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'Jungle Jabbah's' war: Accused Liberian's own story emerges in court

Like many of his accusers, Mohammed Jabateh said he, too, had been persecuted based on his tribal affiliation. Like them, he also saw loved ones raped and gunned down while attempting to escape the chaos.

Federal prosecutors say that Mohammed Jabateh of Delaware County committed murder, rape, and cannibalism under the nickname “Jungle Jabbah” during Liberia’s first civil war.
Federal prosecutors say that Mohammed Jabateh of Delaware County committed murder, rape, and cannibalism under the nickname “Jungle Jabbah” during Liberia’s first civil war.Read moreJAMES KOKULO FASUEKOI / The AfricaPaper

All week, his fellow Liberians have lined up outside a Philadelphia federal courtroom to accuse alleged war criminal Mohammed Jabateh of acts of unfathomable cruelty.

But on Thursday, the jury weighing the 51-year-old East Lansdowne man's immigration-fraud case heard for the first time Jabateh's own account of the ethnic conflict that ravaged his native country in the early 1990s.

Like many of his accusers, he, too, said he had been persecuted based on his tribal affiliation. Like them, he also saw loved ones raped and gunned down while attempting to escape the chaos. And, he told U.S. immigration officers in 1998, his time during the war could be traced by the scars left on his body by torture.

"I was whipped repeatedly, flogged and burned with cigarettes," Jabateh wrote in a six-page statement filed as part of an application for political asylum in the United States. "I would not be fed for several days and had numerous injuries on my body."

That memo, written nearly two decades ago, became the focus of the third day of the government's case against a man who prosecutors say hid his past as a violent rebel commander who raped, pillaged, and killed his way through the war under the nom de guerre "Jungle Jabbah."

Jabateh denies those allegations and maintains he was truthful when he told immigration agents, first in 1998 and then while seeking a green card 13 years later, that he was a victim of ethnic persecution.

But as Norman de Moose, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, testified Thursday, when it comes to the multiple-faction hostilities that ravaged Liberia and killed more than 250,000 people between 1989 and 1997, both accounts could be true.

"This was a war in which a great number of atrocities were committed," de Moose said. "The way I thought of it was that there were no clean hands on either side."

Simplified to the most basic level, Liberia's politics and conflicts have been driven almost entirely by ethnic discord since the West African nation's founding in 1847 as a home for freed and repatriated American slaves.

Those freed slaves and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, historically have clashed with the indigenous population, which, split by its own tribal affiliations and histories of conflict, often has battled among itself.

But tensions reached a new boiling point in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a Liberian of the Krahn tribe, stormed the country's executive mansion, executed its president, and seized control of the government from the Americo-Liberians.

For Jabateh, then just 14, living in a village where his father was the local chief and his mother bought and sold livestock to support the family, Doe's victory offered the promise of hope.

Though their tribal background differed from Doe's, Jabateh's father, a Mandingo, threw his support behind the nation's first indigenous head of state, and eventually signed on to become Doe's campaign manager in western Liberia, Jabateh wrote in his 1998 asylum application.

When Doe himself was unseated — captured, tortured, and killed by a rebel force in 1990 — the Jabatehs' hope died along with him.

"Those of us known to have supported Doe received letters from the rebels threatening us because they viewed us as their enemies," Jabateh wrote.

Under the command of Charles Taylor, a rebel force known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), composed largely of ethnic Gios and Manos, soon seized much of the country, killing Mandingos and Krahns as they marched through the countryside.

In his statement to U.S. immigration officers, Jabateh recalled fleeing in 1990 from the advance of NPFL soldiers approaching his town. Running out into the surrounding bush in a group of 250 villagers, the Jabatehs made for the border of neighboring Sierra Leone.

The soldiers, however, caught up.

"When the attack occurred, everyone scattered," Jabateh wrote. "I hid in the bush. My mother and brother could not escape fast enough." Both were gunned down and killed.

Jabateh spent the next two years in a refugee camp, where he later would say he was conscripted by Sierra Leone's government into a fighting force charged with beating back NPFL incursions into that country. The group would form the basis for the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), the force that prosecutors now say "Jungle Jabbah" helped to lead and under whose banner he committed his alleged wartime atrocities.

"Our stated objective was to protect Mandingo and Krahn people from being murdered by the NPFL and to bring democracy so Liberia could end the war," he wrote in '98.

For his own part, Jabateh says he returned in 1992 to the nation's capital, Monrovia, where he was recruited to the Special Security Service (SSS), a law enforcement branch equivalent to the U.S. Secret Service. There, he was stationed at the executive mansion, Monrovia's answer to the White House.

It was during this period that prosecutors allege Jabateh was murdering his way through the countryside, pillaging villages loyal to the NPFL. Later, they allege, after ULIMO's Mandingo and Krahn factions split into rival groups, he turned his guns on his one-time allies.

Testifying Thursday, Rufus Kennedy, the head of the SSS during this period, said a member of the service never would have been allowed to wear camouflage uniforms or grow his hair into dreadlocks, as photos of Jabateh from the period show he did.

And when immigration agents in the United States later would ask him for proof of his time with the SSS, Jabateh said it was lost when NPFL fighters burned his home to the ground.

Jabateh's own '98 account glosses over much of this period, picking up again in the mid-'90s, when he was assigned to the personal security detail of ULIMO head Alhaji Kromah as a cease-fire was brokered with Taylor's NPFL in 1995. Newspaper clips from the time — including some that Jabateh later provided to immigration agents — quote him as an ULIMO lieutenant general involved in the disarmament process.

But Jabateh's fortunes soured again when, in 1997, Taylor won election as Liberia's president. Taylor quickly moved to consolidate power, lashing out against those loyal to forces who once opposed him.

In his '98 account, Jabateh said he eventually was captured, held in a cell, and tortured for three weeks, beaten with electrical wire and hit with the butt of a rifle.

He managed to escape, he said, and left for Guinea and then the U.S. soon after.

"I am very afraid to return to Liberia," he wrote in his '98 asylum application, "because I know of Mandingo people who have been mistreated and killed by the government."

On Thursday, Nancy Vanlue, who approved that application granting Jabateh entry into the U.S., sat across from him again for the first time in nearly two decades.

Jabateh's lawyer asked whether she had believed at the time the story the then-33-year-old had told her.

"I did at the time," Vanlue testified. "I felt he had a very strong case."

Her expression suggested she now thought otherwise.

Testimony is expected to resume Tuesday.