Black Diamond has never met Charles Taylor, but she still calls the day the former Liberian president was sentenced for crimes against humanity the happiest of her life. On Wednesday, Taylor is expected to be sentenced for his crimes and the 30-year-old former female rebel leader who fought against him will be watching with interest.
“This is the man who ruined my future,” she says. “When I see him sentenced, maybe I will be able to move on. They say he will get 80 years. This will send an important message to the world that you can’t do terrible things and just get away with it.”
Taylor has been convicted of crimes including murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but he wreaked havoc in his own country too. More than 200,000 people were killed in Liberia’s 14-year civil war, countless girls and women were raped and much of the population was displaced.
Black Diamond was 18 and a promising student when civil war broke out. She enjoyed a peaceful childhood in Voinjama, a town in the north of the country where her father worked as a doctor. During one of Taylor’s troops’ regular raids, in April 2000, her parents were killed and Diamond was gang-raped.
After regaining consciousness after the attack, she found her way to the headquarters of Sekou Conneh, the leader of Liberians United for Reconciliation & Democracy (Lurd) and begged him to take her in. When the compound was attacked soon after she arrived, she simply grabbed an AK-47 and joined in with the fighting.
Rising swiftly through the ranks Diamond became a colonel in Lurd’s Women’s Auxiliary Corps, developing a reputation as a ferocious fighter. Many of the women were, like her, survivors of rape by Taylor’s troops and many had come to the conclusion that becoming a fighter was the best way to protect themselves against further rapes. Diamond still refers to them fondly as her “girls”. Of the 12 she fought closely with, six died in the course of the war. “Becoming a fighter was the best thing I could do under the circumstances,” she says now. But she remains haunted by all the horrors she witnessed.
By all accounts, Diamond struck fear into the hearts of her opponents during the war, boldly wielding her AK-47 and staring death in the face without flinching. Yet in person she is quiet, almost diffident, her dark eyes downcast. In war she had a role: in peace, like many ex-combatants, she has struggled to reinvent herself. Ex-combatants are stigmatised in Liberian society and this attitude compounds her despair.
“I am suffering today because of what Charles Taylor did. The war took everything from me: my parents, my education and my future. I want to spread the message that we must pursue peace. We must make sure that we never see another war here in Liberia.”
Today she lives in a small, overcrowded place in the middle of the Liberian capital Monrovia, a city still bearing the physical scars of war and teeming with poverty-stricken people struggling to make a living. The water supply is uncertain, rats are a perennial problem and hunger is ever-present.
Black Diamond is one of the 85% of her country’s population living below the poverty line. She is a single parent caring for her two young children and three others who lost family members during the war. The children are plagued by bouts of malaria and her attempts to find a stable job have been unsuccessful.
She supports the work of the country’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has tried hard to unite the Liberians, despite once supporting Taylor, as well as fellow Nobel prizewinner and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee. Yet she supports the actions of her “girls”. “Liberian women have always been strong and we are proud to have the first female president in Africa. Before the war, rape was almost unknown in our country. When the rapes started, I and the other girls who fought were determined not to be victims. We wanted to fight back to show our attackers they couldn’t get away with such things and that they, not we, should feel shame for the rapes.”
She welcomes the opportunity to work with anyone who can help her spread the message of peace to try to protect the next generation from the horrors she experienced. “I am doing this for my girls,” she says. “Those who are lost and those who are living presently.”
Diane Taylor, The Guardian