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."

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1. Everyone deserves forgiveness, but...
littleelk 10/31/2013
He asks for forgiveness but still does not feel or express sincere regret or remorse about his wrongdoing or sin. Again he takes but does not give.
2. joshau Blahyi
spon-facebook-10000658414 06/20/2014
i think he have change from that personhe was
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