A General Seeks Absolution
The amplifier crackles and squeals as the drummer – a dead ringer for Rick James – tests the microphone. A sleepy teenager lines up plastic white lawn chairs, while an elderly woman wearing her best lappa drags a wooden pulpit across the concrete floor of an open-air structure covered by sheets of corrugated iron. An old 4x4 pulls up, depositing five children and a man wearing a white suit. Built like a boxer, the man strides confidently to the front of the small crowd, shaking hands along the way. Soon, he leads the congregation in a rousing dance while speaking in tongues. It’s another Sunday morning in Chocolate City, a suburb of Monrovia, at the Soul Winning Evangelical Church.
A few minutes later, the man, now sweating slightly, motions for quiet as he embraces a visibly nervous boy of around 12. Calmed by the man’s gentle whispers, the boy’s nerves subside and he launches into a spine-chilling a capella rendition of the old hymn, “I Surrender All.” Clearly, the same leadership skills that made the man in the white suit a fearsome warlord, the commander of the infamous Butt Naked Brigade of child soldiers, serve him well in his current role as Soul Winning’s resident evangelist.
Today, Joshua Blahyi wears a suit to lead his flock into song and scripture. Not so long ago, as General Butt Naked, he led child soldiers into battle wearing nothing but a pair of shoes. Where once he sacrificed a child – one from his own brigade, or one kidnapped from a nearby village – before each battle, and shared in eating that child’s organs, he now begins Sunday service with prayer and worship. The change appears miraculous. But the once-naked man who now wears a white suit is still called the General, even by his devoted congregation, and many Liberians express doubt as to the veracity of Blayhi’s conversion.
The General claims he is the product of his environment – that his ease and proficiency at meting out death began at the age of seven when his father turned him over to Krahn priests to begin his training as a novice. (The Krahn are one of Liberia’s 16 tribes.) By the age of 11, Blayhi had carried out his first human sacrifice – killing a fellow child – at which time he became a member of the Krahn priesthood. A few years later, he became the spiritual advisor to then Liberian president Samuel Doe, a fellow Krahn.
When Doe was killed in a coup led by Charles Taylor in 1990, Blayhi, then 19, took up arms and led a group of children and adolescents against Taylor. “As soon as I started making human sacrifices, I was ready for war,” Blahyi says. His Butt Naked Brigade operated under the auspices of the rebel force United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). Blahyi and his young fighters quickly became known for their savage wartime tactics, including cannibalism – a practice Blahyi advocated to strengthen and protect them in battle.
Liberia’s civil war waged intermittently between 1990 and 2003. Approximately 250,000 people (10 per cent of the population) were killed, 60 to 70 per cent of girls and women were sexually assaulted, and more than a million people were displaced. Throughout the conflict, Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone (also at war during much of this time, due in large part to the political manoeuvring of Taylor’s government) were the regional nexus for drug running, arms trading, and diamond dealing. Supported in part by then Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who harboured designs of pan-African control, Liberia’s wartime trading also helped launder money for al-Qaeda.
General Butt Naked and his brigade were active from 1990 until 1996, when Blahyi claims to have converted to Christianity. The General tells how, trading diamonds mined in territory taken by ULIMO for drugs and weapons, he would take the drugs, usually cocaine, and mash them into the food of “my boys.” It would make them more violent – more fearless – he explains. In case cannibalism failed, drugs were seen as an infallible backup.
Today, the General uses such wartime anecdotes to bolster his sermons. Preaching on cultivating goodness in children, he lowers his voice and gets the congregation to lean forward. “Before I sent a child to the war front lines, I would spend time with them, building their trust, training them how to fight.”
Blayhi then thumps his Bible loudly and accuses his audience: “Some of you don’t have time for your children, and you want them to come out positively. Good needs to be cultivated. What are you doing for your children to cultivate them?”
It was partly to set an example to his children, Blahyi says, that he chose to leave self-imposed exile in Ghana and return to Liberia to testify in front of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008. “I saw the TRC as a platform, not because I wanted to go free, but because I wanted people to know why I was who I was,” he says. “I became violent because of my ill culture. These cultures and traditions are not helpful to Liberian society.” As one of the few warlords to testify at the TRC, Blahyi claims that he received numerous death threats, more because he lifted the veil on the practices of Liberia’s secret societies than because of his own appalling crimes.
