberia 2006: ‘The judges did not say the basis of their decision, whether for her majestic steps, eloquence or beauty, but she was declared the winner.’

On Miss Lofa County (1st runner-up): ‘No one knows why she came to this point because the judges did not say it, but she performed her talent in a traditional Sande dance.’

On Miss Maryland County (2nd runner-up): ‘She pushed for the kill with a contemporary traditional folk dance. Many in the audience described it as superb and classical.’

On Miss Bomi County’s talent: ‘Her talent was about putting Liberia's broken pieces together. By that, she reorganized the Liberian map on a beautifully designed piece of plywood.’

On Miss Grand Gedeh County’s talent: ‘Miss Kulo Turay of Grand Gedeh displayed her talent in karate. She was garbed in long karate attire, and displayed a Konfu. She climaxed her talent by breaking a block, apparently made out of sand into pieces. She had no explanation for it.’

On Miss Montserrado County’s talent: ‘She perfectly cut a piece of lace and manually sewed it to perfection, much to the applause of the audience.’

On Miss Grand Cape Mount County’s talent: She ‘stunned the audience with a perfect Vai traditional dance, much to the taste of the audience.’

On Miss Sinoe County’s talent: She ‘displayed in full military attire and marched with the Liberian flag posted on her shoulder.’

On the ceremony in general: ‘It started rather slow-pace, with a docile mood and dangling enthusiasm. The musical band tried to cover up, but efforts were measly.’

On the program’s delays: ‘The recess was somehow ephemeral; the audience grew impatient because time was taking away.’

On the President: ‘Already, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has expressed unhappiness with the exercise.’

A quote from a representative of a sponsor, Today's Woman, Inc.: Monologues were discouraged because ‘Liberians tend to overuse monologues at these kind of events.’

A quote from ‘a male’ on the swimwear competition: ‘Real buttocks and slimy skin and sparkling tights I have seen in public now for the first time.’

Sunday, July 16, 2006

If you walk to the far northwestern end of the peninsula that is Monrovia, you will climb a hill known as Mamba Point. From its heights you can watch the Atlantic Ocean crash against its western shores, and to the east you can see the marshes and estuaries of the Mesurado River. It is a strategic spot, and several brutal battles for control of the city were fought there during the war. At the top of Mamba Point you’ll find an old lighthouse and a worn statue of Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. And towering over it all--over the whole of Monrovia--is the tall, decaying shell of the once glamorous Dukor Intercontinental Hotel.

The Dukor Hotel was once synonymous with luxury in Monrovia. It was one of sub-Saharan Africa’s few five-star hotels during the 1960s and 1970s. Only Hotel Africa across the bay could offer comparable lodging in Liberia. Sadly, both the Dukor and Hotel Africa suffered heavy damage and looting during the war. Hotel Africa now stands in ruin near an encampment of UN troops. The Dukor, however, still accommodates guests, albeit no longer the rubber and timber barons and expatriates of Liberia’s more prosperous past. Instead, the Dukor’s clientele is now a colony of several hundred squatters and IDPs living in makeshift living quarters throughout the hotel’s nine floors.

Before the war, Liberia was an African success story. It was widely regarded as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s wealthiest and most stable nations. The Dukor's cousin, Hotel Africa, was built in 1979, right before Liberia began its destructive slide. Former President William Tolbert was chairman of the Organization of African Unity at the time, and he had 52 beach villas built at Hotel Africa--one for each African president--as well as a swimming pool in the shape of the African continent. It was a symbol of Liberia's success and prosperity, and perhaps also of the hubris of the ruling (and minority) Americo-Liberian elite. Beneath a veneer of stability was a nation of great inequality and simmering ethnic tensions. In April 1980, Liberia's hidden demons began to surface, and the slaying of President Tolbert by Master Sgt. Samuel Doe that month brought the country's era of relative prosperity to a close and ushered in a quarter century of tragedy.

