The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

Kneeling Before the Victim

Faith Gwae is the 77th victim he visits. He only knows her first name, which he learned from the pastor of her congregation, who arranged the meeting. Gwae agreed because the pastor had promised that nothing would happen to her and that she would not have to do anything, but that the pain of her loss would subside, just as if she were in therapy. Blahyi knows that he has wronged her, but he doesn't remember exactly what he did. Gwae lives at the end of a path, in a settlement with no electricity or running water. It consists of a few small huts, with cocks crowing in plots of dried-up grass. There is an oil film on the puddles. Gwae earns the equivalent of €20 ($27) a month, working as a teacher in one of Monrovia's worst neighborhoods.

Blahyi gets out of his Jeep a few hundred meters from the hut. It has been raining and he walks gingerly along the path, where only a few cement bags prevent him from sinking into the mud. He stops at the back of the hut. He looks up at the gray sky and then at his feet in the dirt. "This is my path," he says. "I wish I had alternatives."

She turns around as he approaches. She looks surprised. He looked different the last time she saw him, 22 years ago. She was 16 and he was 19. This is the story she tells a few days later, with long pauses between sentences, and without Blahyi in the room: It was July 1991, and she and her family were living on the outskirts of Zwedru in eastern Liberia. When they tuned the radio to the BBC, they heard news about the war. They wondered whether they should stay or leave. It was the rainy season and the rivers were swollen. The Cavalla River, which forms the border between Liberia and Ivory Coast, was impassable. "The war won't last long," her mother said, so the family decided to stay.

A group from the Krahn tribe was searching for enemies within the country, which, in a civil war, consists of any member of another tribe. Her older brother, Daniel, was hiding a nanny from the Gio tribe who had been working for the family for years. "It'll be okay," the mother said. Faith heard the screams outside the huts as the men approached. Suddenly she saw a naked man with only a machete in his hand. "Why is the man naked?" she wondered. Then she saw the other men, about 25 of them, as she estimates today, carrying guns.

They had heard that there was a Gio woman in the village. Daniel stood in front of the nanny to protect her. "She is a human being, like you and me," he said to Blahyi. Blahyi responded with an order. One of the boys stepped forward and chopped off her brother's foot. Then he hacked off his lower leg, followed by his thigh and his hip, methodically working his way up the body. Eventually her brother fell silent.

Blahyi told everyone to lie on the ground. His men raped her mother and her sisters, and then killed them. Gwae says: "They didn't rape me, but they did things to me that I don't want to talk about. They left me with a blemish that I will always have." At some point Blahyi said that things were moving too slowly, and that there were other military operations to attend to. That was when he began to participate.

Gwae sometimes wonders why her life was spared. Perhaps it was God. Or perhaps the men thought that she was already dead.

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