Is Liberia Ready to Forgive Now that the Final TRC Report is Out?

On June 28, 2009, Liberia reached a pivotal point in their post-war recovery when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted their final report to the public [1]. After the long and arduous task for taking victim statements and facilitating public hearings of known perpetrators, the TRC compiled their recommendations.

Surprisingly, this report created much controversy soon after it was publicized. The main concerns were about the TRC’s methodology with their procedures and determinations. Regardless of this public outcry, the commission has cited those who should be held responsible for the atrocities that occurred during the period from January 1979 to October 14, 2003 (TRC Volume II, 2) [2]. It listed 98 Liberians, who are to be prosecuted, including Former President Charles Taylor, for crimes of war and against humanity (TRC Volume II, 332~334); another 50 Liberian elected officials, including President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, are to be sanctioned from serving in any government post for 30 years (TRC Volume II, 271~272); additional 21 individuals and 19 companies including Firestone Corporation are subject to further investigation for committing economic crimes (TRC Volume II, 362~365); and another 54 individuals including the late President Samuel Doe are also recommended for investigation for alleged economic crimes (TRC Volume II, 366~368).

This report comes six years after the 14-year civil war officially ended [3] and at a time when Liberia is attempting to rebuild their devastated nation. So, what is the next step for this nation still healing? Are Liberians ready to forgive those who harmed or killed their loved ones? And if it is forgiveness, then how do the Liberian people put this tragic past behind them? These are important questions, because many Liberian people still harbor the hurt and anger from the unconscionable violence that was committed by the perpetrators of the war.

Today, the Liberian people are trying to heal the wounds of the past while rebuilding hope for the future. This once prosperous nation is now home to nearly 3.5 million people with 68% of them languishing in extreme poverty [4]. Those who were unable to escape the war witnessed friends killing friends, brothers killing brothers, and sisters killing sisters. They not only endured massive loss of life, but also the destruction of the entire infrastructure. As many people try to sift through the rubble in hopes of rebuilding their lives, they look around knowing the Liberia they once loved is forever changed.

Who will guide such despairing people out of their dark mental prisons of hurt and anger, and into the light of inner peace? Well, on June 5, 2009, the TRC/Liberia, TruthReconciled/USA, and Archdiocese of Monrovia/Liberia attempted to light such a pathway with the help of one very special woman. They invited Immaculee Ilibagiza to share her amazing story as a Rwandan Genocide Survivor and the spiritual journey she embarked upon in discovering peace and forgiveness for those who caused her deep sorrow. As a person who experienced the brutality of war, she was an ideal role model of forgiveness as she shared her story to the Liberian people. Regrettably, less than one-fourth of the Centennial Pavilion’s Great Hall in Monrovia was filled that day. Nevertheless, those of us in the mostly-female audience were completely captivated by the story presented by this tall, slender, beautiful woman in a royal blue African gown.

In fact, she is enlightening millions of people around the world with her story of surviving a particularly brutal episode in Rwandan history. One tribe [Tutsi] was the victim of ethnic cleansing by another tribe [Hutu], while the international community did nothing to intervene [5]. Her story touches the hearts of audiences everywhere by showing them how to break free of their pain and anger through the releasing power of forgiveness. Through this unfathomable ordeal, she reaffirmed her faith in God and freed herself of the deep-held anger and sorrow towards the perpetrators by forgiving them. It makes a listener re-examine one’s own hurt and resentment, after hearing her incredible story.

Immaculee’s Story

Here is a summary of Immaculee’s story as she shared it at the Centennial Pavilion in Liberia. It starts when she came home from college for Easter Break in 1994 to be with her family. She recounted how her family had an amazing time together over the holiday weekend not knowing that this would be their last. It was only three days after the Easter holiday that the tragic events started to occur and her life would forever change.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprian Ntyamira–both Hutus–was shot down near Kilagi, Rwanda’s capital. No one survived the crash. The two presidents had just signed a peace agreement to end the ethnic violence in both Rwanda and Burundi,and to also grant equal rights to the Tutsis [6]. Immediately, after the news got out that the President was dead, the radio stations commenced with a massive wave of propaganda inciting Hutus to kill Tutsis and this continued to be aired throughout this murderous aggression. As mothers, fathers and children were being slaughtered by blood thirsty rebels; the genocidal propaganda was intensified to dehumanize the Tutsis even more by referring to them as cockroaches that needed to be exterminated.

Shortly after this homicidal catastrophe started, Immaculee’s father quickly arranged for his daughter’s safety by hiding her at the home of a family friend [and pastor] who happened to be a Hutu. Her hiding place for the next three months was a tiny (3’ x 4’) bathroom attached to a bedroom that she shared with six other women and one girl. In a matter of days of being confined to this cramped space, the rebel leaders announced on the radio that their forces should start searching every Hutu home in case any sympathizers were hiding Tutsis, because many had inter-tribal marriages and friendships.