The foreign correspondent and author, Jon Lee Anderson, paints an evocative portrait of the depths to which Monrovia has fallen in his article, ‘After the Warlords’, in the March 27, 2006 edition of The New Yorker. He knows Liberia well, having spent part of his childhood in Liberia as the son of a US diplomat. In his article (excerpted below), Anderson offers a description of the Dukor's decay.

‘Downtown, the Dukor Palace Hotel, where I used to go swimming, is a kind of city in itself. A couple of thousand displaced people have built shanties inside its hulking, burned-out nine-story shell. All that remains of its nineteen-sixties modernism is a Jetsons-style canopied entrance [at right in the photo above]. A shanty occupies a corner of the lobby, which has been stripped to the bare concrete. On the sill of a panoramic window, laundry had been hung to dry. Leaving the Dukor, I stepped over streams of urine and other liquids that ran out of the base of the hotel, like secretions from a beached whale.’

The Dukor was just as Anderson described it when we visited the hotel a few days ago. It was late afternoon as we walked up the road to Mamba Point. A steady rain was falling, making the Dukor’s pool terrace slippery underfoot. Strings of laundry hung outside the hotel in the downpour. Below the terrace on the hillside was an abandoned, slightly overgrown tennis court. A single car was parked in the canopied roundabout that used to receive the Dukor’s guests.

Outside the hotel’s reception (above), some enterprising Liberians had set up a makeshift shop for the Dukor’s residents. It was clear that the Dukor is a living, breathing community, despite its dilapitation. Inside the main lobby the words ‘AWAIT YOUR PHOTO & INKING OF FINGER!!’ were scrawled across the walls—-perhaps a remnant of the UN and transitional government’s efforts last fall to ensure that all citizens, including the squatters and IDPs of the Dukor, had the opportunity to vote in Liberia’s first post-war elections.

Winding stairs led from the lobby to a mezzanine that once played host to elegant soirees and business conferences. A now empty ballroom (above) occupies the far end of the landing, complete with a black-and-white checkered marble dance floor. Two blackboards hung from the far wall. ‘JESUS LOVES YOU’ was written on one in thick chalk letters; on the other, ‘WRITING EXAM JUNE 2, 2006’. A primary school operates on the Dukor’s mezzanine, an indication that, for now, the indefinite presence of squatters in the Dukor is taken as an accepted fact.

We met two University of Liberia students in the hotel's rotunda, one studying history and English and the other studying business administration. Several young children played on benches nearby. In an odd way, the place seemed almost pleasant. Yet there was something utterly despondent about this city within a city, especially at dusk. As we exited the Dukor and walked back out into the rain, an older man joked that someday, perhaps, we would return to Liberia to restore the Dukor to its former splendor. I smiled and assured him that someday, no doubt, someone would find the Dukor to be a good investment. I didn't tell him that I thought it wouldn't be anytime soon. For now, at least, the Dukor's hundreds of current residents, himself included, have nowhere else to go.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Nigerian man in his early 30s, Henry E., owns a modest bar and restaurant around the corner from my office called the Rolling Stone Entertainment Center. It is simple hang-out. A handful of plastic chairs and tables are arranged sparingly on a bare concrete floor, and chicken wire covers the windows. While the menu offers basic food, it is not the kind of place you go to eat-—instead, it is the kind of place you go at the end of a long day to knock back a large, cold 40 of the local Club Beer.

The Rolling Stone would be unremarkable but for its exceptional artwork. Henry is not only the bar's proprietor but also an amateur painter, and the Rolling Stone is a showcase for his work. His talent is apparent. Murals of American hip-hop artists like 50 Cent, Tupac, R. Kelly, Beyoncé and P. Diddy decorate the Rolling Stone’s walls, and paintings of the Jamaican reggae artist and ‘Back to Africa’ Rastafarian Winston Rodney (aka ‘Burning Spear’) and the popular Nigerian comedian and actor Nkem Owoh (aka ‘Osuofia’, after the name of the character he played in a 2003 film, Osuofia in London) grace its exterior.

