The macabre annals of Liberia’s civil war include gunmen in drag, human skulls used as soccer balls and the videotaped torture of the ousted president. But nothing compares to the tale of Gen. Butt Naked.
Nude except for lace-up leather shoes and a gun, the general led his fierce Butt Naked Battalion into battle on behalf of the warlord Roosevelt Johnson, who hired the unclothed warrior for his fearlessness and fighting skills.
As the war wound down, so too did Gen. Butt Naked’s commitment to kill. Today, he is an evangelical preacher leading his Soul-Winning Evangelistic Ministry on a crusade against war and warlords.
He now uses his birth name - Joshua Milton Blahyi - and wears a suit and tie as he roams the battered capital with a microphone preaching peace and reconciliation.
“I was just an ordinary man, but I was also very spiritual. I was deep into occult,” Blahyi, 25, said as he explained how he became a ruthless general. His fighters were among the most notorious in the seven-year conflict that wracked the West African nation, founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves.
The war began when Charles Taylor launched a cross-border invasion aimed at ousting President Samuel Doe. A rival faction that emerged the following year captured Doe and filmed torturers as they sliced off his ear and mangled his face before killing him.
Seven warring groups, including Johnson’s, formed over the years, and about 200,000 people died before warlords signed a peace accord that cleared the way for presidential elections July 19.
Blahyi publicly urged voters to reject the warlords running for office, but they still chose Taylor by a landslide. Blahyi’s political views and religious conversion were big news here, evidence of how famous his antics became even among Liberians hardened by one of the world’s weirdest wars.
Drunk and drugged teenagers and boys comprised much of the warlords’ fighting forces, and in their intoxicated states they would waltz into battle wearing flowing dresses, colorful wigs and carrying dainty purses looted from civilians.
They took ghoulish glee in displaying their trophies: posting a victim’s head on a table set in the middle of a Monrovia intersection; using the skull of another victim for soccer practice.
Civilians rarely seemed fazed.
But the Butt Naked Battalion stood out, not just for its nudity but for its brutality and its apparent fearlessness. Blahyi says this was a result of a contract with the devil, sealed at the age of 11 when he was initiated into a satanic society that demanded regular human sacrifices and nudity on the battlefield to ensure protection from his enemies.
He started out as an armed robber and killer - killing too many people to count, Blahyi says - and was recruited into the war in 1994 when Johnson asked him for help.
“I agreed, because at that time they offered me a lot of money. Everything I did, I did on a commercial basis,” said Blahyi, speaking in the dingy, shabbily furnished second-floor apartment he shares with several other people in Monrovia.
Blahyi said he was required to make a human sacrifice before battle. Usually it was a small child, someone whose fresh blood would satisfy the devil.
“Sometimes I would enter under the water where children were playing. I would dive under the water, grab one, carry him under and break his neck. Sometimes I’d cause accidents. Sometimes I’d just slaughter them,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner.
Before leading his band of fighters to the front lines, Blahyi would stop and strip to only his shoes, then charge into the fray yelling orders to his loyal followers.
It was during one of these battles, on the New Bridge linking central Monrovia to the outskirts, that Blahyi’s conversion began. He was naked on the front line when, he says, God appeared and told him he was a slave to Satan, not the hero he considered himself to be.
That was in June 1996, when Monrovia was in the midst of fighting that nearly destroyed the city and led to international pressures for a peace accord.
Blahyi admits it took awhile to accept his new calling, but in November he finally turned full time to preaching and even attended theology school in Nigeria.
When he goes out to preach now, he says he sometimes encounters relatives of his victims. “I feel very bad, so bad,” he said, but he insists it was satanic powers that possessed him in the past and he cannot be held responsible.
To try to make up for his past, Blahyi is now selling cassettes of his sermons for $20 each to raise money for a school for ex-fighters such as himself.
“Even now I’m fighting. I’m fighting a spiritual war,” Blahyi said, before heading outside into the rain for another day of preaching.