This massive search and kill mission was something that Immaculee and other Tutsis in hiding had to experience regularly. About three hundred rebels surrounded the house started to yell Immaculee and the names of the other women hiding with her. She recognized some of the voices of the individuals calling her name as people who were once friendly with her, but now they seek to destroy her. The rebels entered the house and immediately searched every room from top to bottom. They checked the attic, then under each bed and even in suitcases for babies or small children. When the rebels entered the bedroom, the women could hear their movements through the thin walls of the bathroom. They immediately stood motionless as they held their breaths in sheer terror that any sound would get them captured and killed.

Miraculously, the rebels never opened the bathroom door each time they searched the house. Immaculee believes it was a force of God, because she prayed earnestly that they would not find the doorknob. In fact, she remembers hearing one time the rebels saying “there is no need to check this bathroom because we searched the entire house and found nothing, so why would this man hide anyone in such a small place.”

Each time the rebels came to search, Immaculee was instantly burdened by two opposing inner voices. One voice said something like “give up and open the door, because you are going to die anyway.” The second voice said something like “have faith, trust in God for you are going to live.” There were times she was ready to give up, because she felt there was no hope as countless people were being viciously killed each day. As she continued to debate on which voice to listen to, she found comfort in reading the Bible that she asked the pastor for. She also recited the many prayers that she had learned from her Catholic upbringing. In time, she finally chose the second voice, because she found it to be much gentler and kinder than the first one.

As each day, and week and month passed by, Immaculee and the other women barely received anything to eat except some occasional leftovers from the pastor’s children. They never dared to leave the bathroom in fear of being captured since Hutu rebel forces were still canvassing the area. Their cramp hiding space also caused them to be sleep deprived. One would think madness would set in after being forced to remain in solidarity confinement for three months with little food and virtually no sleep, but for Immaculee she used this time for spiritual growth by reaffirming her faith in God.

During this spiritual journey, she wanted to let go of the anger quelling up inside of her. This was a challenge since she knew full well that loved ones were being killed by the brutal atrocities being committed throughout her country. To help her deal with this justifiable anger, she continued reading the Bible and praying to God for guidance. As she struggled to release her anger by trying to find the key in the scriptures, she suddenly had a revelation when she remembered what Jesus said before he died on the cross “Father, please forgive them for they know not what they do.” As she repeated these words in her mind, she soon realized that the Hutu rebels also “know not what they do.” These were educated and uneducated people who were repeatedly told to hate the Tutsis, fear the Tutsis, and kill the Tutsis. These were people that were once friends, classmates and neighbors of the people they were viciously slaughtering. Upon making this connection, she felt at peace and was ready let go the anger and seek forgiveness.

When this genocidal war finally ended, she emerged from the bathroom grossly underweight wearing only the clothes on her back. She was given the heart wrenching news that confirmed her parents, grandparents, two brothers and many others that she had loved and known were all killed. Reeling from the tragic loss of so many loved ones and to endure three months of a living hell, she emerged to face a new life with many uncertainties. Since she had no family or support or place to go, Immaculee now needed to find a job and place to live.

As she began this quest for her new life, her faith was tested again when a woman—a double amputee—in wheelchair recognized Immaculee and explained how her mother had once helped her as child with her school fees. She proceeded to invite Immaculee to come live with her, because she had a home and the means to support her. However, Immaculee was reluctan to accept the woman’s offer, because as she sized her up she thought “how could this woman in wheelchair support me?” The woman did not give up, and finally Immaculee accepted her offer with the condition that her eight friends, who she recently reunited with, needed to be included. The woman agreed whole-heartily to Immaculee’s condition. When the nine friends arrived to the woman’s house, they were surprised to see that this woman was more than able to support them. Therefore, the lesson Immaculee learned from this test was to “always respect people, because you don’t know who God will send you.”

Immaculee was also able to secure a job with the UN through the help of man working there. As she was getting her life back, some of the perpetrators had been prosecuted and sentenced to prison for their part in the genocidal massacre that killed nearly one million people in a 100 days [7]. Sometime later, she summoned up the courage to find the killers of her family. She shared a story when she visited one of the murderers at prison. When Immaculee met the man who she had known before the war, she looked at him and said I forgive you”. The man was not expecting her to say this, so he immediately turned his head away in shame knowing what he did to her family. Meanwhile the prison guard, who happened to be a Tutsi, heard what she said and immediately displayed his disgust in what she just said.

