In Liberia, General 'Butt Naked' rehabilitates ex-child soldiers

One of the most feared figures to emerge from the West African country's civil wars, Joshua Blahyi, by his own admission, sacrificed children and cannibalised them.

Former Liberian rebel, Joshua Blayhi also know as General Butt Naked, poses for a portrait at his compound in Monrovia on June 8, 2021. Picture: Emmanuel Tobey / AFP

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MONROVIA - Former Liberian rebel General Butt Naked, notorious for sacrificing children and charging into battle in the nude, now spends his time trying to rescue ex-child soldiers from drugs.

One of the most feared figures to emerge from the West African country's civil wars, Joshua Blahyi, by his own admission, sacrificed children and cannibalised them.

He would also fight naked in the belief this imbued him with spiritual power, earning him the monicker "General Butt Naked."

Mass killings, torture and rape characterised Liberia's two civil wars, which raged from 1989 to 1997 and from 1999 to 2003, claiming the lives of around a quarter of a million people.

Many of these brutal crimes were carried out by drugged-up child soldiers. When the fighting ended, many of the youngsters remained hooked on drugs and slipped into a life of crime.

Blahyi, for his part, became an evangelical preacher.

"We made them take arms and consume drugs," the 49-year-old told AFP. "Now I want to repair that mistake."

Since 2006, he has been travelling to slums in the capital Monrovia to try to engage with former child soldiers.

The former rebel also built a compound 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of the city in 2012, where he runs training sessions in a bid to reintegrate them into society.

"For me, these kids are victims and not perpetrators," Blahyi said, adding that coaxing them out of the underworld is a challenge.

"I usually explain to them my own story, and then I ask them to follow suit by giving their lives to Christ and leaving the drugs."

'DEEP BITTERNESS'

Blahyi's 0.6-hectare (1.5-acre) compound is surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. Inside, grown-up former child soldiers hoe the ground and tend to four brick-bread ovens.

There is also a small chicken farm on site, and volunteers come to teach skills such as carpentry, plumbing and painting.

Some 500 former child soldiers have passed through the compound, according to Blahyi.

One of them, 38-year-old William Wilson, said that he robbed people with machetes for drug money before meeting Blahyi.

"I chose to go to Bible school," Wilson said. "Today I am an evangelist and married with three kids to the daughter of a bishop."

Another former child soldier, 33-year-old Titus Sylvester Borbor, said that Blahyi helped him kick drugs and put him on the path to becoming a university student.

"Today my parents are happy, they have accepted me back," he said.

Many children took up arms to protect their relatives during the civil war, but found themselves rejected by their families once the fighting stopped.

"It put deep bitterness in them," said Blahyi, explaining that the legacy of the conflict was still keenly felt across the country.

ATROCITIES

In the first civil war, Blahyi led fighters from the feared ULIMO -- the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy -- that backed the then president Samuel Doe.

It was Doe's 1990 assassination that sparked the orgy of violence that engulfed the country for most of that decade.

In January 2008, Blahyi testified to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), recalling the atrocities he had committed to maintain his "special power."

"Any time we captured a town, I had to make a human sacrifice. They bring to me a living child that I slaughter and take the heart off to eat it," he said to a stunned audience.

He did not know how many people they killed, he said. "But for what I did, it is not less than twenty thousands," he added, breaking down in tears.

The turning point, he said, came in 1996, when after seeing the blood of a child on his hand, "Jesus appeared to me and asked me to stop being a slave."

WAR CRIMES

Despite regular appeals to establish a war-crimes court, very few people have faced trial for war crimes or crimes against humanity committed in Liberia -- and none inside Liberia itself.

Some ex-warlords also remain powerful figures in the impoverished nation of 4.8 million people.

Prince Johnson -- another notorious war figure who has also become an evangelist -- is the head of the Liberian Senate Committee on Defense and Intelligence.

But Blahyi is a strong proponent of prosecuting war criminals, including himself, in order to guarantee lasting peace.

"I destroyed so many people's children," he said.

"If I refuse to answer to it... that same violence that I started will come after me and my children."

President George Weah has so far resisted establishing a war crimes court, but calls to do so are growing louder.

The question was raised during recent hearings by a committee of the US House of Representatives.

And last week, more than a dozen influential Liberian organisations petitioned the country's lawmakers to back such a court.

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