Safe haven for an alleged killer

A Liberian man accused of horrific war crimes is alive and well in Canada

Safe haven for an alleged killer
Photograph by Patrick Robert/ Sygma/ Corbis

A former commander in a rebel Liberian army who has been accused by multiple witnesses and former associates of war crimes and crimes against humanity is living freely in Toronto.

Bill Horace was a general in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a militia that gathered in neighbouring Ivory Coast and invaded Liberia in 1989, plunging the country into more than a decade of intermittent war. That conflict killed tens of thousands and featured the widespread use of child soldiers and mass atrocities against civilians—including sexual slavery, cannibalism, and indiscriminate slaughter. Charles Taylor, who led that army and was eventually elected president before being forced from office in 2003, is now on trial in The Hague on war crimes charges.

Maclean’s spoke with Bill Horace in early 2009. “Yes, I was with NPFL. Of course I was NPFL,” he said during a brief telephone conversation, referring to the National Patriotic Front of Liberia by its initials. Horace said he would speak about his time in the NPFL at a later date, but then ignored numerous messages left on his phone or with his former wife. Reached by phone this January, he refused to discuss his past and said his lawyer would call.

In the course of a year-long investigation, however, Maclean’s has been able to piece together much of Horace’s activities during the war. This magazine has interviewed individuals who were once close to Horace and to Charles Taylor, and spoken to eyewitnesses and alleged victims. Maclean’s hired a Liberian researcher to conduct further investigation in the regions of Liberia where Horace was most active. Finally, Maclean’s has also obtained copies of witness statements given to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that implicate Horace in war crimes.

Many who spoke to the magazine about Bill Horace did so on the condition that their names not be published. One former senior military officer is in a witness protection program outside Liberia. Others fear repercussions from Horace or from Liberians still loyal to Charles Taylor. An individual who said he worked closely with Horace when Horace was a general is willing to testify against him in court but does not otherwise wish to be identified. Witnesses occasionally differed over some details, especially dates or the specific manner in which victims were allegedly murdered. They were discussing events that took place almost two decades ago during an anarchic conflict in which careful records were not kept by any side. The dates listed here are likewise approximate.

But multiple independent sources tell a consistent story. They accuse Horace and men under his command of atrocities on a massive scale. These allegations have not been proven in court. What is beyond doubt is that Bill Horace served in a warlord’s army during a horrendous civil war in which many innocents suffered and died. He has now found refuge in Canada.

Bill Horace was born around 1971, and grew up in the Liberian port city of Buchanan, in Grand Bassa County. He and his family fled their hometown when the NPFL advanced on Buchanan in the spring of 1990. They sought shelter in the capital, Monrovia.

Soon Monrovia itself was under siege. Residents starved and were brutalized by the three main warring factions: the NPFL, a breakaway rebel group that called itself the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), and government armed forces still loyal to the country’s president, Samuel Doe, a corrupt and undemocratic thug. A Nigerian-led military force, the Economic Community Monitoring Group, was deployed by a coalition of West African states to restore order, but failed.

Safe haven for an alleged killer
Photograph by Patrick Robert/ Sygma/ Corbis

Doe was eventually captured by Prince Johnson, head of the INPFL, and tortured to death. Johnson ordered his men to cut off Doe’s ear and then ate it.

Horace joined thousands of Liberians who streamed out of Monrovia that summer, seeking safe haven elsewhere. Refugees clogged the roads, balancing whatever they could carry on their heads and slumping shoulders. Fighters with the NPFL ranged up and down the columns of fleeing civilians, seizing and raping women and forcibly recruiting young, muscular men.

According to a source once close to Charles Taylor, Paul Vail, a Libyan-trained member of Taylor’s special forces, recruited Horace at this time. Horace joined the executive branch of Taylor’s Special Task Force, a unit of bodyguards responsible for protecting the grounds of Taylor’s mansion in Gbarnga, the NPFL’s capital in central Liberia.

Horace might not have risen much above his bodyguard position were it not for the fact that he began dating Charles Taylor’s daughter, Zoe. Horace was made a “general”—a senior position, although titles and ranks in the NPFL were more loosely assigned than in most formal armies. He was deployed to Buchanan in late 1992 or early 1993.

Several residents of Buchanan interviewed by a Maclean’s researcher allege that fighters under Horace’s command beat, raped, and murdered civilians there. One man, who says he served in a close military capacity with Horace, confirms these accounts but describes Horace’s actions in Buchanan as comparatively restrained. “In Buchanan, there were not very major crimes committed by our fighters,” the man said. “As you know, Bill is from Buchanan, so probably that was the reason why he did not get involved in carrying out serious crimes. But some of our fighters did things like looting, flogging of civilians, torture, and the abduction and raping of women, including young and underage girls. That I can tell you squarely I witnessed. Those crimes were committed by our fighters daily in Buchanan, and there were no punishments for them. Bill himself forcibly conscripted several young boys into the NPFL, and they were used on the front line.” (The above-quoted source said he would be willing to testify against Horace in court but otherwise asked that his name not be published.)

