Jungle Jabbah: Liberia’s War Criminal

October 5, 2017, 3:09 pm

They marched their civilian prisoners at gunpoint, through bushland and surrounding villages, to Bopolu, a city deep in Liberia’s northwestern mining country.

They separated the group by gender — shaving the heads of the men with jagged shards of bottle glass, parceling off the women as sex slaves for guerrilla commanders.

And when, during that sorting, the rebel captors suspected they had located a rival faction’s spy, they killed him, cut out his heart, and took turns eating its pieces.

All the while, said the woman who recounted those scenes Wednesday in a Philadelphia federal courtroom, the rebels’ general — a gaunt, dreadlocked fighter named “Jungle Jabbah” — was egging his soldiers on.

“ ‘Anybody that refuse to eat a heart,’ ” she recalled the man saying, “ ‘they gonna die.’ ”

That witness — a 36-year-old private security guard from Monrovia — became one of the first victims to testify at the trial of a man who U.S. authorities say was behind a series of wartime atrocities in his native Liberia.

Prosecutors allege that Mohammed Jabateh, a 51-year-old East Lansdowne father of five, lied about his past as the savage warlord “Jungle Jabbah” while applying for political asylum in the late 1990s.

Although he is charged only with immigration fraud and perjury, government lawyers have accused him of committing all manner of horrific misdeeds — including rapes, murders, and cannibalism — as he led a band of soldiers in the 1990s for the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) during Liberia’s first civil war.

In the trial’s second day Wednesday, Jabateh, who has denied the allegations, sat quietly during testimony against him by three women — among the more than 20 witnesses whom the Justice Department has flown in for the case. Reunited after more than two decades with the man they say brutalized them, each offered a different reaction.

One eyed Jabateh apprehensively throughout her testimony. Another teared up while recalling the public execution of her sister, only to gather her emotions and lock eyes with the man when asked by prosecutors to identify the killer in court.

Together, their testimony painted a harrowing picture of the fate of women caught in a conflict that left 250,000 Liberians dead — one driven largely by men.

Because they are alleged victims of sexual assault, their names are being withheld by the Inquirer and Daily News.

The security guard — dead-eyed and speaking in affectless tones throughout much of her stint on the witness stand — told jurors she was only 13 when she witnessed the ritual heart-eating she described.

Moments after, she said, she was handed off to a burly commando she knew only as “Cobra Red” and forced to endure daily rapes for more than a month by the man who was more than twice her age.

She recognized Jabateh, she said, because she often was forced to comb through his dreadlocks for lice.

Another woman — a clothes vendor who strode into court Wednesday in a colorful purple-and-black dress with matching head wrap — told jurors Jabateh plucked her off a porch in 1994 and selected her to become his concubine.

“We had sex two, three times a day,” she said. “They had guns all over. I did it because I was afraid.”

Even women who managed to find some stability amid the chaos faced a constant threat that at any moment that peace could be quickly and brutally shattered.

The last woman to testify Wednesday said she ran a nightclub with her sister, Tina, where Jabateh and other ULIMO commanders routinely ate in Tubmanburg — about 50 miles north of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

Tina, she said, was a favorite of the generals, as much for her food as for the three children whom she had borne to one of them, a commander named “T-Kahla.”

“Everybody used to be friends with her,” she said. “Everybody used to come eat with her.”

But when factional rivalries split ULIMO in two in 1994, that friendship evaporated.

Testifying Wednesday, the witness said she watched from hiding as a furious Jabateh stormed into town, dragged Tina half-naked from her nightclub by her hair and demanded to know where T-Kahla, now his enemy, was hiding.

Tina offered no answer. So Jabateh threw her to the ground, put his boot on her head, and shot her in the chest and vagina, the witness said.

“He left a message that no one should pick up the body from there,” Tina’s sister said.

Jabateh’s lawyer Greg Pagano, as he did with all three women who testified Wednesday, questioned why she did not report the incident to authorities at the time.

The woman stared back incredulously.

“Who am I gonna tell? Nobody,” she said. “I didn’t tell any local official, because they couldn’t do nothing about it.”

Testimony is set to resume Thursday.