Bringing the painful truth to light
Graduate student Massa Washington, a native
of Liberia, is part of a panel hoping to right the wrongs in her country’s brutal recent past
On Christmas Eve 1990, Massa Washington and a friend stood in their native Liberia peering across its border with the Ivory Coast.
They were filthy and hungry.
Washington wore brown sport shoes, a yellow shirt, black pants and a red sweater — the last item a provision from her father back in Monrovia.
Corpses littered the ground. Drunken rebels leered at them and flashed automatic weapons and knives coated with fresh blood.
Two skulls hung from sticks on either side of a makeshift gate. Cars blocked the opening, slowing the exodus of Liberian refugees to an agonizing trickle.
When the two finally walked through the checkpoint and into the safety of the Ivory Coast, Washington’s friend turned to her and vowed to never return home.
Washington looked back at Liberia, the West African country where she’d lived from birth, and anger at the feuding rebel armies who had eviscerated her homeland welled inside her.
Silently, she made the same promise to herself.
Washington’s unspoken vow turned out to be short-lived, however.
“I initially returned two years later for two reasons: my father and to get my degree,” said Washington, a master’s in social work student majoring in social management and planning in the School of Social Administration, of her sporadic trips home as civil war raged unabated throughout the 1990s.
Now she has a third motive to return: to heal the wounds from the most savage chapter in Liberian history.
A longtime advocate for displaced Liberians, Washington will return on March 28 to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, a nine-person panel that will investigate and redress human rights atrocities committed under the brutal 14-year regime of warlord and former President Charles Taylor, whose exile to Nigeria in 2003 paved the way for free elections last fall.
Affirmed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female elected president in African history, Washington is the commission’s “folk soldier,” nominated to the post by her fellow citizens familiar with her human rights and community activism.
Those who know of Washington’s work said her appointment came as no surprise.
“Massa has a brilliant mind, a tremendous amount of integrity and compassion, and she is hard-working,” said Emeka Nwadiora, an associate professor of social administration at Temple who twice had Washington in class. “It’s rare that you can find all of those qualities in one individual. On top of that, through all these years, all of her struggles, Massa has retained her commitment to her homeland.”
Though the TRC has the authority to investigate abuses that predate Taylor’s reign, much of its work will center on his oppressive rule. He plunged the country into chaos with an armed uprising in December 1989, spawning a protracted civil war that killed an estimated 250,000 Liberians and was characterized by sexual assault and the conscription of children into his “Small Boy Units.”
“Horrible things have happened in my country for the last 15 years — massacres, children dying from starvation, the systematic rape of young girls and women, and so forth,” Washington said. “There’s been a culture of impunity where people’s rights are violated time and again. It’s a way of life that must have no place in the new Liberia. We now have a president who believes in human rights and the rule of law; therefore, the opportunity exists to change all of that and restore people’s dignity.”
Liberia is on the road to recovery, but day-to-day life remains perilous. It’s been without electricity since 1990. Some politicians remain loyal to or are paid off by Taylor and his apologists. After 14 years of ethnic fighting, old tensions simmer just under the surface.
Because of these threats, the TRC will go about its business under armed United Nations guard.
“There will be people who won’t like what we’ll be doing, so we’ll have security,” said Washington, who has already been to New York City for a briefing with the International Center for Transitional Justice, an agency that assists truth commissions worldwide. “But life itself is risky. What will be will be. I’m going in with a clear conscience to do right and remembering that there have been no winners in this war because even some alleged perpetrators were themselves victims. Hopefully I don’t step on any toes, but I ultimately want to see closure for all of Liberia.”
By the time war descended on her home city of Monrovia in 1990, Washington was a senior journalism major at the University of Liberia one course shy of her degree. She and her family separated, knowing that they’d be an easy target for rebel armies who would wrangle whole families into pickup trucks to later be slaughtered.
“We went to bed one night and woke up to the sound of guns and our neighborhood in chaos — shooting, rockets being launched and homes on fire,” she said. “People were running everywhere, and the bodies of three of our neighbors lay in front of their homes. I didn’t know where all of my immediate family was then.”
For more than a decade, Liberians suffered through a steady stream of fighting interspersed with bouts of peace. There were a few tantalizing glimmers of hope, but mainly despair.
Washington tried three times to return and enroll in her final course, but each time renewed fighting shuttered the university and derailed her academic progress. Finally, in 1996, 10 years after she started college, Washington took her last journalism course.
Moses Sandy, a classmate of hers at the University of Liberia as well as at Temple, said Washington’s arduous path to her degree was an early sign of an inner resolve that will serve her well on the TRC.
“I am very proud of Massa,” he said. “As a single and struggling female student faced with various socioeconomic challenges in male-dominated Liberian society, she was resilient in seeking higher education. Despite the many odds, Massa proved to be an outstanding student.
Few people could put up such courage.”