The NPFL lost the city of Buchanan to international forces from the West African Economic Monitoring Group in May 1993. Around this time, Horace moved to Maryland County, in the far east of Liberia, next to Ivory Coast. Here, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to Maclean’s and who gave testimony to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and also according to both a former senior military official in the NPFL and a former member of Taylor’s inner circle, Bill Horace and soldiers he commanded committed acts of murder, torture, and rape.

One woman, now in her 50s, told a Maclean’s researcher that NPFL fighters swarmed into her village in 1993, firing their weapons in the air and causing the inhabitants to flee. Some were shot as they ran. She said a fighter known as Rebel King hit her on the head with his rifle. When she stood, one of the NPFL fighters, whom she described as the youngest in the group, ordered her to strip. She was dragged into a nearby kitchen and gang-raped.

“The pain was too much,” the woman said, “and I cried and cried and cried, but none of them would listen to me. My sister went to Bill and William Sumo [another NPFL commander] to complain about the fighters’ treatment against me but they ordered the other fighters to also detain her. She was also stripped naked and raped by the fighters while she was in their jail.”

Safe haven for an alleged killer
Photograph by Patrick Robert/ Sygma/ Corbis

There is a palm oil plantation outside the Liberian town of Pleebo, near the border with Ivory Coast. It had been thoroughly looted in the early days of the war, but oil palms still grew there and produced fruit. As the war dragged on and local residents starved, many foraged in the plantation, harvesting the oil palm fruit for food and to sell the oil they extracted from it.

John Harmon, a resident of Pleebo, said he and some 24 other men were at the plantation one day in 1993 when they were confronted by Horace and a group of NPFL fighters. “They came and accused us of looting and therefore said we should be executed,” Harmon told Maclean’s. “Twenty-one were executed in all fashions. They were shot. They were beheaded. Some were nailed to the cross, like my brother, Steve. He was nailed to the cross and then later shot.”

Harmon said the victims took a long time to die. “We cried. We tried to talk to [Horace]. People came, some of our relatives came, and they were on the spot begging him while the executions were going on. It is a horrible thing to talk about.” Eventually, Harmon said, there were only four still living. At this point another NPFL commander by the name of Turtle Bone intervened, and the survivors were spared.

Two former associates of Charles Taylor—Daniel Chea, a senior military commander in the NPFL and eventually Taylor’s defence minister, and Randall Cooper, a civilian member of the NPFL—reject Harmon’s story, arguing that if such a massacre had taken place, they would have heard about it. They say they did not.

But John Harmon’s account of a massacre at the oil palm plantation near Pleebo is supported elsewhere. Maclean’s has obtained copies of statements made by two Pleebo residents to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in August and September 2006. Both statements are broadly consistent with Harmon’s account, although neither mentioned that victims were crucified on the day of the massacre. One of the witnesses, who also spoke with a Maclean’s researcher last year, did accuse Horace of crucifying a man on a separate occasion. He also confirmed Harmon’s account that some victims from the palm oil plantation were beheaded—he said with machetes. (Because testimony to the commission is supposed to be confidential, Maclean’s has not published the witnesses’ names, or those of relatives they mentioned in their statements.)

“Everyone around here used to go to the big palm nut farm to cut palm and make oil to eat and sell,” one witness told the commission. “Gen. Bill Horace and his men were passing. They entered the plantation and accused us of looting the place. He then ordered his men to arrest people. They started chasing us, and everybody was running all over the place. They then started firing at us. I first saw one woman fall. The bullet hit her on the head. Her husband was crying. Then one of the other fighters shot him also. Both of them died instantly.

“The fighters at that time had spread all over. I was running with my brother…and father. The bullet hit [my brother] on the chest and he fell. We left him there. My father told me to run fast. Then the most unfortunate thing in my life happened. My father was machine-gunned. He dropped. I was very confused and was crying but had to run for my life…

“Finally, I left the plantation and was now in town and broke the news to my mother. She was crying. We waited till later afternoon to go to [the plantation] to check if our people were dead or alive. When we arrived there, they were dead. We saw dead bodies all around.”

Safe haven for an alleged killer
Photograph by Patrick Robert/ Sygma/ Corbis

A second witness interviewed by the commission made almost identical allegations. “At that time the farm was not operating again because of the war, so people went there to help themselves,” he said. “One day while they were there, Bill Horace was passing. Among them was my uncle…who went there to get something for his wife and children. Bill stopped them and ordered his fighters to arrest the people, but some of them started running. The fighters started firing at the people and killed most of them. I don’t know the actual number, but I think there were about 50 people in that plantation from that day. Women and children were among the people who ran…They followed them and also killed them.”

