Murder to mercy: an interview with ex-General Butt Naked

Joshua Milton Blahyi attempts to reconcile with one of his former child soldiers Credit: Ryan Lobo, used with permission of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss.

Joshua Milton Blahyi attempts to reconcile with one of his former child soldiers Credit: Ryan Lobo, used with permission of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss.

That man is Joshua Milton Blayhi, better known by his nom de guerre, General Butt Naked. Between 1989 and 1996, Blayhi became one of the most notorious figures in the bloody Liberian Civil War – a conflict which finally ended in 2003 with a total cost of approximately 250,000 lives.

Blayhi, born the high priest of his native Krahn Tribe, served as his clan’s foremost spiritual leader. He conducted all manner of rituals and ceremonies, many of which involved the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism. As he reached adulthood, Blayhi also grew into his prophesied role as one of the tribe’s most notorious warlords.

However, Blayhi’s narrative is unique, the man who once fought naked and killed a child with his “Butt Naked Brigade” of child soldiers before every battle is now an Evangelical Christian preacher.

In an epiphany straight out of the Bible itself, in 1996 Blayhi claims to have experienced a divine vision of Jesus Christ that transformed him from a mass murderer into a man of God. And ever since that event, he’s committed his life to trying to right the wrongs he made in the past.

Blayhi, now married with children, has dedicated a substantial portion of his recent life to attempting to reconcile and apologize to those whom he harmed in the past. He has even gone so far as to establish a small organization dedicated to rehabilitating former child soldiers of the war.

The former General’s unique life story is the focus of a recent feature-length documentary, The Redemption of General Butt Naked. The film’s directors followed Blayhi’s life for a period of five years as he fought against his personal demons.

The Foothill Dragon Press recently spoke by phone with Blayhi in Liberia to discuss his journey from warlord to preacher, and his personal struggle to reconcile with his past.

“Yes, I was a warlord and I was fighting, and on the war front I had a vision, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

 

Dragon Press: How did you transform from a warlord into to a Christian preacher?

Joshua Blayhi: It’s kind of a process. Yes, I was a warlord and I was fighting, and on the war front I had a vision, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ. I saw this person, there was a bright light and then he told me I was sinning. And I thought I was not a sinner at the time because I was the commander of the most powerful ethnic group. But he convinced me that I was sinning and I should repent and live… And then he vanished, and I wanted to continue my battle, but it was not possible…And eventually a group of Christians came to me, preaching to me, and they said Christ sent them to me. And that’s how for 54 days I kept fasting and praying…Finally I gave my life to Jesus, that’s how I quitted the fighting in 1996.

Describe how you’ve explained what you did during the civil war to your own children.

From 5 to 7-years-old, I tell them that it’s a fairytale and I tell them that they (warlords) are bad people…they are somebody who the culture has made very bad. And they destroy a lot of people…and I need them to know I am that man in the fairytale. I was like the man in the fairytale who tradition has made to do a lot of bad things, including killing innocent people.

Can you describe a little bit about your childhood?

I was a priest. I was a priest in my tribe (Krahn tribe) and as a priest I needed to consult from the deity for the people. And I sent the requests of the people to the deity. And I was separated from the people, living in a shrine.         
Evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi preaches in a slum on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia. Credit: Ryan Lobo, used with permission of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss.
I read in another article about you that you sacrificed somebody when you were 11-years-old, is that right?

Yeah.

Does the tradition of ritual sacrifice still occur today?
Yes, it still happens. The people who are still priests, the people who are still in this tradition, they still make the sacrifices.    

And why do you think this still happens? Why is this part of the religion in the Krahn Tribe?

Well, sacrifice is in almost any religion. It all depends on the type of sacrifice.. .Even as a Christian there are sacrifices. But it was more of a kind of commitment to the sort of deity we were (worshipping). So the deity requests an innocent child from a particular family to prove their commitment.

When and why was this tradition first practiced?

The tradition is more than 300 years old. The deity discovered the tribe and promised to protect the tribe in war. The tribe were exposed to war and the deity promised to protect them. The tribe was the victim of a particular war and they came across that deity…And the deity promised to bring them protection and they accepted the deity’s protection. And they later commit and the deity told them that (future) generations will worship him and no other god beside him…

When you did this as a child did you ever question it? When you were a kid did you ever think that sacrifice was wrong?

No, I never thought that it was wrong. It was just… it was the last sacrifice that I made that was the first time that my heart was ever broken. My heart was broken not because I thought it was wrong but I touched a little child that was brought to me by her own mother. (She) was so beautiful and so kind and so peaceful and I just thought, “Well I don’t want to make this child a sacrifice, I want to spare another.” So that was the only time. I was conscious of it but I did not see it as wrong.

Have you been able to forgive yourself for what you did in the past?

Well I’m trying to but most of time it’s so hard. Every time they come back, every time those images come back it is so hard. I don’t really know but I’m trying to forgive myself.

“Some people in the church have accepted me, they have forgiven me. But there are still many people who are still afraid of me.”

How has the film about you affected how other people see you in Liberia?

Well, people are still afraid of me. Some people in the church have accepted me, they have forgiven me. But there are still many people who are still afraid of me.

How do you prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future?

