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Digging for Painful Truths and Documenting the Horrors of Civil War By Aisha Labi, L’96

Paoletti and Students at the refugee camp in GhanaLast fall, five Penn Law students accompanied Sarah Paoletti, head of the Transnational Legal Clinic, to a refugee camp in Ghana, West Africa. They were there to take statements for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The students heard awful stories of brutality spilling from people displaced by the decade-long Liberian Civil War. They saw squalor, and desperation etched in the faces of refugees.

And, after a week in Ghana, they had to reconcile themselves to what they had seen.

“There was one woman who told me that she watched her husband murdered and that the rebels wouldn’t let her get away until she drank some of her husband’s blood in front of them,” recalls Robert Manzanares, L’08, who was a 3L at the time. “There’s not a reaction within my realm of experience that can even relate to what she went through.”

Erin M. Argueta, who was a 2L, interviewed some 50 people throughout the week, including many “women who had suffered horrible sexual violence and had never been treated, had never healed.”

As horrific as the refugees’ stories were, though, what left the students feeling truly powerless was witnessing the conditions in which the people they interviewed were still living. Tens of thousands of Liberians fled the war-ravaged nation during the 1990s, and the camp in Buduburam, about 30 miles west of Ghana’s capital, Accra, remains home to thousands of refugees, many of whom have been there for as long as 15 years. The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner stopped administering the facility last year and the Ghanaian government has signaled its intention to resettle its inhabitants and close the camp. Meanwhile, the refugees remain, preferring the inhospitable but familiar environs of Buduburam to what they fear might await them on their return to Liberia.

Argueta had served in the Peace Corps before law school and had experienced life in a rural community in El Salvador without electricity or running water. The comparison with the conditions the Liberian refugees endured at Buduburam was sobering. “I was in El Salvador about ten years after they had finished their war. People were traumatized, but the country had come a long way,” she says. “The most surprising and upsetting thing about going to Ghana was seeing refugees still in camps after 15 years, still suffering so greatly.”

There is no running water in most of the sprawling facility, which was built for far fewer than the estimated 35,000 people living there, and the refugees must pay for access to public latrines and other basic necessities, such as medical care and education. Their refugee status bars them legally from holding jobs, and with no source of income few can afford to pay for the few amenities the camp provides. Those who dare to breach the rules are often beaten in reprisal, and there is so little oversight that criminal activity is rampant.

Nkiruka Amalu, who is now a 3L, grew up in Nigeria and has lived and worked in other West African countries, but the trip to Buduburam was her first visit to a refugee camp. What set it apart from the overpopulated slums that are a feature of so many African metropolises, she says, was the level of insecurity with which the people there must cope. The refugees had all endured violence and hardship in Liberia, but to realize that their suffering continued in the supposed sanctuary of the refugee camp was a revelation. “People spoke of life in the camp being very, very hard,” Amalu says.

Gathering Testimony Proves an Enormous Task

During their week in Ghana the Penn students interviewed nearly 200 refugees, whose testimony about their own experiences and the human rights abuses they witnessed will form part of the basis of a report by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anywhere from a third to half of Liberia’s population of 3.5 million people was forced to leave the country as a result of war. A portion of them came to the United States. Many settled in the Twin Cities in Minnesota and in Philadelphia, home to the two largest Liberian refugee populations in America. Soon after it was established in 2005, the Commission recognized that including voices from the Liberian diaspora would be an important element of its work.

This past summer, when members of the Commission traveled from Liberia to conduct a week of public hearings in Minnesota, Paoletti helped prepare three witnesses from Philadelphia for their testimony. Now in her third year at Penn, Paoletti says that international human rights work was the reason she became a lawyer. She came to Penn to set up the transnational clinic, in which students work with clients on issues such as asylum and immigration law. “The goal is for students to engage in direct one-on-one client representation, and to also have exposure to broader human rights advocacy,” Paoletti says. The clinic has become one of the law school’s most popular, and each semester there is a waiting list for one of the eight slots.

The opportunity for the Ghana trip grew out of Paoletti’s work with a Minnesota-based international human rights organization, Advocates for Human Rights. The group is coordinating the Commission’s statement-taking efforts in the United States and had already conducted a week of statement-taking at Buduburam. Faced with overwhelming demand during that trip, when hundreds of refugees lined up each day in the blazing sun for a chance to tell their story, the group planned a follow-up and Paoletti was asked to put together a team. Five of her clinic students signed up and less than a month after the start of classes the group was on the ground in Ghana.

Feelings of Impotence Shadows Students’ Work

Alexandra Fellowes, L’08, was among those who made the trip. She recounts that she had a “tremendous feeling of impotence” as people told their stories. “It’s like being shown the Grand Canyon and being given a shovel to fill it,” she says. Long lines of refugees formed from early in the morning every day that the group was in the camp, awaiting their turn to tell their stories. Part of the reason for the demand, says Paoletti, was the refugees’ hope that the international community will step in to help them. With the United Nations no longer involved in running Buduburam, the Americans’ presence at the camp was seen by many refugees as evidence of renewed international interest in their plight.

“When they came in, they saw Westerners and thought we were there to provide aid,” says Manzanares, who was a 3L at the time. “We weren’t prepared for the extent to which people have been abandoned by the international community and are in need of direct aid, and the frustration of not being able to meet those kinds of expectations.”

The students spent anywhere from half an hour to two hours with each interviewee, taking six to 15 statements a day. They had trained for the logistics of doing so, but little prepared them for the emotional impact of hearing people describe to them, in often excruciating detail, the most painful and harrowing experiences of their lives. “A lot of us struggled with feeling like we were taking something from them, by asking them to tell their stories,” says Argueta. Many men broke down in tears, apparently for the first time since their trauma, as they related their stories. Young people in their twenties spoke of seeing their entire families tortured and killed, and of how they felt their lives were being wasted as they waited in the camp, missing out on education and work opportunities.

At the end of each person’s testimony, Paoletti says, they asked for help to be resettled in a developed country. Although Liberia has been at peace for the past five years, unemployment hovers around 85 percent, there is little infrastructure, and the refugees feel unable to return to their homeland. “They fled, watching their houses being burned down and destroyed, and the horror that they endured during flight cannot be underestimated,” says Paoletti. “They’re very afraid of what will happen if they go back to Liberia. People aren’t yet convinced that the war is truly over.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not a prosecutorial body, Paoletti notes, and the scope of the recommendations it issues remains to be seen. “Different communities and different individuals feel differently about what accountability means, and the Liberian community is of different minds as to whether that means prosecution or putting other structures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” When asked what they thought was at the root of the conflict that had torn apart their country and their lives, many refugees cited a lack of education. “We met a lot of really bright young people at the camp in their mid to late 20’s who said, but for the war, I’d be a doctor or a lawyer,” Paoletti says. “The war robbed them of their adolescence and their education.”

Aisha Labi is a former staff writer for Time magazine. She now covers Europe for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She was born in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.