The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

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?"


"'I planted violence into them. I explained to them that killing people was a game.' Is this 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.

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