|TWIN CITIES — In a Dutch town called The Hague, thousands of miles from the U.S., and even farther from the minds of Liberians in Minnesota, a former Sierra Leonean rebel combat commander started one of his toughest days in the courtroom.
Alimamy Bobson Sesay, the witness, had served in the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council during Sierra Leone’s decade-long brutal war, which ended in 2002. Sesay was testifying at The Special Court for Sierra Leone as part of the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
When the cross-examination began, Sesay swiveled anxiously in his chair. His voice grew louder, and his answers more combative.
Despite the trial’s daily drama, and its apparent relevance, Liberians in Minnesota—and in fact Liberians in much of the U.S.—are not paying attention.
Taylor is accused of providing weapons and money to Sierra Leonean rebel groups in exchange for diamonds. He faces charges of encouraging mass murder, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
The United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone set up the Special Court to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for violations of international and Sierra Leonean law during the country’s war. Several former rebel and army leaders are on trial at the Special Court center of operations in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. For security reasons, however, Taylor’s trial is taking place in The Hague.
Sesay’s testimony implicated himself in a number of crimes, including murder, though it is unlikely he will ever be prosecuted for these crimes. Sesay says he has since become an evangelist after learning that the Apostle Paul killed Christians but was forgiven by Jesus Christ.
The defense pounced on this claim, and started a fast line of questioning to determine the witness’ true knowledge of the Bible.
“Can you name the Pauline epistles?” the defense lawyer asked, “They are all books in the New Testament written by the Apostle Paul. Name all of them for the Court. You are an evangelist.”
This might seem like the stuff of an edgy “Law and Order” episode, but according to Ahmed Sirleaf, a Liberian working with Advocates for Human Rights, a Minnesota-based human rights organization, “Most people really aren’t following [the trial].”
Sirleaf, who works to raise awareness about the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S., meets many Liberians.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the country and to other communities where Liberians live,” he said, “I don’t hear Taylor’s name often.”
It is not clear how many Liberians live in Minnesota. Using data from church and community group membership, the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota puts the number between 20,000 and 30,000. Because of migration among states, though, the number is constantly changing. Official surveys quickly become out-of-date.
Seyon Nyanwleh agrees that Taylor’s trial is not a priority for most Liberians in the state. Nyanwleh runs a youth group for Liberians in Minnesota called the A-mon-nue Sport and Social Association. Before moving to Minnesota in 1999, Nyanwleh saw firsthand the deadly consequences of warlords fighting for control of the capital and countryside. But he says he is only somewhat following the trial.
“It really doesn’t matter to Liberians [in Minnesota],” he said. “It’s nothing that we talk about, it’s nothing that we fight about, it’s nothing that we debate about. I don’t know if it’s out of fear, or people just don’t want to bother with it.”
He described an attitude of “let’s just move on.”
The apathy exists for several reasons. Many Liberians simply are glad Taylor is out of Liberia, out of the way, and cannot directly cause problems of the magnitude he inflicted while president, and before that as leader of the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Some Liberians are frustrated that he is being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and not in Liberia.
Many are consumed by the day-to-day realities of surviving and succeeding in Minnesota; feeding their children—not following Taylor’s trial—is the more pressing priority.
Contributing to this passive indifference is the fact that outreach efforts to Sierra Leoneans and Liberians in the U.S. have been limited.
“We are constrained because of funding,” said Solomon Moriba, an Outreach/Press and Public Affairs Officer with the Court, adding that his office “doesn’t have the means to conduct effective outreach in the U.S. We are relying mostly on the press to help us with that.”
Special Court outreach initiatives in West Africa, however, have been multifaceted and effective. West African journalists travel to The Hague and create weekly radio reports on trial proceedings. These reports are then distributed to community radio stations throughout Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Additionally mobile video units are used to facilitate trial viewings in rural areas of both countries. As a result of these efforts, 79 percent of people in Sierra Leone understand the role of the Court, according to a 2007 University of Sierra Leone report.
Back in the courtroom, the defense counsel continued questioning the witness on his biblical knowledge.
“How many books of the New Testament did the Apostle Paul write?” the lawyer asked, “Who wrote the epistle Philemon? Who wrote the Book of First Corinthians? Do you know what the canonical gospels are?”
Visibly agitated, Sesay finally shot back: “I am still studying the scripture. It doesn’t mean that I know everything, or I have memorized everything. The Bible says, ‘Study to show thyself and prove unto thy Lord,’ so I am still studying.”
Five visitors watched this confrontation from the Court’s viewing area. None were West African.
Shelby Grossman blogs from www.shelbygrossman.com. Charles Taylor’s trial can be seen on live video feed at
http://www.sc-sl.org/Taylor.html, and unofficial real-time transcripts from the trial are posted on the blog www.charlestaylortrial.org