It was June 2002 when Cindor Reeves was first tipped off that his brother-in-law, the president of Liberia, had sent a team of assassins to murder him.
At 30 years of age, Reeves was already a seasoned gunrunner and diamond smuggler. His brother-in-law was Charles Taylor, who in 1989 had launched a long-running civil war with his rebel fighters in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia that killed more than 200,000 but left Taylor in charge of much of the country. (He was elected president during a brief lull in the fighting in 1997.) The Liberian war also spilled over its borders. Taylor had created a proxy army next door in Sierra Leone that called itself the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF. Since 1991, the RUF and its legions of drug-crazed child soldiers had terrorized Sierra Leone, killing and hacking off the limbs of tens of thousands of civilians, and enslaving thousands more to mine for diamonds.
It was these diamonds that Taylor got in exchange for arming and funding the RUF. Reeves had the job of ensuring that the diamond and gun pipeline flowed smoothly. Taylor appointed Reeves as one of his main envoys to the RUF in 1998. Often working as an aide to Ibrahim Bah, a Senegalese veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and Taylor’s main diamond handler, Reeves would escort the weapons in and the diamonds out. Taylor trusted Reeves because he was family. Taylor married Reeves’s sister in 1981 and invited Reeves to live with them in 1989, just before the civil war started.
But in 2002, when Reeves was warned that his life was in danger, Taylor’s fortunes had changed. The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was established that January, with funding from more than 50 countries, including Canada, to try those who bear “greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Sierra Leone civil war. Taylor, who is now on trial in The Hague, would not be indicted until 2003 for his role in the conflict that consumed Liberia’s neighbour. But even then he knew the court would come after him. He needed to cover his tracks.
“He started whacking people,” says Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter who was stationed in West Africa at the time. Anyone who could link Taylor to the RUF was at risk. Dennis Mingo, an RUF commander known as Superman and feared for his widespread abduction of children, was murdered, as was Reeves’s friend, Daniel Tamba, despite Reeves urging him to get out of Liberia. Reeves was in Accra, capital of Ghana, at the time, but he wasn’t safe there. A friend who was a senior commander in Taylor’s commando unit made a risky phone call. “A hit team is coming for you,” he told Reeves. “I gave the order.” Reeves went into hiding with his wife and infant daughter. The assassins eventually returned to Liberia.
Relations between Reeves and Taylor had been deteriorating for months before. When an incriminating story about Taylor ran in a Western newspaper in August 2001, Taylor mistakenly thought Reeves was the source and ordered that he be detained. Reeves was warned in advance and evaded arrest, so Taylor’s men jailed his pregnant wife instead. When Reeves bought her freedom for $500 three weeks later, she needed to be hospitalized. The couple moved to Ghana.
Reeves was able to patch things up with Taylor, at least outwardly. What Taylor didn’t know was that Reeves had been preparing to turn against him for years. When Reeves made his move, at enormous risk to his own life, he helped bring Charles Taylor, one of the most wanted war criminals in the world, to justice. Despite this, Reeves faces an uncertain and dangerous future. Canada is in a position to protect Reeves—but appears to want nothing to do with him.
In interviews with Maclean’s, Reeves described growing up in Taylor’s house almost like being under his spell. “If he told me to do something, I would do it without question. You would do it with confidence. You think, ‘Oh, he likes me.’ If Taylor says hello, you’re happy for a month.”