Nearly 30 years after a force of rebels seized much of Liberia, executed its president, and kicked off a devastating civil war, Herman J. Cohen's first face-to-face meeting with the country's most infamous warlord, Charles Taylor, remains cemented in his memory.

Cohen, then serving as an assistant U.S. secretary of state, had been dispatched in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush in hopes of securing assurances that American interests would be protected from the fighting that had already killed hundreds of civilians. But he quickly realized this was to be no ordinary meeting between diplomat and foreign leader.

"We were greeted by these teenagers, all of whom had very large automatic weapons. It was quite frightening," Cohen recalled Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. Taylor, he said, sat at their center, lounging in fatigues under a thatched roof on what appeared to be a makeshift throne.

But it was the artwork hanging behind the West African strongman that caught Cohen's eye. "There was a large portrait of the Kennedy family – John F. Kennedy and his wife," Cohen said. "I got the feeling he was identifying with him."

Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in May 1990.
AP Photo
Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in May 1990.

Cohen's recollection of that 1990 encounter in the West African bush came as U.S. prosecutors presented the opening week of their trial against one of Taylor's top lieutenants, Thomas Woewiyu. They contend the Collingdale, Delaware County, man lied to U.S. immigration authorities in 2006 about the role he played in the former Liberian president's murderous rise to power.

Though he faces only immigration-related charges, the trial that is set to resume Monday has made Woewiyu one of the only wartime leaders to face any criminal consequences for his actions during the bloody, tribal brawl that ravaged Liberia between 1989 and 1997.

And Cohen's testimony – along with the string of other former U.S. diplomats and war correspondents called as government witnesses so far – amounted to a crash course in history for a jury largely unfamiliar with a conflict in a nation thousands of miles and an ocean away.

Their accounts also highlighted Liberia's own complicated history with the United States and American efforts to influence the civil war – efforts that Woewiyu now cites as key to his defense.

As Taylor's chief spokesman throughout the war, he spoke with U.S. officials so often back then that his lawyers argue it is ludicrous to suggest now that he would attempt to hide that association. They have dismissed his failure to mention it on his citizenship application as a mistake.

"Everyone in our government knew [his history] … long before he applied for citizenship," defense lawyer Catherine Henry said to jurors Monday.

Liberia's politics and conflicts have been driven for centuries almost entirely by ethnic discord tied to its association with the United States – a history dating to the nation's 1847 founding as a home for freed and repatriated American slaves.

Those former slaves and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, have long clashed with the nation's multifactioned indigenous population — one often mired in its own internal battles.

Tensions reached a boiling point in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a Liberian of the indigenous Krahn tribe, stormed the country's capital, Monrovia, executed its president, and seized control of the government from the Americo-Liberians.

Liberian president Samuel Doe, right, visits with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan during a White House visit in 1982
Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Liberian president Samuel Doe, right, visits with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan during a White House visit in 1982

Though uneasy with the circumstances under which Doe came to power, President Ronald Reagan was eager to maintain a relationship with the nation, then home to thousands of American citizens and assets, including a rubber plantation owned by the tire company Firestone that supplied the U.S. military.

He welcomed Doe to a 1982 White House reception, where he famously flubbed his introduction of the Liberian leader he called "Chairman Moe," and showered the country with U.S. aid — more per capita than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa at the time.

But Doe's regime quickly showed that it was as violent and riven by corruption as the one it had replaced. All the while, a group of Liberian expats — including both Taylor and Woewiyu, then a legal permanent resident living outside Newark, N.J.  — were launching a plan to remove him.

The organization they formed to support their effort would later become known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). They made their first successful strike on Christmas Eve 1989 and within months Taylor had seized much of the countryside.

For a time, the United States sought to play both sides of the conflict – eager to avoid being shut out of the country by whichever faction emerged the victor, James K. Bishop, the former U.S. ambassador to Liberia, testified Wednesday.

Yet, neither side presented an ideal ally. Doe's government had become increasingly unpopular among Liberians and he was eventually assassinated by an offshoot of Taylor's forces less than a year into the war. Taylor was a convicted felon who had escaped from an American prison in the 1980s before his attempt to violently seize control of his own nation.

Meanwhile, conditions on the ground in Liberia deteriorated.

"Both sides were savaging civilians," Bishop said. "Many thousands of Liberia had crowded into [Monrovia], fleeing from the violence. And the food situation was becoming critical."

Woewiyu emerged from that fray. He called Cohen, the Bush-era State Department official, days after the NPFL invasion to introduce himself as Taylor's chief spokesman and defense minister. He assured the U.S. that its goal was to replace Doe's regime with a democratically elected government.

Thomas Jucontee Woewiyu photographed in the early 1990s.
LIBERIAN DIALOGUE
Thomas Jucontee Woewiyu photographed in the early 1990s.

Cohen testified Wednesday that upon first blush Woewiyu, an erudite family man who by that time had lived in the U.S. for decades, appeared to be a voice of reason amid the chaos.

"He impressed me as someone of reliability," Cohen said, echoing sentiments later expressed by Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC's former West Africa correspondent.

She interviewed Woewiyu several times during the war and also described him during testimony Thursday as a seemingly respectable figure.

"He was very articulate – not as flamboyant as Charles Taylor, but in a bit of the same style," she said. "If you're trying to put someone forward that gives the impression that yours is a serious political movement, he was a good PR man."

Prosecutors say, however, that that "acceptable public face" was just a ruse Woewiyu used when dealing with international leaders to hide the worst excesses of Taylor's fighting forces including summary executions of civilians, looting, and the conscription of child soldiers. His claimed desire for a quick, democratic resolution to the conflict quickly evaporated, they maintain, and several witnesses have testified they saw him in Liberia commanding NPFL troops.

"Tom Woewiyu is responsible directly and indirectly [for] the acts that were committed throughout this conflict by the NPFL," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer Jr. told jurors in opening statements.

In the first four days of the trial — one expected to last three weeks — defense lawyer Mark Wilson sought in questioning the government's witnesses to cast Woewiyu as a freedom fighter who stood in opposition to the corrupt and oppressive Doe.

Woewiyu played no part in the regrettable atrocities that were undeniably committed, he and cocounsel Henry have argued.

"There was not one good guy and one bad guy," Henry said. "There's plenty of blame to go around."