Terence Sesay, Deutsche Presse Agentur, July 12
Monrovia — “Stop ritualistic killing. It will not pay you anything. It will not make you rich, nor will it give you a job. If anyone is found guilty of this practice, I will sign his death warrant without winking my eye and I will sleep well.”
These were the words of Liberia’s transitional power-sharing government Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant in reaction to reports of an upsurge in ritualistic killings in post-war Liberia.
These threats by the Liberian head of state have however in no way deterred ritualistic killers. Rather, there has been an upsurge in this primitive, barbaric practice. Notwithstanding Bryant’s threat, radio reports of missing children in the capital Monrovia are common.
Just two days after the Chairman’s June pronouncement, a 19-year — old youth identified as Archibald Dakai was travelling on a motorbike in northeastern Nimba County when he was abducted by a young man who asked him for a lift on his motorbike.
He then led the youth to a group of ritualistic killers (known in Liberia as “Heartmen”) who injected him with formaldehyde. The victim’s decaying body was discovered later with parts missing.
On July 7, citizens of the central provincial city of Gbarnga went on the rampage, burning down vehicles and a Nigerian provision shop in protest at the upsurge in ritualistic murders in Bong County.
The protest was sparked off by the abduction of a youth called Junior Korto who was ambushed on the Gbarnga-Monrovia highway. He survived the attack, but sustained severe injuries during the scuffle.
Korto’s attempted murder is just one in a series of ritualistic activities in Bong County, including the case of a woman whose body was found with breasts and fingers removed a month ago in Sergeant Kollie Town on the Gbarnga-Monrovia highway.
Three people have been arrested in the county in connection with ritualistic activities, according
In another case, a Ghanaian identified as Ansu and a woman called Musu were seized by ritualistic murderers from their canoe as they travelled by river in eastern Rivercess County. The Rivercess County Superintendent Sampson Cephus told state radio that Musu’s body was later found with organs missing. Ansu’s body has not yet been recovered.
The justice ministry told Deutsche Presse Agentur that it is holding nearly 20 people in connection with involvement in ritualistic killings, a capital crime which carries the death penalty under Liberian law.
The ministry said it has received numerous reports of ritualistic killings by the so-called “Heartmen”, with 13 incidents reported in eastern Grand Bassa County during just two weeks in June.
Residents of Grand Bassa organized community watch teams to clamp down on perpetrators of this crime. There are also reports of ritualistic killings in southeastern River Gee and Maryland Counties.
Ritualistic killing is an age-old practice in Liberia. According to 70-year-old Logan Town resident Alfred Cooper, Heartmen usually remove the tongue, private parts, breasts, the skin of the palm and other vital parts, after killing their victims.
The parts are used to prepare talismans believed to endow users with power and riches. Talismans prepared from human parts are also believed to bring victory to users in political contests.
“This is why there is usually an upsurge in ritualistic murders during elections,” Cooper observed.
“Only mentally sound people in good health with some prospects in life are usually murdered. It is the sorcerer who prepares the talisman that decides whether or not a male or female is needed for a certain talisman,” added 65-year-old Ahmadu Belloe.
Ritualistic killings take various forms in different parts of Liberia. What has made the practice so widespread is the fact that talismans prepared from human parts are used by persons from all walks of life regardless of social status or ethnic or educational background.
In the 1970s, Liberia’s 18th president, William R. Tolbert, a prelate, made an impassioned effort to eradicate this primitive practice.
He signed the death warrant of the then Superintendent of Maryland County, Junior Anderson, a member of the Americo-Liberian settler class. The hanging of Anderson and two others helped to reduce the number of ritualistic killings but the problem was never eradicated.
Ahmadu Belloe feels that this practice is rampant because past leaders have not grappled with the issue head-on. It remains to be seen whether Chairman Bryant or his successors will be more successful.