Henry is not the only painter in Liberia with a ken for creating iconic artwork. Wall and sign painting is a cottage industry in Monrovia, and a booming one too. New shops and kiosks open weekly, and a budding optimism has businesses everywhere applying fresh coats of paint to their buildings. All of these shops require advertisements, and almost all of the adverts are hand-painted. Pictures of cell phones, scratch cards (phone cards), hair styles, jewelry, money, electronics, clothing, generators, fresh meat, and other wares adorn shop walls and signs, making a rich visual landscape of Monrovia’s streets. Even the items on restaurant menus are painted on the doors or walls of the eateries.

Most billboards in Liberia are also hand-painted, often in elaborate detail. Some of the most interesting murals are public service advertisements from UNMIL, the UN specialized agencies, and international NGOs that implore Liberians to pursue an education, prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, protect endangered species, or report rape. One of my favorites simply depicts the stalk and grain of a rice plant and declares mysteriously: ‘Rice Is Life … But All Is Not Well in the World of Rice.’

The business of painting murals, signs, and billboard advertisements is a sort of unofficial endowment for the visual arts. The paintings are a higher-order graffiti: functional and economically valuable, yet culturally (and individually) expressive. Many are works of art in their own right.

American rap culture is by far the most popular theme for Monrovia’s wall art and advertisements. Although traditional West African music remains popular in Liberia, in Monrovia, American R&B and hip-hop reigns supreme. Nods to American rap artists are ubiquitous, with 50 Cent the most popular by far (that is, if the number of references—-written, painted, or posted—-actually reflects popular opinion). Nelly, however, is represented by an eponymous barber shop on Carey and Lynch Streets, complete with a mural of the American rapper on its front wall and posters of him in full bling plastered to the barbers’ mirrors.

Despite the popularity of hip-hop, African music does not take a backseat to the American scene. Afropop is thriving, and it holds its own on the playlists of local radio stations like Kiss FM, Star Radio, and DC 101, as well as with DJs at Monrovian nightclubs like The Pepper Bush. Much of the popular African music is from Ghana and Nigeria, as well as from Sierra Leone. Perhaps the most-played song is ‘African Queen’, the hit single of Nigeria’s 2Face Idibia. Also popular is a song by an artist called Big Mouth with lyrics in both Ghanaian English and Twi and the refrain, ‘I and my shorty [i.e., 'wife'] are one, are one, are one’.

One of this summer’s biggest hits, though, is ‘Liberian Girl’ by Romeo Mulbah, aka ‘2C’. 2C was born in Liberia but grew up in New Orleans. He now makes his home in Atlanta, Georgia, and his debut album is scheduled for release later this year. Resonant with the club-friendly beats characteristic of the Dirty South style, ‘Liberian Girl’ is a tribute to 2C’s homeland and a call for Liberians to unite to overcome the depredations of war: ‘This goes out to my Liberian Girl, home-grown, now she’s all over the world. People wonder who you are, I’m gonna show ‘em you’re a shining star. Keep holding your head up, let nobody put you down. Forever you’re my girl …’

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Kofi Annan arrived in Monrovia amidst heavy security yesterday evening after paying a visit to Sierra Leone. The intense security surrounding his visit reflected the latent paranoia of civil unrest here in Monrovia, and the main road from Roberts International Airport to the Pan-African Plaza (UNMIL headquarters) downtown was completely closed to traffic from 6pm until 10pm. Liberian riot police and UN troops lined the entire route and blanketed the city. Things came to a standstill. The precautions seemed a bit extreme. Was it really necessary to shut down the city from late afternoon onwards, even if the visitor is the UN Secretary General?

Today, with Kofi Annan in meetings, several hundred Liberians marched on the UNMIL headquarters in support of the establishment of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia. The demonstrators wore black t-shirts and carried 16 caskets on their shoulders to symbolize those who died in Liberia’s 14 years of civil war—-one casket to represent the dead from each of Liberia’s 15 counties, and one casket to represent the international peacekeepers and foreign nationals who also perished in the war.

