Raising Cain

When Kenneth Cain arrived in Liberia during the civil war in 1995, the Ann Arbor native learned that hundreds of thousands of people were being raped, tortured and killed – and no one seemed to care.

Cain was there to investigate human rights violations as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operations. But the Harvard Law School graduate soon learned that the report he wrote for the United Nations was severely edited and sanitized by its officials.

That’s when he quit the mission and wrote a 19,000-word article: "The Rape of Dinah: Human Rights, Civil War in Liberia and Evil Triumphant."

The article was published in Human Rights Quarterly last year and was a finalist in the prestigious National Magazine Award contest. It chronicles the atrocious crimes committed during the seven-year civil war, which began in 1989, and criticizes the international community for failing to intervene. Cain particularly faults the United Nations for not investigating and prosecuting those who terrorized Liberia — the same people currently governing the African nation.

A brutal legacy

To explain the roots of the Liberian civil war, Cain gives a brief history. A group of American slaves founded Liberia in West Africa in 1822 and steadily oppressed the majority indigenous people, depriving them of land, education, money and political power. The Republic of Liberia was established in 1847.

These Americo-Liberians ruled until 1980, when Sgt. Samuel K. Doe seized the presidency in a bloody military coup. But Doe was not much better than those before him, using the ethnic Krahn people to rule by force; this particularly angered the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, the largest in Liberia, writes Cain.

In 1989, Charles Taylor, depicted as an opportunist warlord, and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia, attacked Doe’s government; the Gios and Manos soon joined him. The country disintegrated into chaos in the ensuing civil war. Taylor’s forces killed Doe, and warring factions ravaged the nation with mass rapes, slayings and torture.

War crimes

Though the media paid little attention, rape was as common during the Liberian civil war as it was in Bosnia and Kosovo, Cain says. With the exception of a less-than-scientific study conducted by the World Health Organization, Cain writes that rape cases are not well-documented. However, the WHO report and other information he cites proves its prevalence.

According to WHO, which interviewed 450 women from 15 displaced women’s shelters in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, 33 percent said they had been raped; in 50 percent of the cases family members were present and more than one attacker was involved.

The United Nations also interviewed 3,449 men involved in the war and 11 percent "admitted to raping with violence more than 10 times." Cain states that the UN investigation is not a scientific study either, but considering that it was done four years into the seven-year war, says it shows that rape was used to terrorize civilians, particularly by Taylor’s troops who dominated the land.

One woman told Cain she was raped in front of her husband and three children; her husband was then tied to a tree and beheaded before the family.

Torture was another tactic used by the warring factions. According to a confidential UN report Cain cites, "there are numerous reports of fighters ... looking for pregnant women. When they find one they gamble on the sex of the unborn baby. They then cut the mother’s womb open and pull out the baby to see who won the bet. The mother and baby are then thrown to the side of the road, as the fighters go looking for their next vicitm."

Burning men’s genitals and burning women between the breasts were other forms of torture, as well as forcing family members to have sex with one another, reports Cain.

Taylor also was known for recruiting boys as young as 7. The small children carried AK-47s almost as big as themselves, writes Cain. Taylor did this, he suspects, because children are less able to think for themselves and have not developed moral restraint. Some were forcibly recruited, he writes, but others joined willingly to have access to food and to protect their families. And many were sent to the front lines or in the streets to draw enemy fire.

As a result of these devastating conditions about 200,000 people, mostly civilians, died during the war — the same number of people to die during the war in former Yugoslavia, notes Cain. The war also created 750,000 international refugees (most of them fleeing to neighboring countries) and 1.2 million internally displaced people in a country with a population of 2.5 million before 1989.

See no evil

Despite that 85 percent of the Liberian population was affected by the war either by death or displacement, outside of a controversial Nigerian peacekeeping force, the international community did little to intervene or to investigate war crimes. Cain believes the reason is racism.

"Kosovo should not be any more important than Liberia," Cain said in a phone interview from New York, where he is now working on a documentary on the Liberian civil war. He said he believes that international intervention was aggressive in Kosovo and Bosnia because they are part of Europe. "Africa is seen as just less important."

Part of the blame falls on the media. "I think there is a dose of racism, laziness and herd mentality," said Cain. "If CNN sends a team to cover a story then the New York Times sends a team."

But Cain is particularly critical of the international community for failing to prosecute war criminals like Taylor, who was elected president of Liberia in 1997, one year after the war ended. (One U.S. State Department report described the elections as technically free, but "conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation, as most voters believed that Taylor’s forces would have resumed fighting if he had lost.")

Cain noted that while war tribunals were set up to investigate and prosecute war criminals in Bosnia and Kosovo, nothing occurred in Liberia. Instead the UN embraced Taylor and others responsible for atrocities as credible leaders with whom to negotiate an end to the war.

"There were literally tens upon tens of thousands of rapes in Liberia with no investigations, no prosecutions and no convictions. Zero!" said Cain. "The use of rape in Liberia was huge, and it’s as if it never happened."

This failure to go after Taylor and others, Cain predicts, will result in more atrocities.

"If there is cowardice in response to this kind of evil it always exacerbates it," he said. "Every time you back away from a very violent dictator and accommodate him, it makes matters worse for everyone."

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]
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