Blayhi claimed to be directly responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people, a figure that many think is exaggerated so Blayhi can boast publically about the very misdeeds he claims to seek forgiveness for. Despite Blayhi’s horrifying admissions, the TRC commissioners called for his pardon, citing the “truthful, remorseful and accurate accounts of his actions.”
Speaking quietly after the church service, Blahyi explains the oft-disputed number: “My boys were kids. I was responsible to order thousands of them to commit crimes, so I bear greater responsibility than they do.” He estimates that he gave orders to “thousands” of child soldiers. As his son sidles up for a hug, he rubs his eyes as though wishing the memories away. “I gave guns to boys and girls and they went on to kill 50 or more people each. I gave them medicines and charms and turned them into killing machines.”
Spending time with the General is – pardon the metaphor – like being on a theme park ride: You smile and laugh, for he is very charming, and then you steel yourself as you plumb the depths of the horrors he freely admits to, and wonder about those that he withholds. He is at once boastful and brash, as well as insecure, tortured, and repentant. You come away feeling exhausted.
When questioned about the need for justice after war, Blayhi says that he is “agitated about perpetrators who committed crimes, who should be brought to justice. There is a need for justice.”
Does that include him? I ask.
“I need freedom from sin and life in hell,” he replies.
Institutions like the International Criminal Court are important, Blayhi contends, but limited in their capacities. “I would be willing to turn myself over to any court, just as I turned myself over to the Liberian TRC,” he says, “but the problem with the courts of the West is that they can’t stop people from committing crimes. They have not stopped a single person from killing. They didn’t stop me – Jesus did. I wish the courts would have stopped me as I raised my hand to kill that last little girl, but they didn’t.”
As convincing as Blahyi sounds, I cannot help but wonder if these words are easier to speak when there is little likelihood of him ever being tried in a Liberian court of law, let alone The Hague. Nearly a decade after fighting stopped, there is little legal infrastructure outside of Monrovia; some counties have not had functioning courts since before the war. Prisons are overcrowded, and more than 90 per cent of inmates have yet to be tried.
The General sincerely believes that he is a changed man, and, to a large degree, his actions over the last 16 years support his claim. After all, Blahyi did not conveniently find Jesus to avoid prosecution. He converted to Christianity in 1996, long before the last Liberian peace agreement and any mention of war crimes tribunals. He has now been a preacher longer than he was a warlord. Blahyi does not endorse the grab and greed gospel of prosperity, as so many independent evangelical churches throughout the country do, and instead focuses steadfastly on a message of salvation and forgiveness. While the General lives comfortably according to Liberian standards, his white suit is tired and worn along the seams.
Over the last several years, Blahyi has become a familiar face in the slums of Doala, reaching out to resident petty thieves and drug addicts, many of whom are ex-combatants. Liberia has no formal detox programs, and Blahyi will often bring addicts into his home until they withdraw cold turkey, provided they also attend Sunday service. “These are fighters. They are vulnerable and frustrated,” Blahyi says. “They have been rejected by their family and community. If you are frustrated, you will steal and you will kill.”
The General’s message and outreach are evident this morning in the attendance of Bruno ‘Yankee’ Mark and Emil Gray. Both routinely dash to the outhouse a few feet away throughout the service. Still shaky afterwards, Gray says, “He was one of my generals. Yankee and me are drug addicts, but the ghetto is not my home anymore. I want my life to be transformed like him.”
Despite his conversion, Blahyi acknowledges that he can never pay for his sins, even as he often goes out searching to reconcile with his former victims. “In Liberia, we are irresponsible. And unless a man becomes responsible, he cannot become reconciled,” the General says in closing, as the drummer starts taking down his kit. “I think we need courts; this could be a starting point for reconciliations. People need repercussions for their actions.”
With the state of domestic justice in Liberia and the International Criminal Court’s disinterest in pursuing prosecutions in the country, however, the General is unlikely to stand before any judge in his lifetime. While the once-naked General claims to have found redemption in Jesus, formal justice has yet to find him.
Photo courtesy of Reuters