The group that organized the demonstration—-a local activist organization calling itself the Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court—-failed to obtain a permit for the demonstration and was warned against staging the march. The demonstration was held despite the warnings. Fortunately, the Liberian government let the demonstrators proceed, and the government’s tolerance was perhaps the most significant display of the day. The demonstrators also successfully delivered a petition to a UN official to be forwarded to the UN Security Council in New York City. The petition requests the Security Council to consider a resolution for the establishment of a hybrid Special War Crimes Court for Liberia (similar to the one established in Sierra Leone) to prosecute those most responsible for atrocities in Liberia in the last decade and a half. But the establishment of such a court is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The creation of a hybrid war crimes tribunal would require the consent of the Liberian government, which is improbable given that many of those responsible for the conflict remain in power, including the House Speaker Edwin Snowe (the former son-in-law of ex-president Charles Taylor), Senator Jewel Howard Taylor (Taylor’s wife), Senator Adolphus Dolo (a former general under Taylor’s government), and Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba County (the former leader of the now defunct Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, who can be seen in a blue hat peering over Charles Taylor’s shoulder in this picture).

Despite the long odds, the Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court has been very vocal of late. It is not too keen on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the chosen institution for transitional justice. Members of the group delivered a similar petition to the National Legislature five weeks ago seeking domestic legislation to establish a war crimes court. The 21-page petition, which was read aloud by the House Clerk, enumerated the alleged massacres, atrocities, summary executions, and other crimes committed by members of the current Legislature and government, including the ‘butchering’ of 400,000 Liberians, the raping of over 50,000 underage girls, and ‘the hacking off of limbs coupled with the betting murder game that saw pregnant women’s stomachs ripped open.’ The accuracy of their casualty figures is impossible to confirm, but even if the numbers are outsized and hyperbolic (and they could just as well be short of the mark), their descriptions of the atrocities reflect the truth.

This morning, Kofi Annan was set to address a joint session of the National Legislature, followed by more meetings with UNMIL and the various UN agencies around town. In conjunction with his visit, the University of Liberia announced a proposal to establish a new Kofi Annan School of Peace and Development Studies. More high-profile visitors are expected in Monrovia in the coming weeks. Former President Bill Clinton, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, and heads of the World Bank and African Development Bank are expected to arrive in Monrovia around July 12 for a donor’s conference on Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy, including proposals for canceling some of Liberia’s close to US $3.5 billion in external debt.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The building where I work on the Corner of Broad and Johnson Streets in downtown Monrovia (above) was a gift from the U.S. taxpayers to the Liberian people via USAID. On the second floor are the national offices of the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND). About ten staff members work there, including the four of us in FIND’s Legal Aid Office. More staff work across the street at FIND’s Resource Center, where a collection of computers, books, and archived newspapers serves as a free resource for the public on human rights.

Our offices are fairly typical of those throughout Monrovia. A generator provides electricity from 9am until noon, and again from 1pm until 6pm. There is no flushing toilet, and no air conditioning. What we do have are mice. Plenty of them.

FIND was founded in June 2002 by exiled Liberian human rights lawyers and advocates in Freetown, Sierra Leone. A national office opened in Liberia in September 2003 soon after the signing of the peace accords, followed by an office in Guinea in 2004. FIND’s original mission was to advocate for the protection of Liberian refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and other vulnerable populations in the three Mano River Union countries of West Africa. The end of the Liberian civil war, however, prompted a shift in its mandate, and FIND now involves itself in broader human rights monitoring and advocacy in the region.

FIND has perhaps the best geographical breadth of any local NGO in Liberia, with field offices in seven of the country’s 15 counties (Bomi, Bong, Grand Gedeh, Lofa, Montserrado, Nimba, River Gee) and a field presence in four more (Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Kru, and Maryland). Human rights monitors staff the field offices and act as the eyes and ears of the organization by documenting local human rights violations. The field staff also act as paralegals, providing legal advice, counseling, and mediation services to their local communities. This is an important role; there is a serious shortage of lawyers and general legal knowledge in Liberia. The field staff also hold ‘legal literacy’ workshops to educate Liberians on their legal and human rights under national and international law, and workshops were recently held on Liberia's new rape and women’s inheritance statutes.

