The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

PHOTO: Joshua Milton Blahyi, a former Liberian factional fighter known as "General Butt Naked", threatens a fellow combatant with a knife during an argument outside the Barclay Training Center army barracks in Monrovia, Liberia, May 15, 1996.

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."

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