May 10, 2007
National Police Headquarters
At just before four p.m., the American revealed the photo lineup. Sulaiman Jusu considered the set of photographs, which were projected on a screen in the conference room: six men, all dark-skinned, frowning, and clad in khaki prison garb.
Let me know if there is anybody in any of the photos that you recognize, the American said.
Jusu understood. He had grown up in an English-speaking country in West Africa: Sierra Leone. Nine years earlier he, his wife, Isaatu, and his three brothers had set off on foot from Kenema, a small city in eastern Sierra Leone, to escape fighting between rebels and government militias that had torn through the nation’s small diamond- producing region. They had drifted from town to town along the frontier—Mano Junction, Sagbema, Daru, Bomaru. As they moved, their options dwindled. Rebels, tribal militias, and foreign fighters had made life a gamble for civilians throughout much of the region. Isaatu was six months pregnant, and they could not remain on the move forever, so Jusu, his wife, and her twin sister crossed into Liberia, choosing to become refugees. Their journey eventually took them to Sweden, but only after a detour that nearly cost Jusu his life.
The American sitting across the table from Jusu was a special agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement named Matthew Baechtle. From the outset, his investigation had been a long shot, a vague directive to look into a civil war halfway across the globe to see whether any U.S. citizens had violated any international sanctions or laws. For years the case had meandered and stagnated, searching for a focus, until suddenly, a year earlier, Baechtle had found a target and a crime. But he needed more evidence. Weeks earlier he had learned of Jusu’s identity (and of his potential as a witness), and he’d flown to Stockholm to see what, if anything, this man knew.
Jusu was tall and slender with a drawn face; at thirty-six, he had five children and had steadily built a new life in Sweden. He’d attended university and settled in Stockholm. For the most part, his horrific experiences had been relegated to memories.
He scanned the photo spread. Did he recognize anyone? None of the faces on the bottom row of the lineup registered. The top row depicted another set of three faces. One stood out: that of a man wear- ing a bushy beard over a moon-shaped face. The man’s dark eyes sat under a furrowed brow. Jusu’s mind held the image of a man, younger and without a beard. He looked at the photograph and his memories returned.
It has been a long time since I’ve seen Chucky, he told Special Agent Baechtle.
Nearly a decade earlier the convoy Jusu was traveling in had stopped at a makeshift checkpoint in Gbalatuah, a village in northeastern Liberia on the St. Paul River.5 The checkpoint was spare, but it blocked the dirt roadway toward Monrovia. The date was April 22, 1999; one day earlier mysterious rebels had attacked Voinjama, a city on Liberia’s border with Guinea, forcing hundreds of refugees, Jusu among them, to flee. It was the first significant challenge to Charles Taylor’s territory since he had taken office as president of Liberia in 1997.
Taylor had emerged as the victor in a seemingly intractable civil war, his power legitimated through an election. Liberia was traditionally the United States’ closest ally in Africa, and Taylor was positioned to emerge as the strongest leader that that nation had ever seen. He simply needed to follow the pattern of his predecessors and abide the interests of the United States in Liberia.
But to American officials, it was unclear whether President Charles Taylor was a “good guy” or “bad guy.” He was unique. Handsome and eloquent, he was a product of both Liberia and the United States. Born in Arthington, a tiny encampment outside the capital, Monrovia, he could trace his bloodlines both to the indigenous people who had populated Liberia long before the nation existed and to the freed American slaves who had resettled there and eventually created West Africa’s first democracy.7 Taylor was an American-educated economist and bureaucrat who had learned the tradecraft of political violence from one of Africa’s most powerful men: Muammar Qaddafi.8 Above all these things, he was a revolutionary intent on seizing power over Liberia.
When news of the attack on Voinjama reached Monrovia, details were scant. It was clearly blowback from Taylor’s long-running proxy war in Sierra Leone, where he had backed the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel faction that had shocked the world by using amputation as a weapon of terror.9 The president ordered his newest paramilitary group—the Anti-Terrorist Unit, known to many as the “Demon Forces”—to join the fight and to retake Voinjama.
Gbalatuah was little more than a stopover for travelers crossing the bridge over the St. Paul River, a barely navigable strand that snakes for 280 miles through the nation before spilling into the Atlantic.10 On one side of the road sat a squat cement building with a red tin roof. Across the road, a veranda stood above the scene on a low overlook. Plain- clothes and uniformed men who had been posted to the checkpoint by the government milled about the roadway: some wore dun desert camouflage, while others were dressed head to toe in black, and still others in green American-style fatigues.
The vehicles carrying Jusu, his wife, Isaatu, her sister, Mariana, and his brother-in-law Albert came to a stop at the checkpoint at Gbalatuah, and immigration officers ordered the civilians down from the truck. Harassment was a fact of life for refugees in this part of the world; officials preyed upon the displaced for bribes or looted valued possessions in exchange for passage.