Well, it’s to try to teach, it’s to try to convince this culture, it’s to try to tell them that those things are not good. It’s trying to teach them, because I never knew it was bad until I was taught. Even though the power of God and came and rescued me, I accepted Christ because I thought his power was higher. So I came to him not by conviction, I came to him because I thought his power was higher; so I wanted to use his power to continue fighting and defending my tribe. It was by teaching that I realized that I cannot afford to go back to this life. So the Bible was saying my people perish (sic) for the lack of knowledge. And so if the people don’t know, like the animals, they kill each other in the bushes because they don’t know. They look at it as a way of life and so… my tribal people looked at worshipping this deity as a way of life. And the deity put his demands on them just how God put demands on his worshipers through the Bible to be good, to be nice, to love…The deity put demands on the Krahn tribe (in another form). So I think people should be educated so people should understand that what they are doing is wrong. So that’s why I taught them…several of them have accepted my message and some of them have still not accepted my message. But most of them I met accepted my message, even though most of them still sees (sic) me as betrayer to the tribe. But the few that were able to listen to me, or heard me speak, were able to repent.

Joshua Milton Blahyi apologizes to a woman whose brother he murdered during the Liberian civil war. Credit: Ryan Lobo, used with permission of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss.
What circumstances led to this violence in the first place?

Parents were irresponsible, parents did not take responsibilities. If their children did not go to school, no parent is accountable. No law holds any parent (accountable) if they did not send their children to school. No law holds any man (accountable) if he impregnates a woman and refused to take care of the woman, and children are born in wars. Children were used to (commit) violence, and so recruiting them to fight was very frequent. So such a culture without accountability is vulnerable to anything.

So, in order to prevent to prevent a war like the Liberian Civil War from ever happening again is it about education in your opinion?                                             

Yes, to some extent because of the most people who fought the war was received by people who were educated. And the ones who were educated were sending their children to school outside of the country. And today their children are leaders, and those of us who were fighting are troubled because we took 14 years of our lives investing in violence, while their children were going to school. So if we are able to educate at least more than 80 percent or 75 percent or 60 percent of the Liberian population, I don’t think all educated men would deceive another. Now, in my village, people who just graduate from grade school when they go back to my village they make the people to make farms for them without paying them because they believe they are educated and they are still alive. So just a grade (school education), a high school graduate, not even a college graduate, goes to my village, goes to other villages and deceives people and think they are something free. So if education is able to go to my village and other parts of Liberia, I think it’s going to avert a lot of violence and stop war. It’s gonna stop the real cause of war.

“I tell them that I’m very sorry, that I’m guilty, and I’m wrong. And I just want them to decide…if they want to kill me let them go ahead, if they think I should go to jail, fine.”

 

What do you do for those people who don’t forgive you for what you did?

I keep talking to them, I setup meetings to reach them and tell them how sorry I am, that I want them to hear me out. And then they come, and I tell them that I’m very sorry, that I’m guilty, and I’m wrong. And I just want them to decide…if they want to kill me let them go ahead, if they think I should go to jail, fine. But I just want them to know that I did those things (through evil). And then I pray to God and I (ask) God to protect their hearts.

Why do you think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) choose not to put you on the list of people recommended for prosecution?                                                                          

The whole idea of incarcerating people, the whole idea of putting people in prison is to prevent reoccurring the possibility of (crimes)…If a man has committed a crime by (sic) murder everybody around you is at risk, he could…kill others…(He’s put in jail) so that he won’t do it again or to appease the people he hurt. So the TRC was making the recommendation to reconcile people, so they wanted people to come out to speak the truth, to accept responsibility, and to see if they are actually sorry… They were the ones who the nation selected as judge and investigators to the war, because the whole process of investigation was to (prevent these crimes from reoccurring). Maybe that’s why they did it, they have their own answers, they have their own reasons.

What’s your opinion of how you were presented in the film?

The film actually followed me for five years, and for the five years they followed me they reflected everything that happened tin the five years… how I was living in fear, how I was living in regret, how I was living, not forgiving myself, how I was living in confusion… that was just what how I was and who I were at the end of five years.

So did you like what the directors showed about you?

No, I didn’t appreciate them showing everything that happened.

Why did you decide to start an organization to help former child soldiers?

I saw them as very vulnerable, I thought everyone of us different warlords manipulated them for fighting and now we abandoned them. And once they are still living in such a life they are vulnerable, they could be used negatively. So as a contribution to the nation, I see them as possible threats, so I tried to diffuse the threat of violence. As a healing to the nation, it’s an exercise in remorse that I’m truly sorry. And I hope that there will be no recurrence of violence, and I thought the only way to do it was to try to help those guys were introduced to drugs, who were introduced to violence to give them some life.         

During the war, why were children targeted to become soldiers over other people?

Because they were effective tools…I said all of those things in the documentary.

What have other warlords done since the war ended?
Some them of are businesspeople, some of them are politicians, some of them are missionaries to other countries.

When you walk down the street, in Monrovia for example, do most people know who you are? And how do most people react to you?

Yes. Some are afraid of me, some talk to me, especially Christians. Once I’m in the street, people are pointing fingers, a few people, sometimes I catch people pointing at me and whole groups staring at me. And it’s like that.
Credit: Ryan Lobo, used with permission of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss.
What do you see as the future for Liberia? And do you think it will continue to be a peaceful nation?

Liberia is like any other nation, it’s like any other place in the world, when the people work hard for a better future there’s a possibility of a better future. If they don’t work hard there won’t be a better future. There were countries worse than Liberia, there were countries poorer than Liberia, and because of their hard work they are one of the best nations in the world. Like Singapore, or like Australia was place (where) people was (sic) sent to as prisoners. Even America, there was a lot of wars, there was abuse of human rights (over a hundred years ago). But hard work make them a better place to be. So I think if Liberia can work hard it’s definitely going to be better.                     
              
Has the Liberian government done a lot to make the country a better place?

…it depends on the people. It depends on the work of the people. A lot of people say our leader is good, our leader is bad. I think it depends on the people, I think it depends on the majority on the people…                   

A full, unedited version of the original interview can be found here.

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