At her commencement in 1997, Washington let loose during a radio interview with a fellow reporter, even though she did so at the peril of being imprisoned or killed for opposing the government.
“I finally became angry about the whole situation because the armies wasted our time with their fighting,” she recalled. “But I was determined to get my degree. It was the one thing I was in control of, and I wasn’t going to let anyone deny me that. I had worked so hard.”
It wasn’t long until she was forced to flee again, this time by boat to nearby Ghana, where she first heard of Temple University while staying at a refugee camp.
“I got an e-mail from a friend with a temple.edu address,” she said. “He told me that Temple was one of the best schools on the East Coast.”
Washington eventually gained asylum and started living in Philadelphia in 1999. Before long, she became known in the city for her work in support of immigrant populations, whether it was teaching them English, soliciting donations for needy refugees or helping them with their immigration petition process.
“I easily identify with the disadvantaged,” said Washington, who also works full time as a program director with the WES Corp., a human services agency in the city that assists special-needs clients. “I want to see equal opportunities for all.”
Her experience living in a war zone helped her relate to refugees regardless of their country of origin. As a volunteer with the Nationalities Services Center in the city, she helped Eastern European refugees during the Kosovo War. More recently, as a member of Philadelphia’s Hurricane Katrina response team, she connected with evacuees who settled at the Wanamaker school last fall.
“As people forced from their homes, we all share the same roots,” Washington said.
Washington’s community work led her to Temple, where she has excelled in the classroom as an A student and has been an asset to classmates who can draw on her experiences.
“Having fled my country, and what I’ve experienced, it was only natural that I would choose social work,” she said. “As a community advocate, I view my studies at Temple as having been necessary to further prepare me to empower my community.”
Once again, Washington is interrupting her studies, only this time the choice is hers. Her tenure with the TRC is expected to last more than two years, but she plans to return to Philadelphia and finish her social work degree when the committee disbands.
Initially, Washington was uncertain about joining the panel when she learned she had become a finalist from the hundreds of Liberians nominated.
“I was busy with school and didn’t want to break off classes,” she said. “I wasn’t sure this time around Liberians were ready for peace. I did not want to be in the spotlight, either. I’d rather work quietly.”
At the behest of her family and friends — and especially her father in Monrovia — she started to reconsider.
“There are people in Liberia who have never experienced freedom,” she said. “I did when I fled for the United States. Thousands stayed behind and took all the abuse. They had no choice. Today they are still there and for once are hopeful.
“This is an opportunity for me to help those Liberians turn their dreams into reality. Liberia is my home, and I feel it is my civic duty to assist in her reconstruction.”
It may have been an e-mail from her younger brother, who is studying for a master’s degree in information science in China, that ultimately inspired her to return.
“When we spoke about the TRC, he knew that I was hesitating, so he wrote me a message: ‘Now that one Iron Lady [Johnson-Sirleaf’s nickname] is president, Liberia needs all her iron ladies to go back and help,’” she recalled.
By accepting the invitation to serve, Washington has now promised to rehabilitate her broken country. That’s a vow she hopes to never have to break.
- By Ted Boscia
Professor: Tall order for Liberian truth panel
|Emeka Nwadiora, an associate professor of social administration at Temple and an expert in African politics, hopes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia does not follow in the footsteps of an earlier South African commission that was meant to atone for the abuses of apartheid.
“In my opinion, what they did was hogwash,” Nwadiora said. “They didn’t get at the root causes of disparity in South Africa. It didn’t change the situation at all. The unemployment rate for blacks is still 60 percent.”
In order for the Liberian commission to be effective, Nwadiora said, it must be an accounting of the entire arc of Liberian history and not just an examination of abuses under ousted warlord Charles Taylor.
“Liberia’s commission will only succeed to the extent that it is honest and transparent and there are efforts to recognize the history and sensibilities of native Liberians, who for many years suffered at the hands of Americo-Liberians,” said Nwadiora, who hosts the “Pan Africa Show,” a weekly, live call-in radio program on Philadelphia’s WURD-AM.
As the chair of the TRC’s public relations committee, Temple student Massa Washington is charged with sustaining the panel’s legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of hopeful Liberians. She, too, wants the TRC to examine not only current abuses, but offer remedies for those who’ve long been mistreated.
“The TRC is about much more than taking punitive measures for human rights abuses,” Washington said. “We must also consider reparations and social services structures to help rehabilitate those who might have been forced into armies or suffered past injustices.”
Regardless of the panel’s thrust, Washington and her professor agree that it must produce actionable recommendations.
“A lot of times with these types of commissions,” Washington said, “they investigate and produce a beautiful report that sits on the shelf and collects dust. Whatever the outcomes of our investigations, we must continue to work toward peace and reconcile Liberia and give people an opportunity to maintain a dialogue. Securing human rights is a process — it’s not something that’s over and done with.”
- By Ted Boscia