“They called themselves freedom fighters, but they killed innocent people; we pray for those liars”. These were the words of the late Roman Catholic Archbishop, Michael Kpakala Francis, expressing his remorse and antipathy surrounding the horrific killing of five catholic nuns at the evil hands of war criminals who maimed, raped, and murdered more than 250, 000 innocent Liberians and foreign nationals during Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Under the notorious code name of “Operation Octopus”, the rebel forces of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, carried out a gruesome campaign of indiscriminately killing innocent Liberians and foreign nationals in the Bardnersville community located on the outskirts of Monrovia, the country’s civic and commercial capital.
Verifiable and documented reports, including revelations made at the public hearings of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) a few years ago, uncovered that the Operation Octopus was conceived with the purpose of implementing a pogrom to ensure that the NPFL exerted full and total control over the City of Monrovia and its environs. This would become the NPFL’s scorched-earth policy and template for prosecuting its senseless war throughout the 90’s, making the city unsafe and unlivable for its inhabitants, and meting out unspeakable crimes to instill fear and submission in the populace. This particular operation was spearheaded by one General Christopher “Mosquito” Vambo, who, acting on orders from his high commandant Charles Taylor, held the nuns captive, had them disrobed and bludgeoned to death. The Illinois-based missionaries, Sisters Kathleen McGuire, Barbara Muttra, Agnes Mueller, Mary Kolar, and Shirley Kolmer, were all brutally murdered by Charles Taylor and his militia. Although, Mr. Charles Taylor was charged for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone and sentenced to a 50-yr prison term by the International Crimes Court (ICC), neither he and other war crimes perpetrators were charged for war crimes in Liberia.
Nearly 21 years after this horrendous criminal act that was carried out on October 20, 1992, the Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL) wishes to remember these five nuns for their sacrificial humanitarian services they rendered the people of Liberia, many of whom are living impoverished and traumatized war victims. The enviable missionary work of these nuns, who left the comfort of their homeland in the United States to come to Liberia to help educate its youth and treat its sick, should not go unnoticed as thousands of Liberian youth who otherwise would not have had that opportunity. They benefitted greatly from their tremendous sacrifice and generosity. One youth recalling his experience, remembered the nuns as “loving, kind, and caring” in all that they did during their many years in Liberia. Moreover, CJL recognizes and applauds the significant contributions the nuns and the Catholic church have made in some of the remotest areas of the country that is yet to experience the presence and impact of the national government policies.
Today as we remember these nuns, CJL feels compelled to call attention to the quest for justice for the victims of the Liberian civil war. We cannot ignore the fact that those estimated 250,000 innocent Liberians and foreign nationals who lost their lives at the brutal hands of war perpetrators, are yet to experience the bells of justice. The country now rightfully brags about 10 years of peace, with the support of the international community, which all Liberians must celebrate and fight to keep, but at the same time, we must remind our fellow compatriots that our peace is still fragile and we can only have sustained peace when it is rooted in justice.
Let us not forget that peace is not only the absence of war or tension, it is foremost the presence of justice. As Liberians, we can only enjoy real peace when war perpetrators who committed crimes of war and crimes against humanity, face the full weight of justice. CJL will not relent in its advocacy for truth and justice, and will continue to immortalize those who died in this senseless war that left deep scars on our nation.
May the Souls of these Nuns and those who died in the reckless carnage of Operation Octopus, forever be remembered?
Lovetta G. Tugbeh
Interim Director, CJL