A witness testifying on Thursday in the Finnish war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi in Liberia described harrowing details when he said, ‘Angel Gabriel’ beheaded a man after telling his captives “this plate is about to turn red”.
The witness said that ‘Angel Gabriel’ ordered his soldiers to bring a plate and a stool. They laid the man’s neck on the stool and the plate beneath his head.
“He said, ‘‘Y’all see — I am about to do the same thing I did to the other bodies’,” the witness told a silent courtroom. “I closed my eyes, when I opened my eyes, he had cut the guy’s neck and I only saw him jerking.”
According to the witness, the incident occurred sometime in 2001. He had gone to the Waterside Market in Monrovia in search of food to buy.
Fighting between the forces of LURD and the government of President Charles Taylor had shut down the city and food had become scarce.
The witness and some other sellers met a group of soldiers at a checkpoint in front of the LBDI Bank on Randall Street.
The soldiers asked the group to pay them money in return for bursting open one of the stores so they could take out whatever goods they may find. The sellers paid the money and the soldiers shot at one of the stores until it opened.
The witness told the four-judge panel that he and the others moved in and began to pack goods. Suddenly, the soldiers began to shoot. He and the others ran in all directions. Some people died, he said.
The witness said he and six others were caught, tied and thrown at the back of a pickup truck and were taken under the Waterside bridge where he saw dead bodies all around and some floating over the Mesurado River.
“While we were running they grabbed us and took us to their bosses. They tied us and they were standing on us,” he recalled. “They showed us a plate and said this plate is about to turn red because what can make it red is in you guys.”
The witness told the Finnish Judges that ‘Angel Gabriel’ sent for his captives one after another throughout the day and executed them.
He explained that the soldier who was tasked with keeping guard of them said that “If the boss comes and say ‘Go to God, it means he’s coming to kill you.’”
Mr Massaquoi, a former top commander of the Sierra Leonean ex-rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), is on trial in the European country of Finland where he had been granted asylum, for war crimes and crimes against humanity that he allegedly committed in Liberia.
In an unusual step, the presiding judge decided the court of 12 people would travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear from more than 80 witnesses rather than making the witnesses travel to Finland.
Mr Massaquoi, widely known as Angel Gabriel, who had played a leading role in the rebellion in Sierra Leone, joined the Liberian civil war because of the RUF’s connection to former Liberian President Charles Taylor whose close ally was Foday Sankoh, the founder and leader of the RUF.
The court has ordered journalists to conceal the identities of witnesses and the location of the hearings because of credible fears of retaliation or intimidation.
Mr Massaquoi remained in Finland but is watching the proceedings via videolink. He appears on a monitor in the courtroom that the witnesses can see if they choose to.
Thursday’s witness told the court the captives were later transported to a house in the 12 Houses community in Paynesville where they met other captives. The men were separated from the women. Fortunately for him, one of the soldiers there knew him and helped him to escape.
Thursday’s second witness, a woman, partially corroborated the first witness’ testimony. She had also gone in search of goods to buy when she met people breaking into a store in Waterside Market. She said it was a biscuit store and they were all buying biscuits to sell.
She suddenly saw a pickup truck full of soldiers with guns. The soldiers fired several rounds at the store and several people died inside. Some of those who tried running away were captured, she recalled. She and her “business partner” were captured, too.
“They took us and we were crying. We were afraid,” she told the court. “They took a lot of people. We did not have slippers on. They took us to Waterside under the bridge. They were taking people under the bridge. We were there crying and the soldiers will knock us with the gun butt and ask, ‘Why are you crying?’”
The witness said two things happened under the bridge: When you’re fortunate, they only rape you. When you’re not, they’ll kill you.
“The man who used to do the killing will say, ‘I’m Angel Gabriel, I’m the one who can pass you through to heaven,’” she said.
The witness recalled that an elderly man was mercilessly beaten with the butt of the gun. He was crying, asking for help, she said.
“In our presence, they killed three people. The man who gave the instruction was speaking Sierra Leonean English.”
“‘Angel Gabriel’ got furious when you look at him in the face. He would order your execution or allow his men to rape you.”
The trial continues on Friday (today).
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.
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