The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

Blahyi, 42, is sitting on the terrace behind his house in the northern part of Monrovia. He is a heavyset man who once had the body of a fighter. Neighbors are hanging up their laundry. Children are shouting in the garden of the house next door. His daughters, who are on school vacation, are in the kitchen making a salad for the chicken dinner that is about to be served. Blahyi likes having his family around him. He talks about his eldest son Joshua, who is now 12 and about to enter high school, and who wants to become an aeronautical engineer. Blahyi watches a butterfly flying over the palm trees. His eyes become soft when he talks about his children. "I think they're proud of me," he says.

"Do you sleep well at night?"

"I am blessed with good sleep."

"Are you happy?"

"Yes, very."

"Will you go to heaven?"

"That's what it says in the Bible. He who believes in Jesus shall not be condemned."

Blahyi was never punished for his crimes. The Truth Commission's only mandate was to investigate the crimes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague only has jurisdiction over crimes committed since it was founded in 2002. A special tribunal with the power of prosecuting earlier crimes, like the ones for Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, was never established for Liberia.

Such a tribunal could be created through a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. But the UN has no clear rules of procedure for cases like Liberia, and there is often a trade-off between justice and stability. In Liberia, stability was chosen over justice, because if everyone in the country who has killed someone were charged with murder, it would probably turn into another Somalia. Nevertheless, Blahyi is convinced that there will eventually be a special tribunal for Liberia.

"Would you be prepared to spend the rest of your life in prison?"

"I would accept it willingly, as well as the death penalty. Even if I could run away, I would not run away. My Lord Jesus says: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

"How do you atone for your sins?"

"I visit the people I have hurt, the victims of my crimes. I try to help them."

"You ask for forgiveness?"

"Yes. That's the most difficult moment. I couldn't feel anything in the past. Now I feel their pain."

"What are you afraid of?"

"That I will meet the Lord tomorrow, and he will say: 'You have wasted the opportunity that I have given you.'"

Lyn Westman, an American psychologist who accompanied him for several years, tells the story of Blahyi's encounter with a former enemy who was threatening him with a machete. Blahyi sank to his knees and said that he would be willing to die if it would help the man. The man eventually left him alone.

"There is no trace of his old life," says his wife. But that isn't true. Blahyi has been visiting his victims for years, until they forgive him. And he doesn't want ordinary forgiveness. "Complete forgiveness," he says, forgiveness that must come from the depths of their hearts. That, he says, is God's wish, just as the Bible states in Ephesians 4:32: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Nineteen of 76 victims have forgiven him, he says. But most of the victims want nothing to do with him. They lash out at him, berate him or simply walk away in silence.

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