A few years later, Immaculee was informed while at work that the prison guard wanted to see her. She was completely taken aback by his unexpected visit, so when she approached him, she immediately apologized for offending him that day at the prison. He responded by saying “there is no need to apologize because you actually saved my life that day.” He shared with her how the Hutu’s had killed his wife and children causing him to be overcome with intense rage. He explained how he would beat on the Hutu prisoners which gave him some relief but the following day the raging anger returned and he would repeat the same vicious cycle. It was from observing how calm and peaceful Immaculee was that fateful day, is how he was able to let go of his anger and start a new life by getting remarried and having children. He thanked her for what she did, because it gave him his life back.

Helping Liberia Forgive

When she finished telling her story to the audience, she closed by inviting the New Destiny Children’s Choir to accompany her in singing “We Are the World.” What an appropriate song to end such an incredible story. As the program ended and we went our separate ways, I know her story left all of us wondering about our pain and anger that we have not been able to let go. Immaculee shared how she has been telling her story worldwide and how many people have thanked her, because it helped them to overcome their suffering and learn to forgive a friend or loved one.

Immaculee has written three books about her life and experiences, and the process of forgiveness. Her first book is an autobiography called “Left to Tell”, and it gives the complete accounting of her incredible spiritual journey during this vicious massacre in her beloved country. Based on hearing her story, I would recommend this book for anyone struggling with forgiving others or self.

Immaculee’s presence and commitment is an important key in guiding the Liberian people through the healing process of forgiveness. She came to Liberia not only to share her story but also to help with this next phase of the TRC. Her experience has helped illustrate what forgiveness is all about, and the importance it has on our peace of mind. In an effort to help Liberia understand forgiveness she was quoted saying the following in a TRC press release [8]: There can be justice after forgiveness. But when we forgive others we ensure that there is love and reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that victims have condoned the wrong. Tears don’t come from a place of confusion; tears don’t come from a place of hate. Forgiveness is a personal decision.

Now that Immaculee has committed her time and expertise, the question still stands “is Liberia ready for forgiveness?” The answer is still not clear, because for the Liberians that I have queried after sharing her story, most have said no. When asked why, some said “not before justice” while others said “not with the rampant problem of Liberians being envious and jealous of each other.” The latter has been exacerbated by poverty and war causing the majority of Liberians living at or below poverty level to compete for limited opportunities. However, for those few who said yes, they believe this can only happen if Liberia can move forward without the imposed prosecutions and sanctions, because there are too many questions and concerns with the TRC process.

This issue of forgiveness is something that most people, if not all, struggle with. Often it is said without sincerity of the heart and this can be a deterrent. When I asked a pastor how do you know if you are ready to forgive, he commented that when you find peace in your heart, and the hurt and pain are no longer present then forgiveness can follow.

As Liberians and everyone else grapples with forgiveness, this post will conclude with some quotes from famous writers and spiritual leaders that can be used to reflect and meditate on letting go…

Forgiveness Quotes

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” ~ Luke 23:34

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Forgiveness does not mean that we suppress anger; forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all of our hearts. Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. Attack thoughts towards others are attack thoughts towards ourselves. The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive. ~ Marianne Williamson

Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude. ~ Martin Luther King

In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously…drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens our entire existence. ~ Bishop Desmond Tutu

Forgiveness is the economy of the heart…forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred and the waste of spirits. ~ Hannah More

Forgiveness if the fruit of understanding. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

He who forgiveth, and is reconciled unto his enemy, shall receive his reward from God; for he loveth not the unjust doers. ~ Koran Sura

One of the secrets of a long and fruitful life is to forgive everybody everything every night before you go to bed. ~ Ann Landers

Notes:
[1] To get a full copy of the final report go to https://www.trcofliberia.org/reports/final
[2] “Volume II: Consolidated Final Report.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Liberia” Final Report (Unedited).
[3] In 2003 the UN peacekeepers came in and disarmed all the combatants thus ending the 14-year civil war.
[4] “68% Liberian live in poverty – census reveals.” 12 May 2009. Julius Kanubah/Star Radio. Go to www.liberiawebs.com (follow path: home > news > politics > [article title]).
[5] Two award winning movies to watch about the Rwandan Genocide are “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sometime in April”
[6] “1994: Rwanda presidents’ plane ‘shot down’”. BBC News. On This Day: 06 April. Go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/
[7] “Rwanda: How the genocide happened.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1288230.stm
[8] “Verdier: Justice is a Natural Course that Should Not Be Comprommised…Rwandese Peace Advocate Immaculee to Assist Liberians…Brings Message of Forgiveness.” 06 June 2009. Truth and Reconciliation Commission Liberia. Go to www

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