War Criminals Old and New

All things considered, Helmut Oberlander, the 84-year-old veteran of a Second World War Nazi killing squad who has just been stripped of his Canadian citizenship and ordered deported, is extraordinarily lucky to have lived this long.

As a child, he first survived Stalin’s state-manufactured famine that killed more than two million Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. Ethnic Germans such as Oberlander living in the Soviet Union were targeted during Stalin’s purges of 1937 and 1938, but Oberlander survived these as well. The odds against his long life grew even longer the moment Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans to Kazakhstan and Siberia, where many were worked to death. Oberlander avoided this. He also avoided the fate of the more than 25 million Soviet soldiers and civilians who died fighting the invading Germans, or under their devastating occupation. Instead, he was drafted by the German army in 1941 and put to work as an interpreter for an Einsatzkommando mobile killing squad, a subgroup of the Einsatzgruppen task forces that murdered hundreds of thousands of thousands of Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet political commissars – usually by shooting the victims into mass graves. Oberlander’s unit was also issued a poison gas van.

How much choice the 17-year-old Oberlander had in his assignment is debatable. Many Ukrainians willingly collaborated with and fought for the Germans, whom they initially saw as liberators from a regime that had intentionally starved so many of them to death. More fought against them, recognizing Nazi Germany as a regime of unmatched genocidal brutality. There is no evidence that Oberlander ever killed anyone himself. The Federal Court judge who upheld his deportation order concluded that hiding his past involvement in a Nazi death squad deprived Oberlander of the right to Canadian citizenship.

It is possible if not probable that Oberlander would have died had he refused orders to join the Einsatzkommando unit, swallowed by the yawning furnace that was the Eastern Front. And maybe there are times when dying is the only honourable thing to do, although others might pause to contemplate how they would react in similar circumstances. Perhaps, 65 years later, Oberlander if finally facing something approximating the justice he deserves. Still, I can’t think about Oberlander without considering the fate of another alleged war criminal living in Canada.

Since writing last year about Charles Taylor, the former Liberian warlord and president who is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, I’ve been looking into the lives of several associates of Taylor who are now in Canada. One, whom I’m not yet in a position to name, stands out. He was one of Taylor’s regional commanders in the early 1990s and controlled much of Taylor’s illegal timber exports from the port city of Buchanan. He earned a particularly infamous reputation for sadism.

“This man killed a thousand. He used to nail people to lumber,” a reliable source who knew him at the time told me. “It was the normal thing they’d do: they’d see a girl and a guy, and they’d take the girl and kill the guy.”

The commander left Liberia in the 1990s and eventually arrived in Canada by way of Burkina Faso and Germany. He now lives, apparently unmolested by authorities, in Toronto. A Liberian woman living in Canada who was told that this commander was also in the country physically shook when she heard the news, according to my source. The commander had allegedly killed most of her family with a knife.

It is possible that 50 years from now justice will come looking for this man, as it has for Helmut Oberlander. West African mass murderers were never as careful record keepers as the Nazis, but maybe someone will be able to compile a case against him just the same. In the meantime, the former warlord is settling down. He recently got married to a Caribbean woman in a bustling evangelical church. He says he has found Christ and is born again.

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