MONROVIA, Liberia – Liberia's truth commission began taking public testimony Tuesday, hearing from a man who said his father was killed in a political vendetta and another who said he joined rebels as a child and helped them terrorize the West African country.
The commission, modeled after a similar body that South Africa used to address its legacy of apartheid, aims to set Liberians on the road to reconciliation by allowing a full accounting of atrocities since 1979 that left few of the country's 3 million people unscathed.
Commission Chairman Jerome Verdier has said the body will make recommendations to the government on who should be granted reparations, receive amnesty or face prosecution.
In one of the first public declarations of responsibility, one former rebel fighter explained why he killed seven people in villages near the border with Sierra Leone — echoing the senselessness that typified Liberia's violence,
"I was a target commander at the time and we killed because as we were advancing, the people we saw, we took them to be our enemies," said Mohammed Sheriff, 28, who said he had been taken as a child from a refugee camp to fight.
Four of the nine commissioners were present Tuesday in the capital, Monrovia, with the others taking first statements elsewhere in Liberia. About 50 people were on hand in Monrovia, mosly journalists and aid and development workers.
The commission has deployed about 200 people across Liberia to collect statements from victims and perpetrators ahead of their public appearances. The commission, which formally started work in June, has a two-year mandate.
Some 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers are providing security in Liberia under a 2003 peace deal that ended fighting and arranged the transitional administration succeeded by the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected last year and inaugurated in January.
Some 250,000 Liberians are believed to have been killed in strife after 1979, when the country tipped into crisis when security forces killed dozens of people during massive riots.
The following year, President William Tolbert was ousted in a coup by an illiterate master sergeant, Samuel Doe, who ordered Cabinet members tied to poles on a beach and executed. Sirleaf, who was finance minister at the time, was jailed but escaped death.
The 1980 coup marked the start of nearly 25 years of instability from which the country — founded by freed American slaves in 1847 — is still struggling to recover.
Rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded in 1989, plunging the country into civil war. The former warlord won elections that handed him the presidency in 1997. Rebels took up arms against him three years later, and Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003.
In his testimony Tuesday, Michael Biddle, 39, said his father was killed because of ties to Doe, allegedly by Taylor's rebel forces.
Taylor is awaiting trial at The Hague for his role in war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone during that country's brutal 10-year civil war. He has pleaded innocent to allegations that he oversaw the murder, rape and mutilation of thousands.
Taylor, who has also been linked to violence in his homeland and elsewhere in West Africa, has not been charged in Liberia.