WORLD

The danger of defying voodoo

Testifying against a Liberian despot is a peril, even in Canada

MICHAEL PETROU August 6 2007
WORLD

The danger of defying voodoo

Testifying against a Liberian despot is a peril, even in Canada

MICHAEL PETROU August 6 2007

The danger of defying voodoo

WORLD

Testifying against a Liberian despot is a peril, even in Canada

MICHAEL PETROU

Shortly before beginning his 1997 campaign for the presidency of Liberia, Charles Taylor, a former warlord widely held responsible for funding and controlling an army of drug-addled children in neighbouring Sierra Leone, made a special trip to Burkina Faso to visit a voodoo priest. There, according to Cindor Reeves, Taylor’s former brother-in-law who accompanied him on the trip, the priest slaughtered a cow, cooked the liver, the heart and other organs, and gave them to Taylor to eat as part of a ritual to ensure his success in the election. “The voodoo he made was that anyone who heard the sound of Taylor’s voice would follow him, like flies follow shit,” Reeves said. “I don’t really believe this stuff, but I saw a lot of people under his spell—even people who were violated by Taylor’s soldiers. They would flock to watch him pass.”

Prior to the election, Taylor had led a militia called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia that had taken control of most of Liberia during six years of civil war. The election was the result of a peace accord that ended the fighting. Although Taylor won in an overwhelming landslide, his fortunes have since changed. He is now facing trial at the UNbacked Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his alleged backing of rebel groups during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

Cindor Reeves’s life has changed as well. He was once one of Taylor’s most trusted insiders, but in 2001 he broke with Taylor. He has been on the run ever since, dodging assassins, first in West Africa, then in Europe. By 2002 he was in contact with the Special Court and promised to testify against Taylor. But fearing for his life, Reeves flew his family to Canada. He presents a dilemma for Ottawa. On the one hand, his testimony may prove crucial to convicting Taylor-a big fish among suspected war criminals. On the other, Reeves, who has applied for refugee status, is himself tainted by his past association with Taylor. A Jan. 26 letter to his lawyer from an officer in the war crimes and public security unit of the Canada Border Services Agency notes Reeves “may have aided and abetted in the commission of... war crimes.”

But Reeves’s problems are more acute than the possibility of being denied refugee status, or even of facing trial himself one day. After arriving in Canada, he kept a low profile. Liberians he met here knew nothing about his past. This changed last month when Reeves ended a long silence and told his story to Maclean’s. Now, virtually wherever he goes where other Liberians are present, friends

and acquaintances warn him that his life is in danger if he insists on testifying. Reeves says he has met or seen some 15 former commanders or fighters from Taylor’s NPFL since arriving in Canada. Many Liberians in Canada, even if not previously involved in the NPFL, are Taylor supporters and are furious with Reeves because of his plans to testify.

Some have pending refugee claims, Reeves says, and would not risk their legal status by harming or even directly threatening him. But the warnings are frequent and, Reeves believes, credible. One came from an old friend who is still closely linked to Taylor’s inner circle, but wants to protect Reeves. Reeves played a phone message for Maclean’s from another Liberian in Canada who told him not to testify because no one will believe him. Reeves has also received a few messages of support from Liberians in Canada, but these do little to reassure him. “I’m so afraid,” he said. “If I’m alone, it would be one thing. But now all I can think of are my wife and kids.”

It is difficult to understand why so many Liberian Canadians apparently support a man believed to be responsible for some of the most heinous crimes conceivable against civilians, women and children. During Liberia’s civil wars, its citizens so craved an end to outright warfare that many were willing to throw their support behind any strongman who seemed capable of ending the chaos. But this doesn’t explain Taylor’s support among Liberians in Canada, especially when Liberia itself is now a peaceful democracy under the presidency of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Reeves suggested that a disproportionate number of Taylor supporters have come to Canada, but he also admits that Taylor was widely loved. “He had a certain charisma over the people. It’s hard to explain,” Reeves said. Then he recalled the trip that he and Taylor took to Burkina Faso and the ceremony conducted there by the voodoo priest. “Maybe it worked,” he said. M