Two witnesses who spoke to a Maclean’s researcher, including one who also testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, attribute another massacre to Horace and fellow NPFL commanders William Sumo and William Toe. They say the three accused local residents of supporting a rival armed group, identified by one witness as the Liberia Peace Council, which fought the NPFL in southern Liberia.

“They started collecting most of the men and beating them,” the second witness, a woman, said in an interview with a Maclean’s researcher. “Then one of them gave the command for the fighters to shoot into the crowd, because some people were escaping. The fighters then opened fire. People were running and falling at the same time.

“By the time the firing had ceased, the whole place was completely quiet. Plenty of people had already been killed by the fighters. Those of us who escaped also had bullet marks on our bodies. They also collected some of the young girls in the town and took them to their base to make them their wives.

“When we returned to the town later, the bodies were all over. The elders went to Bill to complain, but they told them that the people who were killed were rebels so they could not do anything about it.”

The atrocities allegedly carried out by Bill Horace and his comrades in Maryland Country eroded support for the NPFL in the region and risked triggering a localized rebellion. “Because of the continuous harassment, looting, raping, and killing of innocent unarmed civilians in Maryland County, the local citizens that were warriors quickly organized themselves as a Citizens’ Defence Force for Maryland County, just to protect themselves, their wives, and their children,” a former senior military official in the NPFL, who was a close adviser to Charles Taylor, said in written testimony provided to Maclean’s.

That military source is now in a witness protection program outside Liberia. A former senior official in the Special Court for Sierra Leone has vetted the official as a credible source. “According to Bill Horace, he said that the citizens disrespected him as the overall commander in Maryland County by organizing themselves,” the former NPFL military official continued. “This, Bill Horace considered as a challenge to him and his men, thereby ordering his men to react immediately by attacking the unarmed civilians. Most of the unarmed civilian men were killed, [also] women and children. Some of the women were raped as well.”

A delegation of village chiefs and elders was sent from Maryland County to see Charles Taylor at his executive mansion in Gbarnga. This is confirmed by both the former senior military official, and by a second source who was very close to Charles Taylor and heard from the delegation “with my own ears.” “They came and met with Taylor and told Taylor about how Bill would crucify—I mean, at the time, when you hear about executions, it was like nothing—but when they talk about nailing people alive to the cross, it resonated even among the wicked people that were there,” the source told Maclean’s.

Taylor worried that Horace’s alleged cruelty would cause residents of Maryland Country to turn against him. In Taylor’s eyes, Horace had become a liability. He sent his aide-de-camp, Momoh Gibba, and a small group of fighters to arrest or kill him. Horace somehow learned that his life was in danger and fled across the border to Ivory Coast. This was in late 1993 or early 1994.
Daniel Chea told Maclean’s he saw Horace briefly in 1994 in Accra, Ghana. There was a conference in the city, and Chea attended with Charles Taylor. Horace was living in a nearby refugee camp and visited Chea at his hotel. Chea hasn’t seen or heard from Horace since.

“Most people thought he was dead,” one Liberian source told Maclean’s. “Me too. I thought he was actually dead.”

He wasn’t. Horace lived for a time in Africa and possibly Europe, before eventually migrating to Canada around 2002. He married a woman in Toronto. They are now separated. Horace once regularly attended Rhema Christian Ministries, an energetic evangelical church at Downsview Park in Toronto, where services feature a rollicking band and dancers. When Maclean’s visited the church in December, parishioners said they hadn’t seen Horace in several weeks.

Under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, anyone who has committed gross human rights violations can be criminally charged, regardless of their legal status in Canada or where the alleged atrocities took place. An individual can be held accountable for crimes he personally committed, or for those carried out by his subordinates.

Responsibility for finding and prosecuting suspected war criminals in Canada lies with Canada’s War Crimes Program, a collaborative unit involving the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, the Department of Justice, the RCMP, and the Canada Border Services Agency. The program receives about $16 million in funding every year. Since the act was passed almost a decade ago, two people have been charged and one convicted.

“These are extremely complex cases,” says Terry Beitner, the director and general counsel of the crimes against humanity and war crimes section of the Department of Justice. “The evidence of these crimes lies typically overseas. Investigations take years.” It is more common, Beitner said, to pursue suspected war criminals for immigration violations and deport them, rather than to launch criminal cases.

No one at the program will discuss whom they might be investigating. Bill Horace has not been charged. At least one man in Liberia hopes he will be.

John Harmon, whose brother was murdered at the Pleebo oil palm plantation, fled to Ivory Coast and didn’t return to Liberia until 2002. He has an eight-year-old daughter and hasn’t told her about what happened. He has rarely spoken about it to anyone. “I think Bill should be brought to justice,” he said. “To catch a bunch of civilians because they were wandering and went to look for food and were not armed. That was a massacre. It was not some military operation. It was a massacre.”