For the past forty-eight hours, the two couples had tried to stay close to one another, but as they jumped down to the roadway, the security forces separated the men from the women, pushing them to opposite sides of the road. As Mariana watched, the soldiers struck her husband and Jusu with the butts of their rifles, forcing them out of sight. The soldiers ordered the men to produce identification, then demanded they hand over their money and remove their clothes.
Jusu and Albert emptied their pockets and stripped to their under- wear. They took a seat with a group of other men under a mango tree next to the building. The men were afraid to move. They didn’t yet understand why they had been pulled aside. Across the road, the women grew anxious and impatient. Some women bribed the officers for permission to cross the road to speak with their men. Albert sat and waited. Mariana did not appear.
Suddenly the women who had been pleading and arguing with the security officers stopped. Several guards, who’d been resting under the veranda, rushed to the roadway. A truck and two jeeps appeared in the distance. At the front of the convoy was a white Land Cruiser.
A murmur moved through the crowd. The chief was coming.
A convoy of a Land Rover and several jeeps pulled to a stop at the checkpoint. A man appeared from the lead vehicle, a bandanna wrapped around his head, clutching a long silver pistol. He screamed at the officers to remove the women from the roadway.
The security officers began pushing the crowd away. The man holding the pistol was livid that women were milling about the area surrounding the checkpoint. He stalked through the crowd screaming orders. He noticed the group of men sitting by the side of the road near the MP’s office and walked directly toward them. A handful of men in camouflage and red berets, carrying Kalashnikovs, followed him.
Mariana sensed the commotion across the road but could see nothing. She was anxious for Albert’s release and intent on continuing toward Monrovia before nightfall, when much of the countryside would fall into a darkness punctuated only by firelight and the occasional building illuminated by the power of a running generator. The women waited, but no word came from the other side of the road.
The naked men continued to sit silently at the roadside. Most of those who had been separated out were military-age males who hailed from Sierra Leone. The line between a refugee and a combatant was often blurred in West Africa. One could easily become the other simply by taking up a weapon.
The man with the bandanna drew his pistol and approached the group. He told the men that he’d heard that Kamajors, tribal fighters from Sierra Leone, had slipped among the refugees. Kamajors were a militia comprised of traditional hunters from the Mende tribe who fought against the rebel force backed by Charles Taylor. The Kamajors were enemies of Charles Taylor. The man ordered any members of the tribe to stand up and step aside from the group.
None of the men moved. They weren’t sure what to make of the accusation. Whoever had attacked Voinjama had fled almost immediately back across the border to Guinea. It didn’t follow that the rebels would discard their weapons and attempt to mix in with refugees after an attack. But ever since moving back into Liberia, the Sierra Leoneans had grown accustomed to being abused by the Liberian security forces. They knew better than to respond.
The man with the pistol began selecting individuals from the crowd and ordering them to kneel away from the other men. Albert looked up and realized that he had been selected.
The man giving orders approached, holding his pistol at his side. Across the road, Mariana could still not see Albert. As soon as the convoy arrived, the few conversations allowed between the women and captive men had stopped. Mariana’s heart shook in her chest.11 “Oh, why did they take our men away?” she asked her sister. “[What] has happened to them?” She wanted only to catch a glimpse of Albert. Then she heard the gunshots.
As Jusu watched, Albert slumped to the ground. Without a word, he witnessed the man wearing the bandanna fire shots—in quick succession—into the back of each man’s head. This is a demonstration, Jusu told himself. He wants to show us how serious he is.
When the man finished the executions, he still visibly seethed with anger. He turned to his men and ordered that the bodies be taken away. The fighters tied the bodies to the back of a jeep and dragged them out of sight. Jusu tried to steady himself against his terror. He was certain he’d be killed next.
Jusu had seen this man before, just a month or so earlier in Voinjama—though they had never met, as he would tell to a federal court in Miami six months after the meeting in Stockholm.12 He’d endured harassment from Liberian security personnel along the way at any number of the checkpoints he’d passed. He’d even been arrested once. But he’d always been allowed to move on.
Jusu had learned to differentiate among the myriad Liberian security forces by their uniforms. The newest among these units, the Anti- Terrorist Unit (ATU), wore American-style green, brown, and black tiger-stripe camouflage with a patch depicting a cobra and scorpion. The men at the bridge were ATU.
Jusu waited, paralyzed with fear. A short time later the soldiers who had removed Albert’s and the others’ bodies returned. They were holding the men’s severed heads, including Albert’s. They mounted two of the heads on poles at the checkpoint. One head was placed on one of the trucks.
Jusu knew the name of the man with the gun, though he knew little else about him. This was the president’s son, an American known as Chucky Taylor.
Copyright © 2015 by Johnny Dwyer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.