Twenty-nine year-old Williametta Saydee told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the day in 1990 when a band of young men came to her aunt's home in a rural area of Liberia. Saydee, who is among the first Liberians in Minnesota to put her story on the record, was about 12 years old at the time.
She was outside brushing her teeth because there was no longer any running water in her part of the country as a result of the civil war. She says she wasn't paying much attention to the young men who called themselves "freedom-fighters" -- until they shot and killed another man in cold blood.
Bodies just littered the street.Williamette Saydee
Saydee and her aunt fled with eight cousins to the home of another family member. They passed through checkpoints on the hours-long walk and saw gruesome signs of the civil war.
"Between checkpoints, you'd see bodies littering the road. Bodies just littered the street. At that time, it was the first time I'd seen bodies in all stages of decomposition. Just killed, swollen up, (a) black person turning white and then dried up, down to the skeletal level. It was just a sad, sad time," she said.
Saydee's smile fades and she chokes up as she recalls the troubled time. But she says she found a silver lining in the telling of her story.
"Just talking about what had happened to me with people helped because afterwards, I felt sort of relieved. It was like I had a huge burden on my shoulder that I wasn't truly aware of and it had been lifted up," she said.
Saydee, who says her story is nothing compared to what others experienced, is encouraging all Liberians to tell their stories so they too, can feel a similar sense of relief.
During 16 years of civil war in Liberia, thousands of people were killed, tortured, imprisoned and raped. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is investigating human rights abuses stemming from the fighting so that those responsible can be held accountable. In a first-of-its kind effort, the commission is taking testimony from Liberians, not just in the small west African country, but from those around the world. Census figures estimate about 7,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, although Liberians here say the community is much larger.
Thirty-two-year-old Yende Anderson told her family's story. She talked about what happened after her grandfather, former Liberian President William Tolbert, Jr., was assassinated in 1980. Anderson says her father, who had worked for her grandfather, was arrested, imprisoned and tortured.
"He went through a lot of suffering from the beatings. They were beaten with the rods from inside tires. He was stripped in public, made to eat human feces twice. If he didn't eat it they were going to shoot him. He dug his grave on several occasions, but they never killed him," she said.
Eventually her family was reunited and they moved to the United States in 1985. Anderson says lifting personal burdens is important, but there's even more to be gained.
"For this to work, I think you can help people heal, but more importantly, it can lay a foundation of what went wrong and how we can prevent it," she said.
The statements are being taken by dozens of volunteers in the Twin Cities, many of them lawyers who are donating their time. One of them, Dulce Foster with the law firm Fredrikson and Byron, says she's heard about some awful experiences, but she's been impressed with the Liberians she's met.
"I haven't sat down with any Liberian who hasn't had something absolutely horrific to tell me. And yet to be able to put aside the bitterness and anger that might come from that and the emotional damage that might come from that and say, 'we want to put down our arms,' that's a courageous thing," she said.
The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission will collect statements through the end of the year. So far, about 200 Liberians in Minnesota have either told their story or registered to do so. The commission will begin taking statements in other parts of the United States in June.