Distortion Of The Liberian Reality: The Case Of The Five Murdered American Nuns

By Gabriel I.H. Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 20, 2002

A serious controversy is taking place in Liberia, where the Catholic Church has decided to set up a commission to investigate the rape and murder of five American nuns during the country's civil war in 1992. According to the church, the commission is intended to establish that indeed the five nuns and other prelates who were killed in 1992 died in the service of God and mankind.

The findings of the commission will then be forwarded to the Vatican for beatification and later canonization of the nuns if their lives and works were in accordance with the laws laid down by the church for this honor.

However, apparently desperate to prevent the investigations due to fear of potential legal implications, the regime of Mr. Charles Taylor, whose National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels are widely known to have murdered the nuns, has unleashed a ferocious attack to discredit the Catholic Church and smear the reputation of Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis.

Sando Johnson, the so-called House Majority leader in the Taylor-controlled legislature, who was himself a commander in the murderous NPFL armed gang, is leading the charge in vilifying the Archbishop and the Catholic Church.

The rebel commander-turned lawmaker said the church is "opening old wounds," and that its action was part of a well-orchestrated plot aimed at damaging the reputation of the NPFL. He accused Archbishop Francis and Dr. Amos Sawyer, Interim President of Liberia during the civil war, of having plotted and executed the murder of the nuns with the aid of the Senegalese contingent of the West African peacekeeping force called ECOMOG.

Johnson also spoke of immorality within the Catholic Church, such as homosexuality and other "sordid acts," which he said were fast reducing the church to decadence. He called on the Pope to have the Archbishop "immediately replaced," and that failure on the part of the Vatican to yield to his demand would leave him with no alternative but to mobilize demonstrations against the Archbishop. He also implicated the Archbishop in other massacres during the civil war, and threatened legal actions.

Protesting what is seen to be a government orchestrated blackmail, the Catholic Church, which operates the best school system and medical facilities in the country, among other crucial services, shut down operations besides emergency services throughout Liberia for one day. The Liberian Council of Churches, which is the preeminent organization grouping together various Christian denominations in Liberia, also called for a three-day closure of all schools, health and other institutions throughout Liberia, in solidarity with the Catholic Church.

Various organizations in Liberia and abroad are also expressing solidarity with Archbishop Francis and the Catholic Church against the brutal dictatorial regime's attempt to prevent investigations into the nuns' murder and to silent the only leading moral authority in Liberia that Liberians and the international look up to. Archbishop Francis, a 1999 winner of the internationally prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, does not need to be defended when it comes to his moral standing. There's almost unanimous approbation, except perhaps for the criminal few who are threatened by his activities, that the Archbishop's goodwill toward his fellow Liberians is exhibited and visible in every facet of the Liberian society. In a country fragmented by a bloody civil upheaval, Archbishop Francis is seen at home and abroad as a single national leader, whose influence is positively felt in every segment of the Liberian society. And he is the only prominent national leader in Liberia who Taylor has not succeeded in murdering, or forced into exile or silenced.

If Taylor's regime, internationally blacklisted for gunrunning and diamond smuggling in West Africa, succeeds in undermining and silencing Archbishop Francis, the struggle to restore peace, human rights and democratic governance in Liberia would have suffered a tragedy.

As have been shown in this latest crisis, the churches, in a show of united action, can lead the Liberian people in the struggle to eliminate the forces of evil that continue to wreak havoc on them. Because Taylor's murderous regime enjoys little or no international respectability and support, it is the services provided by the churches and other non-government organizations that have largely sustained the Liberian people. This is why Taylor and other members of his gang calling themselves government officials expressed alarm by the decision of the churches to suspend services for the periods of time indicated.

The Liberian despot is reported to have convened a meeting with leaders of the Liberian Council of Churches November 18, during which he appealed to them to resume normal services to the public. A press statement from the LCC said the council agreed to resume normal operations after a high level delegation of church leaders had four hours of frank and open discussions with Mr. Taylor.

While details of the meeting are yet unknown, it is obvious that the church leaders impressed upon the brutal warlord-turned president of Liberia that there's a limit to the excesses of his dysfunctional regime. While Taylor and members of his gang like Sando Johnson may have reasons to fear, the Catholic Church's investigations into the murder of the nuns are not likely to produce any major break that the Liberian public and those who follow developments in the country are not already aware of. It is public knowledge in Liberia that the nuns were raped and murdered by NPFL thugs.

