Kidnapped by the Big Man

Hassan Bility, Grant Awarded 2003

Bility testifying against his torturer. Courtesy of Special Court for Sierra Leone
Bility testifying against his torturer. Courtesy of Special Court for Sierra Leone

Hassan Bility’s three-year-old son, Cherish, wanted some popcorn. Bility had brought the boy downtown to the offices of the Analyst, one of Monrovia’s thin, scrappy newspapers, where Bility held the title of editor-in-chief but performed every role from reporter to copy editor. He set aside his work, took Cherish’s hand, and stepped outside amid buildings gutted by civil war. He headed toward a shop that sold popcorn. A moment later, he was fighting a swarm of men trying to force him into a red car, and Cherish was fighting, too, clinging to the pants of someone in the swarm. “He’s my dad,” the three-year-old tried to make everyone understand.

Through the car’s rear window, Bility watched his son standing, abandoned, on the anarchic street. Soon the journalist was blindfolded; when the black cloth came off, he was at the White Flower, the compound of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s president. Taylor had risen to power by waging one of Africa’s most devastating civil wars; he’d amassed a fortune in diamonds by stoking the equally brutal civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone; and his army was now – on that June night in 2002 – battling rebels not far from the capital. Security men ushered Bility in front of the dictator. Surrounded by his ministers, Taylor, in a short-sleeve khaki shirt, looked up from his desk, peering over a pair of reading glasses that he wore almost comically low on his nose. “So this is the guy who wants to overthrow my government,” Taylor said.

As a teenager, Bility supported himself by selling used clothes, hawking them on the streets. He put himself through college by driving one of Monrovia’s dilapidated taxis, and then began selling stories, as a freelancer, about Liberia’s warlords and their human rights abuses. By the time Taylor stared at him over his spectacles, Bility had been arrested six times before; he’d been accused of false reporting about Taylor’s involvement in Sierra Leone; he’d been jailed and beaten with rifle butts until he bled from his ears. Arrests and beatings were a kind of norm for Liberian journalists. But Bility, like so many in similar situations, somehow persuaded himself that things wouldn’t get any worse.

Interrogating him for over two hours that night at the White Flower, Taylor insisted that Bility had purchased weapons in Europe and hired mercenaries in the Ivory Coast, and that he was keeping both the guns and the private platoon at the US Embassy while he conspired with a Liberian Catholic archbishop and American diplomats to topple the government. When the journalist refused to confess, the president’s henchmen drove him out of Monrovia toward the Firestone rubber plantation, where, until the war chased the company away, Liberians in rags had tapped the trees for two or three dollars a day. The driver stopped at a defunct weigh station. Security men opened a manhole cover and ordered Bility down a ladder. He looked around his cell.

It was nothing like the chambers where he’d been locked up in the past, foul and frightening as those had been. This was directly under the metal plate of the scale that truckers had once pulled onto. It was dark except for the slivers of light that angled down at the edges of the plate. It was packed with other prisoners, with rats and occasional snakes, and with the hulking underground mechanism of the scale. It was filled with water up to the prisoners’ knees. The plate lay at a height of four feet. The prisoners lived in a crouch.

Periodically the manhole cover was pried open and Bility was commanded to climb the ladder. He was allowed to stand straight, led into a shack, and interrogated by one of Taylor’s generals, a man later accused, during the hearings of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of personally dismembering and disemboweling civilians. Bility still wouldn’t confess. So, under the general’s direction, a woman applied cables to his testicles and sent jolts of electricity repeatedly through his scrotum. Once, a soldier set a whiskey bottle atop the journalist’s head; if the bottle fell, Bility was warned, he would be shot. The journalist managed to keep his head motionless, and eventually the soldier raised his pistol and blasted the bottle into shards. Bility had the sensation that his skull had shattered.

Beneath the scale and in other cells, Bility was held and tortured for six months. Mercifully one of Taylor’s men delivered news that Bility’s son was safe, but meanwhile his wife was imprisoned. At last, under pressure from Amnesty International and other advocates, Taylor struck a deal with the US Embassy, permitting the Americans to fly Bility and his family out of the country. The dictator must have believed that he was rid of the journalist.

In 2009, Bility faced Taylor again. But the tables were turned: in a courtroom in The Hague, Bility testified about his torture.

But rebels drove Taylor from Liberia in 2003, and in 2007 a special United Nations-backed court put him on trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone, where the Revolutionary United Front he supported hacked off the limbs of civilians and left the population cowed. The trial was moved from Sierra Leone to The Hague, because of the fear that Taylor, even in custody, remained too influential and intimidating in West Africa.

So it was that in 2009, Bility came face-to-face with Taylor again. But the tables had turned: in the courtroom, Bility testified about his torture and about the evidence he’d gathered, as a reporter, of Taylor’s machinations in Sierra Leone. “I still couldn’t figure out that this all-powerful person, who did anything he wanted, and was seated here, so close, couldn’t harm me,” Bility told me recently. “I was both happy that justice was catching up with him and afraid – not that he personally would harm me but that he has lots of contacts who could harm me or my family. But then I began speaking, and I thought, I am going forward, I am making this case.”

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor under arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity © 2006 UN Photo
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor under arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity © 2006 UN Photo

Taylor will be in a European prison for the rest of his life. Bility is now in Monrovia, working in collaboration with a Swiss legal group, Civitas Maxima, using his reporting talents to gather evidence that may put more Liberian war criminals behind bars through prosecution in European courts. So far, only Taylor has been held accountable. Finding and talking with victims hasn’t been simple in the time of Ebola. Bility and his staff have carried bottles of chlorine bleach to their interviews. Yet he has just helped to win the indictment, in Belgium, of one of Taylor’s most terrifying commanders, Martina Johnson. She is likely to stand trial there next year.

Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.

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