Banner Image: Luyeama Town in Zorzor District, Lofa County. The DayLight/Varney Kamara
By Varney Kamara
LUYEAMA, Lofa County – John Forpka, 55, a resident of Luyeama, was jailed in August after a townsman from the neighboring Washington Village accused him of terroristic threat over a parcel of farmland between both communities.
“That this small number of people in this village, we only supposed to surround them and kill all of them,” Forkpa Washington, his accuser, alleged that he said after Washington and other men from the village had gone on the land, according to documents from the Zorzor Magisterial Court. “That is the only way the problem will be solved.”
Forkpa denied the accusation, and after a two-month trial, the court acquitted him of the charge.
Forpka’s ordeal is the latest in a 50-year-old land conflict involving Luyeama and Washington Village. The conflict started in 1971 and was settled in 1978. But the dispute reemerged in 2018 after Gayflor Washington, an assistant minister at the Ministry of Education and member of the Washington family, claimed 400 acres of land the townspeople of Luyeama said was outside of their boundary.
Luyeama considers a particular tree as the boundary between them and Washington Village, while their neighbors are adamant it goes as far as Ngaza River towards Voinjama.
“The Washingtons are only taking advantage of our poverty, but we will not allow anyone to come here and drive us away from our land,” said Zayzayboi, spokesperson of Luyeama.
The Washingtons disagree with that narrative. They said they have a 1964 deed bearing the 400 acres of land and was signed by then-President William V.S. Tubman.
“We are on the right side of the law,” said Vorwor Washington, spokesperson of the Washington family. “We are not the ones going around and claiming people land. The Luyeama people are just troublemakers.”
Luyeama accused his brother, Gayflor Washington, an assistant minister for teachers’ education of financing his family’s agitation for the controversial farmland.
Gayflor denies that allegation as well. “The Washingtons are many in America. They are spending the money through us,” said Gayflor, who was appointed assistant minister months before the dispute resurfaced.
How it started
In March 2019, the Washington family had complained to local officials that townsmen from Luyeama had stopped men the assistant minister hired to brush his farm. “This incident is one of several disturbances that had been carried out by these men claiming to be owners of our village,” they said in their letter to Henry Zayzay, Paramount Chief of Zorozor District.
A conference between the parties was held four months after. At the end of the meeting, Paramount Chief Zayzay ordered the parties to stop all farming activities on the disputed land. However, villagers from Luyeama said their neighbors violated the chief’s order.
“We want to bring to your attention the gross disregard for the order given by your office for all parties to immediately stop farming on the disputed land until the problem is resolved,” the Luyeama people told Cllr. Kula Jackson, commissioner for land policy and planning at the Land Authority in a letter on December 28, last year. The town was referencing an earlier mandate from the office of the local land administrator.
John’s ordeal mirrors that of Zubayea Yokoi, the town chief of Luyeama in the 1970s. Yokoi was jailed and fined US$2,300 for ordering the destruction of crops belonging to the founder of Washington Village, according to official records of that settlement. Yokoi did not pay the fine but he and other chiefs agreed to give “two-thirds of the suspected land area was willingly and satisfactorily added to Mr. Washington’s already owned parcel of land.”
But the rivalry between Luyeama and Washington Village goes beyond that. Luyeama, for “Blessing is with you” in the Lorma language, got its name after the community survived a bloody tribal war in the 14th century, local legend says. Henry G. Washington, who founded Washington wanted a plot of land in the area but the townspeople of Luyeama refused due to Henry’s alleged involvement in forced labor. They said Henry used his connection with then-President Tubman to force people to head-carry things long distances.
“Henry used this connection and forced people to work in his village without compensation. I am a victim of the forced labor that Henry practiced here,” James Boigie, an elder of Luyeama, told The DayLight in an interview. “He used to force people to tot living hippopotamus from the… forest to the main road. From there, he would transport these animals to Tubman Farm. This is how he got connected to President Tubman.”
The Washington family denied that accusation. “My father was never involved in forced labor,” Vorwor said. “If these people claim that my father was carrying on forced labor, let them go to the labor court, or go to the labor ministry.”
All Eyes on Land Authority
The current dispute between the old foes has ruined the peace they enjoyed for over 40 years. The mood there was tense, fermenting the kind of anger their current generations have not known.
“We are not living in peace,” says Forka Washington, who filed the case against John of Luyeama. “We are under constant harassment and intimidation.”
“Nowadays, when we see each other on the road, it’s like two enemies meeting on the war front,” says Zayzayboi Forkpa, a spokesperson of Luyeama. “We never used to live here like that.”
Liberia’s Land Rights Act recognizes communities such as Luyeama and Washington Village’s right to their land. However, they must agree to a common boundary. “A community’s claim of ownership of customary land shall be established by competent evidence including oral testimonies of community members, maps, signed agreements between neighboring communities and any other confirming documents,” the law says.
Liberia Land Authorities (LLA), which implements the law, and has been investigating the crisis since it reemerged in 2018, has conducted an investigative survey and is expected to release its findings soon.
Both sides of the conflict are awaiting the outcome of the LLA’s ruling, with neither of the parties showing any sign of backing down from the conflict.
“We are willing to defend and die for our land,” John of Luyeama told me. “We need to stand for our rights to ensure that we get justice.”
Vorwor, too, was not reconciliatory in his comments. “We’ll not be intimidated and harassed to leave our property,” he said. “Our family will decide the next course of action if peaceful settlement fails.”
This story is part of The DayLight’s Land-grab Reporting Series.