A Peaceful March: One for the Conscience
By Theodore T. Hodge
September 18, 2002
"Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it." Wasn't that once said? Here is a story I once heard that demonstrates the validity of this quotation or paraphrase. This story has made a lasting impact on my psyche since I heard it. Here is the story:
A man was being held by the Gestapo in a Nazi concentration camp awaiting persecution and he is said to have lamented in retrospect: "At first they came for the Jews, although they were my friends and neighbors, I did nothing. Next they came for the trade unionists, since I wasn't a member of the trade unions, I did nothing either; I did not stand up for them. Then they came for the Christians (accused them of harboring Jews), I still did nothing. I did not stand up to fight for my friends and neighbors. Now, they've come for me and there is no one left to fight for me."
It is apparent that this poor man saw the folly of his selfish ways when it was too late. Is it too late for you? Remember: Ignoring history makes you apt to repeat it. Here are a few events in recent Liberian history I shall draw upon to illustrate a simple point. Please bear with me.
After the 1980 coup that overthrew the government of William R. Tolbert, a number of Americo-Liberians (or Congoes) who were not part of the fallen government and, therefore, not responsible for its shortcomings, became victims as a "witch hunt" mentality was put into place: Americo-Liberian versus Indigenous. Many good indigenous people stood on the sidelines and looked on; said nothing.
It is said that after General Thomas Quiwonkpa's attempted coup against Samuel K. Doe failed, Doe unleashed the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) on the Nimba elements. According to reports, the AFL, predominantly headed by Doe's ethnic Krahn countrymen were turned against their fellow soldiers from Nimba County. Many gallant and hitherto dedicated soldiers were killed simply because they hailed from the wrong part of the country. The killing machine did not stop there. Killing Gio and Mano soldiers wasn't enough - innocent civilians were also victimized. An obvious attempt was made to purge the entire tribe! The rest of the country stood by and watched.
Events quickly turned against Doe and his Krahn-led forces as Charles Macarthur Taylor (the freckled-faced warlord) stepped in at the helm of the Gio and Mano forces. The brutal and heartless killer armed them to the teeth and ordered them to go after the Krahns with a vengeance. The order didn't have to be given twice. The Krahns now became the new victims as open attempts were made to annihilate them. As was the case earlier, the massive attempt to retaliate victimized countless Krahn civilians including women, children and the elderly. Again, everybody else stood by, watched and did nothing.
In 1997, a tired, bleeding and war-weary country went to the polls to settle the disputes, we had hoped. Charles Macarthur Taylor (the golden warlord) had become the elected president, by hook or crook. But old habits are hard to break.
Before too long, a new conflict arose. An ex-warlord (Krahn) was accused of amassing arms with the intent to dethrone the government. Whether these charges were real or trumped up is still a matter of debate. What is clear is that some untamed forces were unleashed on the Krahn community of Monrovia. They suffered untold civilian losses and displacements. Many of their leaders were forced to flee the country and become refugees. A few prominent ones were imprisoned, without being formally charged. They languished in prison until recently when they were granted "presidential pardon" and released. What were their crimes? They were Krahn.
Now comes another attempt to persecute another tribal group, the Mandingoes, under the pretext of calling them "Islamic fundamentalists". Since the on-going insurrection led by the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) began, the Mandingoes have been selectively targeted by the state. Why, because its leadership is presumed to be predominantly Mandingo and Muslim.
On June 24, 2002, a prominent Liberian journalist, Hassan Bility and a few of his comrades, was arrested and detained by the state. The state claimed that it had uncovered a plot by the journalist and another prominent political exile to assassinate the president and overthrow the government. Mr. Bility has since remained in detention - charged as an "unlawful combatant".
Although family members, friends, concerned citizens and even prominent international organizations have appealed to the government to produce Mr. Bility, all efforts have led to no avail. The government has simply refused to produce the defendant. Have the government’s thugs already killed him? Your guess is as good as mine.
Against this backdrop, an organization calling itself "The National Civil Rights Movement" announced it was planning to stage a demonstration on the grounds of the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC. It was emphasized that the demonstration would be peaceful and that their only intention was to call on the government to release Mr. Hassan Bility and others being held illegally.
This peaceful march was set for Monday, September 16, 2002. As this date drew nearer, the government's propaganda medium, AllaboutLiberia.com, jumped into high gear to discredit the organizers of the march. All attempts were made to tarnish their reputation. They were called supporters of LURD and puppets of Alhaji Kromah, a former warlord and now a likely presidential candidate. Those court jesters were proclaiming that this march would have no relevance or significance but to a handful of Mandingoes and Muslims.
It is no secret now that I consider those scumbags singing the praises of the freckled face an affront to civilized society. I knew their strategy was to continue to wreck havoc on the society, one group at a time and hope that the people would never unite against them. The strategy of "divide and conquer" still works among Liberians, and that I find hugely disheartening and unfortunate.
I am in no position to make decisions for my fellow countrymen and women. But my conscience is mine and I must live with it. So I decided that although Mr. Bility is a Mandingo, and I am not, a Muslim, and I am not, a journalist and I am not, he and I are fellow countrymen. He's a Liberian and so am I. That's enough.
With that in mind, I headed to Washington, DC for the peaceful march. I went and expressed my solidarity with people gathered there to take a stand against tyranny. In the battle of good and evil Mr. Bility represents good, as the regime in Monrovia is a personification of evil. I am convinced of that deeply in my heart.
Also attending the March was Mr. Tiawan Gongloe, a celebrated human rights lawyer who was also a victim of the evil regime not too long ago. Cllr. Gongloe had gone to Guinea where he made a speech interpreted by the government as slanderous. He returned to Liberia only to be severely whipped by those thugs to the extent of damaging his kidneys. He was thrown into a cell with common criminals and the government had the audacity to lie that his cellmates had flogged him. But it never occurred to the government to explain why the celebrated lawyer was in the cell with common criminals in the first place. What a travesty of justice!
Mr. Gongloe, who is presently seeking medical attention, related the story of his ordeal in a very touching way. He urged everyone to bring pressure on the government to release Mr. Bility and others being held because, as he described it, Mr. Taylor's dungeons are a living hell where no one should be allowed to languish too long.
As Mr. Gongloe related his personal ordeal, I definitely experienced goose bumps. Yet this man of powerful intellect is also a man of iron will - simply a man of conviction. He left no stones unturned to make it clear that the struggle is his life and he has no intention of bowing out. He said he is simply committed to speaking against injustice and championing the cause of democracy, liberty and justice for all.
He also told us that the government levied the charge of "unlawful combatant" against Mr. Bility. Well, as it turns out, according to Mr. Gongloe, there is no such charge in the Liberian penal code as "unlawful combatant." The government is using a trumped up charge to hold this man behind bars.
I am glad I stood with fellow Liberians seeking justice and fairness. I declared my solidarity with Hassan Bility and other nameless but innocent prisoners. I am also deeply grateful I had an opportunity to meet and have a conversation with Tiawon Gongloe, the epitome of courage. I was also thrilled to meet Abdoulaye Dukuly, James Harris and Charles Sunwabe, fellow contributors at The Perspective Magazine.