Sometimes the truth lies buried in people’s memories until it’s safe to be shared.
In 1990, government soldiers in Liberia, Africa, shot and killed more than 500 men, women and children who had fled to a local church to seek refuge. Last summer, some witnesses found it safe to share the details with third-year law student Katie Jauert.
It was her job as an intern at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia to find out what had happened. The TRC is investigating the causes of the 1989-2003 civil war in this northwestern African country, which was colonized by freed slaves from the United States in 1822. The former slaves founded the Republic of Liberia in 1847 with the support of the U.S. government.
The TRC’s goal is to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation caused by the Liberian civil war. Since news media were shut down during the war, Jauert and her Liberian colleague needed to interview eyewitnesses to the mass murder at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia.
“The soldiers killed completely at random,” Jauert said. “It sounds like they just started firing all around the room.”
The soldiers started in the church where the men were hiding and then moved to the school building where they found the women and children. Jauert guessed that there were approximately 30 survivors.
“Survivors talked about lying in others’ blood and trying to hide [from soldiers] under bodies,” Jauert said. After heart-rending interviews, Jauert couldn’t immediately transcribe her notes; it took a week before she could even think about it again. “After the tragedy, these people were trying to move on with their lives and then they had to dredge up those memories,” she said. “I had to remove myself [emotionally] from the situation, which is so hard for me.”
Jauert admired the Liberians’ resiliency. “Everyone I met was so welcoming and warm to me. You never would have known what these people have been though. They weren’t carrying around grudges.”
As difficult as her assignment was, Africa is where Jauert wants to be. She acquired an affinity for Africa on her first trip in 2005 when she had visited friends in Tanzania and South Africa.
“As soon as I got to Tanzania, I knew I wanted to come back,” she said. “It’s what I’m meant to do; I’m meant to do something for that continent. Every country, every tribe is different and everything I’ve seen, I’ve fallen in love with.”
She relishes her time in Liberia but would prefer to return to Tanzania, which is more rural. It reminds her of Luverne, Minn., population 4,500, where she grew up helping to raise cattle and hogs and growing corn and soybeans on the family farm. “I miss the quiet and peacefulness,” she said. “I miss being with my hard-working parents.”
With a work ethic nurtured by farm life and honed through law school, she is ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work after graduation, either with the Peace Corps or an African human rights organization.
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