Charles Taylor is a villain who terrorized, oppressed, and repressed his people. Instead of being a leader, he decided he would be a ruler. When he became president of Liberia in 1997, he had a chance to wash away the gangster attitude of the evil regime that preceded him. Instead, he chose a path of violence, sparking a bloody civil war among the people who had elected him to lead.
Last week, I watched from my bed in the morning as he awaited the verdict in his trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone. Throughout his six-year reign as president of Liberia, he sold illegal arms to a murderous rebel group in Sierra Leone in exchange for blood diamonds. Those rebels were responsible for terrible atrocities in that country’s civil war—rape, mass killings, sexual slavery. At the same time, in his own country, he forced tens of thousands of young people to fight in his armies, shattering their lives.
I watched the trial with mixed emotions. Every time Taylor came on the screen, I thought of that saying, “Oh, see how hard the mighty have fallen.” I also felt real sorrow when I saw the amputees from Sierra Leone, survivors of war.
When the guilty verdict was handed down, I walked outside and saw a rainbow encircling the sun. Everyone in Monrovia could see it. It was a hot day, 80 or 90 degrees. I don’t remember seeing any raindrops fall. I thought, this is a sign. It is over. All is well.
I spent many years fighting for peace in Liberia. I galvanized women to help. We dressed in white and staged demonstrations across the country until we achieved our goal in 2003, ousting Taylor. Now there is a different fight—to rebuild the country.
The government recently asked me to lead a reconciliation initiative in Liberia. Across the country, damaged people are living next to those they once fought. Some are former child soldiers who survived the war, only to come home to be stuck in poverty. All are from different political factions and subgroups. Just a few months ago, during the presidential election that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won, they were at each other’s throats again.
I recently visited several rural areas to get this initiative going. I met with local leaders, and with women and girls, who often bear the brunt of the trauma from war. In one village, women were fending off a businessman who wanted to steal their land. But I found that most people genuinely want to move on. They want to reconcile. They are in an intense struggle to come back to life.
In one moment that really touched my heart, a young girl had somehow received a copy of my memoir. She had heard I was coming and she made me a dress—blue and cream, and comfortable, the kind of thing you throw on at home after work. When she met me she told me, “I have longed for this day.” My story gave her hope, she said. She told me, “If Sister Leymah can do it, I can do it.”
These rural areas are as poor as you can imagine. Main-street businesses rely on generators from China for electricity. Homes are not wired; women cook with charcoal or firewood. They wash their clothes in a tub, fetch water from a well. They get up in the morning, go to the market to sell produce or parts of a chicken—legs, wings—and then they return home. Their hope is to educate their kids, but this, too, is a challenge. Teachers aren’t always around. They have to abandon their classrooms to collect their pay—which can only be done at a bank in a big city.
When children graduate from high school, their options are limited. Boys get a job selling gas, or they go to the diamond mines or become a “bike rider,” also known as a pehn pehn—the sound their horns make. They drive people from place to place on motorcycles, sometimes traveling for hours; the dust weighs down their eyelids. Girls sew or sell produce, or become prostitutes. Families can’t afford to send their children away to college in the city. And even if the kids went to college, what jobs would await them afterward?
The people here dream of a future for their children of war. It’s time now to chart a new road. How do we find closure, end this chapter and end it well, so peace will continue to reign in Liberia? That is our new challenge.