The bread and butter of the Legal Aid Office, where I work, is the provision of legal assistance to refugees, IDPs, the indigent, and other vulnerable populations in Liberia. Often, FIND’s field monitors refer cases of human rights violations to our office in Monrovia for intervention. Many of our clients, however, are walk-ins. I spend part of my day conducting screening interviews of those who walk through our doors. Many of our complaints involve labor rights abuses, and foreign businesses—-particularly those owned by the Lebanese—-are usually behind the complaints. Other cases involve illegal or arbitrary detentions by the government, land or property disputes involving IDPs and returnees, or women’s rights and domestic violence. Recently, we have partnered with the American Refugee Committee to handle referrals of gender-based violence cases, particularly rapes. It is a growing caseload. Our job is to ensure that these cases reach prosecution, a difficult task in a largely defunct judiciary. In the past, FIND’s Legal Aid Office has offered criminal defense services because of the absence of public defenders, but only does so now in rare and pressing circumstances.

Liberia’s poor—-and they are many—-face particular difficulties in accessing justice. FIND is one of only three organizations providing indigent representation in all of Liberia, the others being the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (with one attorney) and the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (consisting of a small team of part-time attorneys). A handful of private lawyers also offer pro bono services, but on an infrequent basis. Not surprisingly, all of this legal aid is concentrated in Monrovia and the surrounding, relatively urban areas of Montserrado County.

Indigent criminal defendants are among the most disadvantaged. According to a February 2005 UNMIL report, Liberia has only 11 public defenders, and four of them are believed to be over 80 years old. Rising crime rates—-due in part to more police on the streets but also to the unemployment of ex-combatants and others—-is putting even greater pressure on an already abysmally thin public defender system. Things will not soon improve; there are few incentives for lawyers to go into public defense. Private lawyers in Liberia receive US $100-300 per court appearance per day, and experienced lawyers charge upwards of US $200 per hour. Compare this with the US $20 that public defenders earn per month. And the government is often in arrears in doling out even that meager income.

Beyond legal representation, FIND’s Legal Aid Office engages in general human rights awareness and advocacy projects. So far, we have surveyed the state of courthouses and prisons in both Bong and Margibi Counties (courts, where they still exist, are in very dilapidated conditions as shown in the two pictures above). Soon, we will conduct a similar assessment of the Montserrado County judiciary. We also regularly visit prisons order to ensure that inmates’ constitutional rights are respected. Frighteningly, the Liberian judiciary is black hole, and we often advocate for the release of individuals that are falsely imprisoned or detained beyond statutory limits without formal charges, as well as for the speedy assignment of certain cases for prosecution (many defendants languish for months in prison without access to a lawyer, the courtroom, or a trial).

FIND's Legal Aid Office also trains national staff on paralegal skills, engages formal and informal adjudicating authorities on human rights issues, conducts public awareness campaigns on legal issues, and organizes legal literacy workshops on topics ranging from civic education and women’s rights to basic human rights awareness and sexual and gender-based violence. Additionally, in partnership with the American Bar Association (ABA-Africa), we are training traditional leaders and clan chiefs to mediate local disputes, and we are working with the Liberian National Bar Association to draft a mediation act that will formalize the mediation process and ensure that mediated resolutions will be enforceable in court.

