On a remote, palm-lined beach along West Africa's coast, inside a
breeze-filled bungalow, an earnest cabal of nine men and women is
plotting to overthrow the old order in their war-weary homeland.
With laptops blazing, and a bed sheet strung up for viewing
PowerPoint presentations, they debate such issues as how to help
victims of war testify in public - and whether to subpoena warlords-
turned-members of parliament.
Meet the members of Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation
Commission (TRC). Theirs is the latest of the 30-plus truth
commissions held around the world since 1974, including South
Africa's, which famously charted a healing path for its
The group includes a bishop who unconditionally forgave the men
who killed his father, a former journalist who gave up the good life
in America to help her homeland, and a young, untested chairman
who'll be the ultimate arbiter as the TRC tackles a looming dilemma:
Should wrongdoers - in this case warlords and fighters who carried
out horrific wartime atrocities - be punished or forgiven or
something in between? In short, what's the best path to healing:
justice or mercy?
In a fragile nation emerging from 14 years of civil war, the TRC
members know that too much rough-edged "justice" risks igniting
backlashes and fresh violence. Yet too much well-meaning "mercy" may
leave grievances unaddressed, setting the stage for future conflict.
Clearly, much is at stake, not least because Liberia is so
connected with its war-prone West African neighborhood. Another
Liberian war could reignite regional instability. Nor are there
obvious institutions - besides the TRC - to help build a durable
peace. As Priscilla Hayner of the New-York-based International
Center for Transitional Justice says of the TRC: "This is sort of
At this early stage in the TRC's existence, there isn't yet
unanimity of vision among its members. The Monitor profiles three
key commissioners and explores their varying views of the best
justice-mercy recipe for healing their nation.
* * *
A short, spry septuagenarian, Arthur Kulah didn't wait for the
men who killed his father to apologize. He forgave them first. He
did the same for their rebel commander - now a member of parliament -
whose orders the men were following when they murdered Bishop
Kulah's dad during the 1990-2003 war.
Kulah was a prominent leader, the head of Liberia's Methodist
church. But that didn't save him or his family. His father and two
brothers were killed. His elderly mother collapsed after fleeing
fighting. His house was torched, and he was threatened with death.
Yet after the conflict, Kulah sought out and forgave those
involved. It's what he calls "unconditional forgiveness" - not
waiting for apologies before forgiving. And as the TRC wrestles with
how to deal with killers, Kulah is one of the strongest voices for
One benefit of his approach, he says, is that it often prompts
wrongdoers to confess and apologize: "When I take the initiative,
people come and say they're sorry." In the case of his father's
killers, the commander-turned-politician responded by taking
responsibility for his deeds, apologizing, and explaining details
about the incident and the war. Kulah says they're now on good
"What if I hadn't forgiven him?" Kulah asks. "Each time I would
see him, I would try to get even." Also, he says, "If you don't
forgive, it's a burden you will carry through your whole life."
Instead, "If you're able to get rid of that emotional hurt" -
through forgiveness - "you can heal yourself."
These are high-minded words in a country where soldiers routinely
decorated roadblocks with human intestines or made bets on the sex
of an unborn child before killing its mother. In all, some 150,000
of Liberia's 3 million people perished in a war sparked by the
warlord and eventual president, Charles Taylor. …