My recently published book, LIBERIA: THE HEART OF DARKNESS, contains extensive accounts on the state of affairs in Monrovia when NPFL rebels invaded the city in 1992.

Taylor's surprised invasion of Monrovia, which he code-named "Operation Octopus," caused the lives of thousands of unarmed civilians, and left the city and parts adjacent massively destroyed. I was in Monrovia at the time, and here is how I began the accounts in the book.

"At about 3: 00 am on October 15, 1992, while residents of the overcrowded city without electricity were generally sound asleep, Taylor's threats to attack Monrovia were carried out when NPFL forces aided by (Prince) Johnson's INPFL (another rebel group), invaded the city. Like from a James Bond movie, Taylor called his planned attack "Operation Octopus." Monrovia would be surrounded, and his army's tentacles would strangle the city. Thousands of NPFL troops, many less than ten years old and teenagers waded through muddy swamps, weeds and across cane fields in and around Monrovia, firing with every weapon of destruction available to them. Some of Taylor's fighters lost their lives and legs to alligator attacks in the swamps, but they were determined to take the capital at all cost this time, having been chased out in October 1990, when they were about 500 yards from the coveted Executive Mansion.

"Determined to protect the lives of nearly a million people taking refuge in generally peaceful Monrovia, ECOMOG (the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force) plunged into a bloody military showdown with the NPFL... During the early stage of the fighting, which dragged on for weeks and into several months, Taylor announced that "Operation Octopus" was intended to expel the foreign occupation forces from the national capital and complete the liberation of the motherland. With much of Monrovia occupied by his forces, and ECOMOG and its allies (other local militia groups) pinned down mostly in areas of central Monrovia and the (sea) port, Taylor continued the intensity of his artillery bombardment of the entire city. In a series of radio broadcasts, he urged that the only way out was ECOMOG's complete and total surrender of Monrovia.

"During the hostilities, the NPFL abducted several thousands of people, including hundreds of children from orphanages in parts of the city they occupied. Five American nuns in one of the orphanages were killed; some of them were reportedly raped before their lives were taken. The ...nuns were killed while caring for homeless children whose parents were either dead or lost during the state of war in 1990."

For the rest of the dramatic and tragic developments that unfolded, I would kindly refer you to check the book. I have only decided to recount these paragraphs from the book to add to the fact that responsibility for the murder of the nuns is common knowledge in Liberia.

Archbishop Francis is reported to have said in a recent radio interview that there are eyewitnesses ready to testify that NPFL thugs killed the nuns. But even if we give murderous rebel commander-turned lawmaker Sando Johnson the benefit of the doubt that Archbishop Francis and Dr. Sawyer were responsible for the death of the nuns, then why is the Taylor gang so vehemently opposed to an investigation? What are they afraid of, if they are sure that they are not murderous criminals?

The Taylor gang has also implicated the West African peacekeeping force, which sacrificed so much human and material resources to restore peace to Liberia, in the killing of the nuns. There is a serious need for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the sub-regional organization under whose auspices the peacekeeping force operated in Liberia, to take up this matter with the Monrovia regime. ECOWAS must also press for a judicial course of action to get to the truth of this matter.

I also call on the US government and families of the murdered nuns to institute legal proceedings against the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.

Finally, it is important that various well-meaning Liberian political leaders and groups join in strongly condemning rebel commander Sando Johnson and the criminal gang in Monrovia for their attempt to continue to perpetuate the state of terror by distorting the Liberian reality. That Johnson and his criminal collaborators are trying to portray Archbishop Francis as a murderer like them represents the continued distortion of the Liberian reality.

Indeed, despite its problems, Liberia still has many decent and honorable people. The likes of Sando Johnson and Charles Taylor, whose hands are stained with the blood of innocent Liberians must not be allowed to distort that reality in order to cover their crimes and project Liberians as a violent people.

To Archbishop Francis, please remember that the Liberian people love you greatly. Thanks for being an inspiration to many of us who are determined to contain the criminals plundering our once peaceful and prosperous country. Keep up the good work, and never yield to the blackmail of those criminals. In the fullness of time, they will be made to account for their crimes. May the Almighty continue to guide you in your endeavors.

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