Grim tales of cannibalism highlighting the brutality of West Africa's civil wars emerged in testimony Thursday at the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, who described himself as Taylor's chief of operations and head of the death squad before Taylor became president, said African peacekeepers and even United Nations personnel were killed and eaten on the battlefield by Taylor's militiamen.
Prosecutors described Marzah as a key witness with inside knowledge of the former Liberian president's operations in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, where he is accused of responsibility for the widespread murder, rape and amputations committed by soldiers loyal to him.
Taylor, 59, has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is accused of orchestrating violence in Sierra Leone's civil war, which ended in 2002, and trading in illegally mined diamonds to finance the conflict.
The trial by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in The Hague, Netherlands, began last June but adjourned after one day when Taylor fired his lawyer. It reconvened in January, but many prosecution witnesses have testified behind closed doors for fear of retribution.
Marzah appeared in open court after lengthy negotiations involving protection for him and his family.
Prodded under cross-examination by defense lawyer Courtenay Griffith, Marzah gave a sometimes-graphic description of cannibalism that altered between the ritual taking of vengeance and the practical need for food.
He repeatedly said nothing was done without Taylor's instructions, and that anyone who violated Taylor's orders would be executed.
"Did Charles Taylor order you to eat people?" Griffith asked.
"Yes, to set an example for the people to be afraid," Marzah replied.
He appeared unfazed by Griffith's blunt queries, and responded in matter-of-fact tones to such questions as "How do you prepare a human being for the pot?"
Marzah then described the splitting, cleaning, decapitating and cooking of the corpse with salt and pepper. "We throw your head away," he said.
He said the victims were usually from the ethnic Krahn, the tribe of former Liberian President Samuel Doe whom Taylor set out to topple in 1989. But they also included peacekeepers from the Nigerian-led ECOMOG, the African peacekeeping force sent to the area in 1990, and some U.N. people, he said.
"How many ECOMOG soldiers did you eat?" the attorney asked.
"We ate a few but not many. But many were executed, about 68," the witness said, and several U.N. personnel also were captured. The time and location of the incident were unclear.
"Which ones taste best?" Griffith asked.
"There was no alternative but to do it your own way," Marzah replied.
Enemies, he was told, "are no longer human beings."
Taylor, then head of the National Patriotic Liberian Front, said in interviews at the time that he considered ECOMOG to be just another warring faction in the multisided civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Later, ECOMOG helped stabilize the region, allowing elections in Liberia in 1997 that Taylor won.