'Beyond Impunity’ – a moving documentary on dealing with trauma of civil war in Liberia

FLOMO theatre group performing in a village in Liberia as part of a project aimed at informing local communities about efforts to bring criminals from the civil war to justice. (Credit: Nathaly Leduc/Civitas Maxima)

Justice is essential for a society marked by civil war, a new documentary produced by Nicolás Braguinsky Cascini and the organisations Civitas Maxima and Global Justice and Research Project, aims to show. ‘Beyond Impunity’ deals with war trauma in Liberia and the need for criminal prosecution.

Between 1989 and 2003, two civil wars devastated the West African country of Liberia. During those wars, 200,000 people were killed and over 1.2 million displaced. Around 21,000 minors were recruited as child soldiers and countless people, especially women, were sexually abused.

The war has left deep scars among the civilian population. Not only does the trauma and loss of beloved ones remain, but many of the former rebel leaders still occupy high positions in the Liberian state administration.

The documentary Beyond Impunity, shown at the FIFDH Film Festival last week, depicts an outreach project carried out by two NGOs, the Geneva-based Civitas Maxima and the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), created to help war-affected communities come to terms with their trauma through dialogue.

In 2019, the two organisations teamed up with FLOMO, a Liberian theatre group, to inform local communities about the trial of “Jungle Jabbah”, the former Liberian warlord sentenced in 2018 in the US for lying about his role in Liberia’s civil war and the horrendous crimes he committed.

Through the lens of film director Nicolás Braguinsky Cascini, the documentary follows the theatre group on the road as it travels more than 1000 kilometres across Liberia.

In marketplaces and in front of town halls of twenty different communities, the actors engage the audience through a fictional play about a young girl, Musu, and her little brother Varney, both born after the end of the civil wars, who attentively follow the trial of ‘Jungle Jabbah’ in the US.

One actor plays the ‘Boogeyman’: a creepy-looking creature that frightens the audience and personifies the rebel leaders and the war. Whilst performing, the actors invite the audience to share their opinions and talk about their own experiences of the war. Some people step forward. They vocalise their still existing fears to speak up and call for the creation of a Court of Justice in Liberia. Despite the gravity of the subject, the atmosphere is serene, people are singing and dancing.

Sketch of "Jungle Jabbah" in a US court, (Credit: Chase Walker/Civitas Maxima)

Who was ‘Jungle Jabbah’? Mohammed Jabbahteh, known as “Jungle Jabbah”, was the former commander of the Liberian rebel group ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy) who moved to the US after the hostilities ended and lived in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.

Through the work of Civitas Maxima and GJRP, he was indicted in the US for immigration fraud related to his role in the civil conflict together with former spokesman and minister of defense of the Liberian government, Thomas Woewiyu.

It was also the first time that witnesses had testified in a court of law about the atrocities committed during the civil wars. Their testimonies were pivotal in bringing both men to justice.  Woewiyu was convicted, but he died of Covid-19 in 2020. “Jungle Jabbah” was sentenced to thirty years in prison in September 2020.

“Boogeyman” with child in Yangayah- Gbarpolu County, (Source: Nicólas Braguinsky Cascini/Civitas Maxima)

Restoring a sense of justice. What the film shows above all is that the work of organisations like Civitas Maxima and GJRP goes far beyond the legal level. Restoring a sense of justice and informing the affected communities of the criminal prosecutions happening abroad is also equally important.

“Justice for some victims gives tremendous hope to all the victims of the civil war because it shows that just because your government is doing nothing, it doesn’t mean nothing is happening,” Alain Werner, founder and director of Civitas Maxima, told Geneva Solutions.

By engaging with communities through theatre, as well as the previously launched cartoon programme, Musu’s Diary, initiatives such as these also help to make law and justice comprehensible for the affected population.

“For organisations like Civitas Maxima the central question is: does our work have any direct impact?”, director Braguinsky Cascini said at the FIFDH screening.

Will there be justice for Liberia? Even though in 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Liberian government called for the creation of a domestic criminal court, its recommendations were never implemented.

As a result, hardly any Liberians have been held accountable for the atrocities committed during the war, unlike in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where a special court was established in 2002 to prosecute war crimes committed during the decade-long Sierra Leonean civil war (1991-2002).

Establishing a domestic court is a controversial topic in Liberia. Because many former war criminals still hold high positions in the state administration, some fear a criminal court would jeopardise the country’s peace.

But law enforcement is essential precisely to ensure long-term peace in Liberia.  Because, as musicians Jackie Russ and Triple Skillz sing in the film's closing credits, “peace without justice is fragile”.

Beyond Impunity was screened at FIFDH on 9 March and will soon be available online. For more information, Civitas Maxima’s website.