Judgment day for Liberia's warlord
Nine years after his war crimes indictment, Charles Taylor is finally facing a verdict. Daniel Howden visits his mansion in Monrovia – and meets the wife he left behind
The final judgment on Charles Taylor will come in a sterile courtroom in the Netherlands, far from the tropical forests and humid cities where blood was spilt in his play for power in West Africa. Prosecutors have portrayed him as the warlord most responsible for the limbless veterans known as "shortsleeves" on the streets of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown and the countless other victims of a maelstrom of atrocities in the region's civil wars during the 1990s.
Tomorrow's verdict will be heralded either as a milestone for international justice or its most damaging defeat. The pronouncement may even disturb the gilded life of a one-time supermodel who was forced to testify at his marathon trial.
Among the great and good who would celebrate Taylor being found guilty will be many who were once seduced by his unusual charisma. They might be embarrassed to know that their tributes, signed photographs and gifts to a guerrilla leader who terrorised and captivated Liberia still decorate White Flower, Taylor's modernist mansion on the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia.
Six years on from his arrest it's a mouldering heap, where his young wife Victoria and their daughter, conceived during a conjugal visit to the Netherlands, wait for him to come home.
Sitting in the courtyard with its poor copy of Rome's Trevi Fountain and a collection of rusting sports cars, she maintains that her husband has been the victim of a deep conspiracy.
"He's not what the international community demonised him to be," she says of someone charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Propped up on an armchair with the stuffing falling out, serving tea in chipped cups, she talks of "big hands behind the [court] case". She blames the United States and the UN for transforming her man into the "demon" whose minions cut babies from their mothers' wombs, according to evidence given at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. There is a real sense of betrayal among Taylor's inner-circle who believe that a man whom the US admitted last year was on its payroll with the CIA has been made a scapegoat.
The former president is in "high spirits", according to his wife, who says he's absorbed in the detail of his own trial, the last case remaining for the Sierra Leone tribunal. She speaks of the six years of hearings, as though he were away at university, insisting that he has used the time to study law and manage his defence. If that effort and any subsequent appeal fails he will serve his sentence at a prison in the UK.
As always with the showman Taylor there have been surprises. There was the arrival of Charlize, his third daughter, conceived during one of the conjugal visits. And the former lay preacher's abrupt conversion to Judaism.
Vicky, as she prefers to be called, speaks of her husband with a girlish pride as a "family man" who has been "misunderstood". As for his new faith "he told me that ever since he was a little boy he had questions about God".
"Since he got to The Hague he found a Rabbi and he has found the answers."
She is less forthcoming about his missing fortune – said by prosecutors to run to billions of dollars – amassed while looting the forests of Liberia and the diamond fields of Sierra Leone and Guinea. These were the "dirty little pebbles" that model Naomi Campbell said she received from Taylor's aides after a charity dinner attended by actress Mia Farrow and Nelson Mandela in 1997.
In the dock, the defendant has gamely insisted that he's penniless, forcing the ICC to cover his defence costs which ran to $100,000 a month. Yet reports at the time of his arrest, while trying to escape Nigeria, had him fleeing in a luxury car stuffed with cash. His wife snorts at stories of Jaguars and stolen fortunes.
"They say he stole $3bn. Where is that $3bn?" Vicky says gesturing around the decaying White Flower.
Indeed, the grand residence, built in four steps down the side of a hill in the once upscale neighbourhood of Congo Town, has seen better days. Dead birds and palm fronds compost in the drained swimming pool and stray dogs wander across the wrecked courts where tennis enthusiast Taylor used to play.
The inside has fared a little better and the chapel on the ground floor has Jewish Menorah candlesticks in homage to his new religion. The house's bric-a-brac of politics and high living is at odds with her claim that he wants to return to Liberia to be a farmer.
The often bizarre and contradictory path of Taylor's life is mapped out across the dusty reception room at his former residence. Kofi Annan smiles from a signed portrait stacked on the floor with similar keepsakes, a copper plaque commemorates a "peace award" given to him by the regional power bloc ECOWAS. Bearing down on the room's white and gold French furniture is an oil painting depicting a serene Charles rising through clouds towards a smiling Christ. Among the family portraits lies a well-thumbed copy of the book Israel at 50.
The name of the home where she keeps vigil comes from the war years when the then-rebel commander would name all his camps White Flower to symbolise his purity. It was all part of the relentless self- mythologising that means Taylor still divides Liberians. Vicky says that Liberia hasn't fallen out of love with the man who won the post-war election in 1997 with the slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa but I'm gonna vote for him".
His ex-wife Jewel Taylor is an elected senator and fiery critic of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize largely on the strength of Liberia's recovery after Taylor was forced into exile.
The Taylor family reserves a special ire for Ma Ellen as she's known to Liberians: "She's not a mother, she's a monster," says Vicky. "Every war that was fought in this country she had a hand in. If you can give her a Nobel Peace Prize then you can give one to Prince Johnson [the warlord who killed the late Liberian President Samuel Doe]."
No court verdict can settle all the arguments over what went on in West Africa's civil wars but it will go some way to deciding whether there's an unlikely homecoming to Monrovia or if a small corner of a British jail is about to be rechristened White Flower.
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