The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes

'Leave My Heart Alone'

Now Blahyi is back. He walks up to her. His left hand is in his pocket and he leans up against the white column of the veranda with his right hand. He seems as if he had lost something. Gwae is sitting on a wall with her back to Blahyi. Both are waiting. Finally, Blahyi exhales slowly and says: "Sister, I am only here to say that I am sorry. That is all I want to say. That is all."

Then he kneels down and places his massive head on her thin knee. He clasps her foot, wearing pink sock, in his right hand. He begins to weep. Then a sobbing noise emerges from Gwae's chest. It sounds as if something were bursting inside of her. "Please forgive me," Blahyi whispers. Then he waits, still kneeling in front of her, but nothing happens.

Eventually she says: "It's okay." But it isn't forgiveness. She just wants him to stop. She shakes her head. She lifts her hand. Later, she will say that she felt as if she were about to die. Blahyi gets up and sinks into the only chair on the veranda, an old, black office chair.

After a few minutes Gwae says: "I don't want to hear anything. I don't want to say anything. Please go. Don't ask me any more questions. Leave my heart alone."

But Blahyi doesn't go, refusing to give up. He offers her money, but she refuses. He asks her where her relatives are, whether she is married and why she lives alone. She only shakes her head. He doesn't know yet that he killed her entire family.

"I know I can do nothing for you," he says. "But at least… let me play the brother, the father, someone. I can play the family, if possible." Gwae's knees begin to shake. The whole thing feels so phony that one has the impulse to grab Blahyi and take him away.

He tries to get through to her by talking about himself. "It hurts," he says. "I was playing with my children recently, and we were laughing. And I started to think: Now my children are laughing. What about the other children, the ones I killed?" He pauses, then says: "These things come to me. Every day is a challenge. I know I can't reach everyone. All I can do is hope."

This short, self-pitying sentence in this failed attempt at atonement is enough to open a conversation. Gwae, a thin woman, opens her mouth and says: "It's something that doesn't happen right away. It's a process. Leave me alone with myself. After a while… I will think about it. I won't wake up and say: Oh yeah, I forgive you. That's impossible, you know."

"I know," he says.

"I don't know," she says.

There are two possible explanations for what Blahyi is doing. The first one is that he has been playing a cynical game for 17 years, the game of the pious man. But in a country with complete impunity for war crimes, that doesn't make much sense. "Here they honor the people without honor," says Blahyi. General Prince Johnson, who had the former president's ears cut off and then let him bleed to death, all the while sitting at his desk with a can of Budweiser, is now a senator in the Liberian parliament. When asked about his former crimes, he says: "It was war. I was a soldier." Why should Blahyi behave as if he were a priest, and trace a past that no one is really interested in? He could have gone into politics or opened an auto repair shop, and no one in Liberia would have been surprised.

The second possibility is that Blahyi has truly changed.

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