On April 22, 1999, a Sierra Leonean refugee named Sulaiman Jusu was attempting to make his way to the Liberian capital of Monrovia with his extended family, fleeing a rebel incursion into northwestern Liberia, when their convoy was stopped at a checkpoint near the St. Paul River. The refugees hoped they would be waved through with no more than a routine shakedown: underpaid officers taking what they could from vulnerable people. But these were no ordinary police. Members of the dreaded Anti-Terrorist Unit, they separated the men from the women, stripping them down to their underwear. While the captives waited by the side of the road, a mess of SUVs pulled up, and a furious man got out. Waving a pistol, he accused the men in the refugee group of being the very rebels they were fleeing. Jusu watched as his brother-in-law and others were shot execution-style, then dragged away and dismembered. Two of their heads were posted on stakes near the road.
Many accounts of the Liberian civil war describe such episodes of violence in morbid detail, the assumption being that Liberia is a place so removed from the world that the practices of yesteryear—cannibalism, heads on stakes, and black magic—still prevail. In American Warlord, investigative journalist Johnny Dwyer takes a different tack. Atrocity here never feels gratuitous. By beginning with Jusu’s experience, Dwyer is free to tell another, much more complicated tale, moving backward and forward with narrative deftness, without losing sight of its moral and legal underpinnings.
Jusu’s story was first told in his testimony in the case of United States v. Belfast. The defendant, Roy Belfast Jr., (a k a Charles Taylor Jr., a k a Chucky), the furious armed man at the checkpoint, is the American-born son of Charles Ghankay Taylor, the guerrilla leader turned Liberian president. Jusu’s testimony was a key piece of evidence in the case against Chucky, who was convicted in 2008 and has the distinction of being the only person ever convicted under American anti-torture laws. (Chucky’s father was convicted four years later by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity there.) It’s an unusual situation: a combatant in a foreign civil war being tried in an American court. Chucky might be the only person to have faced prosecution for the atrocities in a war in which 250,000 people were killed and many more displaced.
The central story of American Warlord could be the plot of a young-adult novel, a twisted bildungsroman about a juvenile delinquent running with a bad crowd, and whose tough facade hides a vulnerable soul. Chucky is born in 1977. After his father abandons the family to pursue his political ambitions in Liberia, the young Chucky is raised by his Trinidadian-American mother, Bernice Emmanuel, and his well-meaning stepdad, Roy Belfast Sr. Their marriage begins to falter in the late ’80s, around the time that Charles Taylor starts appearing on the nightly news as the leader of a rebellion intent on overthrowing the despotic rule of Liberian President Samuel K. Doe.
In 1991, Chucky receives a call at home in Orlando, Florida, inviting him to Liberia to visit a father he doesn’t know. His mother—charmed by her ex’s transformation from a feckless student at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, to a charismatic revolutionary leader, and worried about her then-14-year-old son’s increasingly dark path at home—decides they will go together. It’s unclear how much the pair knew what they were walking into. In the summer of 1992, the Liberian war was in a stalemate: Taylor controlled most of the countryside, while Monrovia, the Liberian capital, was run by a government of national unity and protected by African peacekeepers. Though little reported in the West, the civil war had led, by this point, to the deaths of many thousands of civilians.