Finally, FIND takes on high-profile human rights cases and advocacy projects, and it is in the headlines almost daily. Most recently, the plight of the Firestone Rubber Plantation workers has been front and center, and the other week FIND released a 30-minute documentary on Firestone labor rights abuses. FIND and five other human rights groups also filed a petition recently with the Liberian Supreme Court to nullify the confirmation of Kabineh Ja’neh as a new Associate Justice because of his disregard for the rule of law as Justice Minister under the former National Transitional Government as well as for his role in human rights abuses committed during the civil conflict. Other subjects of recent advocacy include ending the impunity of Charles Taylor and the UN’s sanctions on Liberia.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Arach-Attack Parte Deux: We found this spider crawling the walls of my bedroom the other day. While Christen stood on my bed screaming like a Banshee with a can of Raid in her hand, I attempted to herd the creature into my laundry bucket with a clothes hanger. Unfortunately, the spider jumped as well as crawled, and during the chase I am almost certain I saw it fly. Perhaps I was delirious. In any case, it outwitted us, and I finally caved to Christen’s suggestion that we gas the thing out of fear of what he might do to me in my sleep. A cloud of poison later he was belly-up underneath my bed. It may be coincidence, but as the rainy season gets rainier, the spiders seem to be getting bigger, hairier, and scarier. I’m not looking forward to what we find next.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Last Thursday I was obliged to wear a suit for the first and hopefully last time in Liberia. The occasion was the formal launching of the Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was a miserable day to debut a coat and tie. The sun—especially intense that morning—was set in a cloudless sky, and I now fully appreciate the casual dress code that is a fringe benefit of being a ‘human rights worker’ in Liberia. (According to a co-worker, nobody expects anything more sartorially of human rights advocates than jeans and a t-shirt, regardless of the gravity of the meeting or our counterparts’ rank on the Liberian totem pole.)

Rich and Christen succeeded at securing me an invitation to the event through their internships at the TRC, and at a quarter past nine in the morning we all filed into the Centennial Pavilion in central Monrovia in order to be seated before the arrival of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Although scheduled to begin at ten o’clock, the TRC did not actually begin ‘launching’ until closer to eleven. Idle time was spent sitting in pews fanning ourselves furiously and dreaming of air conditioning. Many of the biggest names in Liberian politics and society, as well as from the international aid and development community, filled the benches around us.

The program that morning was ambitious. Two religious leaders (one a Christian reverend, the other a Muslim sheikh) kicked things off with blessings, followed by several ‘opening statements’ and musical numbers, including a live performance of the TRC’s radio jingle. Next came ‘remarks’ from representatives of UNMIL, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the U.S. embassy, the diplomatic corps, ex-combatants, the children, the women, and civil society. All of this even before the keynote speaker was introduced. And the keynote speaker was not even the President! (It was a former interim president from the early 1990s, one Dr. Amos Sawyer, now Chairman of the Government Reform Commission.)

Liberians have a knack for being long-winded, and the speakers last Thursday proved no different. The highlights of the next three and a half sweltering hours included some obscure allusions to numerology in a speech on the auspicious timing of the Commission’s launch (including a reference to 666, or the sign of the Beast—I’m still unclear how such a coincidence either bodes well for the TRC or is even relevant, considering that the launch took place on June 22, not earlier on June 6, 2006, but that’s neither here nor there). Later, a well-spoken ex-combatant made a rousing call for greater investment in education and the youth. But most of the speeches were filled with empty platitudes. What kept things amusing were the loud groans that issued regularly from a traditional horn (above) throughout the morning. Although intended to emphasize the speeches’ more stirring moments, the horn unfortunately sounded like the mating call of a walrus and bewildered a fair number of the speakers.

The official launching of the TRC did not come until close to one o’clock. Flanked by gigantic bodyguards in dark shades, the President Johnson-Sirleaf took the podium and reminded the commissioners’ of their duty to strike a ‘healthy balance’ between retributive and restorative justice. Although the likelihood of future prosecutions shadowed her speech, the TRC remains for now Liberia’s principal mechanism for making amends with its past. A lot rides on the Commission’s success at healing Liberia’s wounds. According to one scholar, Paul Collier, almost 50 percent of countries that emerge from civil conflict re-descend into violence within five years of achieving peace. In her speech, the President recognized the urgency of the moment. ‘The future and the stability of our country will remain in doubt unless we face ourselves as a people,’ she said, ‘unless we tell the truth of what we did to ourselves and to our nation.’

A nationwide sensitization campaign has already begun to educate the public about the TRC’s mission, and in the next few weeks over 150 statement takers will fan out across the country to begin gathering testimony from victims and perpetrators. As the process gets underway, Liberia’s choice to establish a TRC instead of a war crimes court will be tested. Without a doubt, this historical reckoning will be painful. But the mood last Thursday at the TRC’s launch was hopeful. With luck, the process will generate the balm that Liberia needs so sorely to heal the trauma of years of civil war: understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness.