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10/30/2013 12:56 PM

The Penitant Warlord

Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

By Jonathan Stock

For years, Joshua Milton Blahyi, better known as General Butt Naked, was one of Liberia's most feared warlords. Then he became a pastor. Today he visits the families of his victims to seek forgiveness for his sins.

On a Tuesday about six years ago, an attempt was made to quantify Joshua Milton Blahyi's guilt. The president of his native Liberia had appointed a nine-member commission of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and priests to determine what he had done during the civil war. At the beginning of the 132-minute hearing, they asked him a question: "How many victims were there?" The camera images from the hearing show Blahyi sitting there, dressed in white trousers, a white shirt and white shoes, pondering the question. How many had he killed?

He looked in front of him, into the large, opulent room in which the hearing was taking place. He seemed both focused and completely relaxed. During the war, the spot where the commission was now sitting had been occupied by an overturned presidential throne, a pile of feces and a shiny black Steinway piano. Its legs had been carefully removed, as if surgically amputated. At the time, Blahyi controlled the streets of the Liberian capital Monrovia and went by a different name.

The war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003, claimed 250,000 lives. A million people left the country and up to 20,000 children were recruited as soldiers. Reporters brought home photos of child soldiers wearing Halloween masks and women's wigs, eating human hearts and decorating streets intersections with bones. Families paid for magic spells that they hoped would offer them protection, either with money or by sacrificing a family member. The leaders adopted noms de guerre that could have been taken from films, or nightmares, which they often were: General Rambo, General Bin Laden, General Satan.

Blahyi had a reputation for being more brutal than other military leaders. Everyone knows his nom de guerre, which he says he will never lose: General Butt Naked. He was a cannibal who preferred to sacrifice babies, because he believed that their death promised the greatest amount of protection. He went into battle naked, wearing only sneakers and carrying a machete, because he believed that it made him invulnerable -- and he was in fact never hit by a bullet. His soldiers would make bets on whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and then they would slit open her belly to see who was right.

Blahyi is now a priest who goes to chess club on Saturdays.

When asked about his victims, he turned his head to the side and wiped his neck. He had only learned to speak English a few years earlier, and he chose his words carefully. He had shaved his cheeks and his massive head, and sweat was running down his forehead. In the end, he said: "I don't know the entire… the entire… the entire number… but if I… if I… were to calculate it… everything I have done… it would be… it shouldn't be fewer than 20,000."

A Murderer with Few Peers

There are only a few people in the world accused of a similar number of murders as Blahyi. But no one responded to the accusations against him in the same way he did. Kaing Guek Eav, the head of the Khmer Rouge prison camp in Cambodia, where about 15,000 people were tortured and murdered, referred to himself as an ordinary secretary who had obeyed orders, like everyone else in the machinery. Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, accused of acts of genocide that led to the deaths of 8,000 people in Srebrenica and 11,000 in Sarajevo, called the accusations "monstrous words" that he had never heard before. And General Augustin Bizimungu, who helped write the death lists in Rwanda, said nothing at all.

Blahyi answered each question conscientiously, even when he was asked about the taste of human flesh. The record of the hearing, in which he is confronted with his earlier statements, is kept on file in Liberia's national archive.

"'I recruited children who were nine or 10 years old.' Is this correct?"

"Yes."

"'I planted violence into them. I explained to them that killing people was a game.' Is this correct?"

"Correct."

"'When I shot and wounded an enemy, I would rip open his back and eat his live heart.' Is this correct?"

"Let me be more precise…I also laid down the body and had my child soldiers cut the person to pieces, so that they wouldn't have any feelings for people."

"Are you the same Joshua Milton Blahyi they now call Blahyi the Evangelist?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Why did you decide, in light of this … past, to come to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?"

"For my faith. I was told that I should tell the truth, and the truth will set me free."

Man of God, or Fraud?

On a Sunday in July, five years after the hearing, Blahyi is preaching to his congregation. The odor of slaughterhouse waste permeates the church in Monrovia. Outside, a child is urinating in the sand. It's the rainy season, but the church is filled with young women in colorful dresses, businessmen wearing ties and parents cradling their children. They have spent three hours singing, dancing and praying. It was more like a festival than a church service, and now, as the event reaches its climax, the man they have been waiting for appears: Pastor Blahyi. He is wearing a white vest. He takes the microphone in his hand and says: "Take your seats. Hallelujah. I want to talk to you about blessings. Praise the Lord!"

He now calls himself Joshua, after the biblical successor to Moses. He preaches the Word of God. He has built a mission for former child soldiers he finds in the streets, and he gives them food and clothing. He has adopted three children. He has more than 2,500 friends on Facebook. He is grateful when he is praised, and he is as happy as a small child when someone embraces him. "He is a good boy," says his mother, who now cooks for the former child soldiers. "Generous and funny," say his children, who now live with him. "A new person," says his wife.

Is it possible that a war criminal can become a man of God? Or is he a fraud? That's the accusation: that he puts on the mask of a preacher every Sunday, but that beneath the mask he remains a murderer.

Blahyi, 42, is sitting on the terrace behind his house in the northern part of Monrovia. He is a heavyset man who once had the body of a fighter. Neighbors are hanging up their laundry. Children are shouting in the garden of the house next door. His daughters, who are on school vacation, are in the kitchen making a salad for the chicken dinner that is about to be served. Blahyi likes having his family around him. He talks about his eldest son Joshua, who is now 12 and about to enter high school, and who wants to become an aeronautical engineer. Blahyi watches a butterfly flying over the palm trees. His eyes become soft when he talks about his children. "I think they're proud of me," he says.

"Do you sleep well at night?"

"I am blessed with good sleep."

"Are you happy?"

"Yes, very."

"Will you go to heaven?"

"That's what it says in the Bible. He who believes in Jesus shall not be condemned."

Stability over Justice

Blahyi was never punished for his crimes. The Truth Commission's only mandate was to investigate the crimes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague only has jurisdiction over crimes committed since it was founded in 2002. A special tribunal with the power of prosecuting earlier crimes, like the ones for Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, was never established for Liberia.

Such a tribunal could be created through a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. But the UN has no clear rules of procedure for cases like Liberia, and there is often a trade-off between justice and stability. In Liberia, stability was chosen over justice, because if everyone in the country who has killed someone were charged with murder, it would probably turn into another Somalia. Nevertheless, Blahyi is convinced that there will eventually be a special tribunal for Liberia.

"Would you be prepared to spend the rest of your life in prison?"

"I would accept it willingly, as well as the death penalty. Even if I could run away, I would not run away. My Lord Jesus says: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

"How do you atone for your sins?"

"I visit the people I have hurt, the victims of my crimes. I try to help them."

"You ask for forgiveness?"

"Yes. That's the most difficult moment. I couldn't feel anything in the past. Now I feel their pain."

"What are you afraid of?"

"That I will meet the Lord tomorrow, and he will say: 'You have wasted the opportunity that I have given you.'"

Lyn Westman, an American psychologist who accompanied him for several years, tells the story of Blahyi's encounter with a former enemy who was threatening him with a machete. Blahyi sank to his knees and said that he would be willing to die if it would help the man. The man eventually left him alone.

"There is no trace of his old life," says his wife. But that isn't true. Blahyi has been visiting his victims for years, until they forgive him. And he doesn't want ordinary forgiveness. "Complete forgiveness," he says, forgiveness that must come from the depths of their hearts. That, he says, is God's wish, just as the Bible states in Ephesians 4:32: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Nineteen of 76 victims have forgiven him, he says. But most of the victims want nothing to do with him. They lash out at him, berate him or simply walk away in silence.

Kneeling Before the Victim

Faith Gwae is the 77th victim he visits. He only knows her first name, which he learned from the pastor of her congregation, who arranged the meeting. Gwae agreed because the pastor had promised that nothing would happen to her and that she would not have to do anything, but that the pain of her loss would subside, just as if she were in therapy. Blahyi knows that he has wronged her, but he doesn't remember exactly what he did. Gwae lives at the end of a path, in a settlement with no electricity or running water. It consists of a few small huts, with cocks crowing in plots of dried-up grass. There is an oil film on the puddles. Gwae earns the equivalent of €20 ($27) a month, working as a teacher in one of Monrovia's worst neighborhoods.

Blahyi gets out of his Jeep a few hundred meters from the hut. It has been raining and he walks gingerly along the path, where only a few cement bags prevent him from sinking into the mud. He stops at the back of the hut. He looks up at the gray sky and then at his feet in the dirt. "This is my path," he says. "I wish I had alternatives."

She turns around as he approaches. She looks surprised. He looked different the last time she saw him, 22 years ago. She was 16 and he was 19. This is the story she tells a few days later, with long pauses between sentences, and without Blahyi in the room: It was July 1991, and she and her family were living on the outskirts of Zwedru in eastern Liberia. When they tuned the radio to the BBC, they heard news about the war. They wondered whether they should stay or leave. It was the rainy season and the rivers were swollen. The Cavalla River, which forms the border between Liberia and Ivory Coast, was impassable. "The war won't last long," her mother said, so the family decided to stay.

A group from the Krahn tribe was searching for enemies within the country, which, in a civil war, consists of any member of another tribe. Her older brother, Daniel, was hiding a nanny from the Gio tribe who had been working for the family for years. "It'll be okay," the mother said. Faith heard the screams outside the huts as the men approached. Suddenly she saw a naked man with only a machete in his hand. "Why is the man naked?" she wondered. Then she saw the other men, about 25 of them, as she estimates today, carrying guns.

They had heard that there was a Gio woman in the village. Daniel stood in front of the nanny to protect her. "She is a human being, like you and me," he said to Blahyi. Blahyi responded with an order. One of the boys stepped forward and chopped off her brother's foot. Then he hacked off his lower leg, followed by his thigh and his hip, methodically working his way up the body. Eventually her brother fell silent.

Blahyi told everyone to lie on the ground. His men raped her mother and her sisters, and then killed them. Gwae says: "They didn't rape me, but they did things to me that I don't want to talk about. They left me with a blemish that I will always have." At some point Blahyi said that things were moving too slowly, and that there were other military operations to attend to. That was when he began to participate.

Gwae sometimes wonders why her life was spared. Perhaps it was God. Or perhaps the men thought that she was already dead.

'Leave My Heart Alone'

Now Blahyi is back. He walks up to her. His left hand is in his pocket and he leans up against the white column of the veranda with his right hand. He seems as if he had lost something. Gwae is sitting on a wall with her back to Blahyi. Both are waiting. Finally, Blahyi exhales slowly and says: "Sister, I am only here to say that I am sorry. That is all I want to say. That is all."

Then he kneels down and places his massive head on her thin knee. He clasps her foot, wearing pink sock, in his right hand. He begins to weep. Then a sobbing noise emerges from Gwae's chest. It sounds as if something were bursting inside of her. "Please forgive me," Blahyi whispers. Then he waits, still kneeling in front of her, but nothing happens.

Eventually she says: "It's okay." But it isn't forgiveness. She just wants him to stop. She shakes her head. She lifts her hand. Later, she will say that she felt as if she were about to die. Blahyi gets up and sinks into the only chair on the veranda, an old, black office chair.

After a few minutes Gwae says: "I don't want to hear anything. I don't want to say anything. Please go. Don't ask me any more questions. Leave my heart alone."

But Blahyi doesn't go, refusing to give up. He offers her money, but she refuses. He asks her where her relatives are, whether she is married and why she lives alone. She only shakes her head. He doesn't know yet that he killed her entire family.

"I know I can do nothing for you," he says. "But at least… let me play the brother, the father, someone. I can play the family, if possible." Gwae's knees begin to shake. The whole thing feels so phony that one has the impulse to grab Blahyi and take him away.

He tries to get through to her by talking about himself. "It hurts," he says. "I was playing with my children recently, and we were laughing. And I started to think: Now my children are laughing. What about the other children, the ones I killed?" He pauses, then says: "These things come to me. Every day is a challenge. I know I can't reach everyone. All I can do is hope."

Evangelizing to a Warlord

This short, self-pitying sentence in this failed attempt at atonement is enough to open a conversation. Gwae, a thin woman, opens her mouth and says: "It's something that doesn't happen right away. It's a process. Leave me alone with myself. After a while… I will think about it. I won't wake up and say: Oh yeah, I forgive you. That's impossible, you know."

"I know," he says.

"I don't know," she says.

There are two possible explanations for what Blahyi is doing. The first one is that he has been playing a cynical game for 17 years, the game of the pious man. But in a country with complete impunity for war crimes, that doesn't make much sense. "Here they honor the people without honor," says Blahyi. General Prince Johnson, who had the former president's ears cut off and then let him bleed to death, all the while sitting at his desk with a can of Budweiser, is now a senator in the Liberian parliament. When asked about his former crimes, he says: "It was war. I was a soldier." Why should Blahyi behave as if he were a priest, and trace a past that no one is really interested in? He could have gone into politics or opened an auto repair shop, and no one in Liberia would have been surprised.

The second possibility is that Blahyi has truly changed.

The man who could know the truth is Bishop John Kun Kun of the Soul Winning Church in Monrovia. He was the one who turned the mass murderer into a man of God. He is a respected man in Liberia and the head of one of the country's most influential churches. He is currently in Robertsport, a coastal town 80 kilometers northwest of Monrovia, attending a meeting of church leaders from around the country.

Kun Kun is a calm man with a clear gaze. He moves as fluidly as an athlete, but his speech is as measured as that of an old man. This is his story: When the civil war flared up again in April 1996, he and other church leaders decided to do something against the terror. They decided to do the one thing they could do best in a country in which faith plays such an important role: proselytize. But this time it was the military leaders they hoped to convert. Kun Kun was chosen to speak with General Butt Naked. He went to Blahyi's military barracks in southern Monrovia, knocked on the door and walked in. The man he found there was restless and claimed that he had no time for Kun Kun, as he was taking apart and reassembling his submachine gun.

Why did Blahyi live a life that consisted of killing? "It was the only thing he knew," says Kun Kun. I think he enjoyed the fact that people were afraid of him. He liked being in command. People depended on him."

A Criminal with No Judge

Kun Kun said to him: "All I wanted to tell you is that Jesus loves you, and that he has a better plan for your life." Blahyi looked at him and said nothing. Kun Kun said a prayer and asked Blahyi to close his eyes and repeat the prayer after him. He didn't close his eyes, but he repeated the prayer. Then Blahyi went to his bodyguard and shot him in the knees for letting the bishop in. Blahyi would later ask the bodyguard's family for forgiveness. Kun Kun wondered whether it was truly a good idea to visit Blahyi again.

But he did return. And when he got to know Blahyi, he realized that he was a man who was deeply afraid and believed that he was possessed by a demon, and who was searching for a way out, which was something Kun Kun could offer him. "Let us pray together," he said to Blahyi.

Blahyi finds one of his favorite passages in the Bible, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life … Whoever believes in him is not condemned." Blahyi has found perhaps the only religion that can forgive him for committing murder thousands of times, forgive him completely and still recognize the greatness of its God in this act of forgiveness. "God has the power to change anyone," says Kun Kun, "even Butt Naked."

In his Sunday sermon, Pastor Blahyi talks about the suffering of Job, the dreams of Jacob and the miracles of Jesus. The members of his congregation close their eyes and stretch out their hands. His voice becomes louder and louder, until he is shouting as he runs between the rows of congregants, reaching up with his arm and shouting into the microphone: "God, show me my purpose. Show me my purpose, God. Show me the reason I was born." The raised hands of his listeners create shadows on the wall behind him. It looks as if large, black hands were reaching for him, hands from which he manages to escape again and again.

On the next day, this is how he describes his purpose: "I believe that God wishes to use me as a sign. No matter how far a person goes, he has the potential to change."

Perhaps there is a third possibility, one that does not involve Blahyi wearing a mask or being truly reformed. Perhaps Blahyi earnestly believes that he has changed. And the country in which he lives believes him, too. And if everyone believes it, isn't it true? If Blahyi truly wears a mask every Sunday, the skin underneath has now conformed to the mask. In that case, Blahyi remains a criminal without a judge on earth.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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