MONROVIA, Liberia — One of Liberia's most notorious rebel commanders, known as Gen. Butt Naked, has returned to the nation his troops terrorized to confess, saying he is responsible for 20,000 deaths.
Joshua Milton Blahyi, who now lives in Ghana, returned this week to face his homeland's truth and reconciliation commission, this time wearing a suit and tie. His nom de guerre is derived from his platoon's practice of charging naked into battle, a technique meant to terrify the enemy.
Other warlords, though, have refused to ask forgiveness, dismissing a commission many in Liberia see as toothless. Blahyi is urging other former killers to come forward as the country founded by freed American slaves in 1847 struggles to recover from past horrors.
"I could be electrocuted. I could be hanged. I could be given any other punishment," the 37-year-old Blahyi said in a weekend interview following his truth commission appearance last week. "But I think forgiveness and reconciliation is the right way to go.
"I have been looking for an opportunity to tell the true story about my life — and every time I tell people my story, I feel relieved."
Sacrifice to the devil
The civil war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people in this nation of 3 million, was characterized by the eating of human hearts and soccer matches played with human skulls. Drugged fighters waltzed into battle wearing women's wigs, flowing gowns and carrying dainty purses stolen from civilians.
Before he led his fighters into battle, wearing only a pair of lace-up boots, Blahyi said he made a human sacrifice to the devil.
The sacrifice was typically "the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart which was divided into pieces for us to eat," he told The Associated Press on Saturday. He appeared before the commission Jan. 15.
Between the time he made a pact with the devil circa 1980 and began his rampage and the time he stopped fighting in 1996, he said "more than 20,000 people fell victim (to me and my men). They were killed."
Some say Blahyi's confession is proof Liberia needs a war crimes court, not a commission.
The commission, modeled on post-apartheid South Africa's commission, has been taking testimony from victims as well as former rebels for the last two years, urging a full accounting of wartime atrocities. While the truth commission cannot charge killers with a crime, it can recommend charges be brought.
Commission criticized by some, praised by others
Meanwhile, several notorious killers have refashioned themselves as influential politicians in Liberia.
"If you have an individual admitting that he and his group killed over 20,000 people, certainly there should be a mechanism put in place for such people to face justice," Mulbah Morlue, who heads the Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, said in response to Blahyi's confession.
Yet there are also those that praise Blahyi.
"You can't have true reconciliation without knowing the truth," said Johnny Lamine, a Monrovia resident. "Blahyi's story is alarming, but ... let's know who did what in Liberia during the war."
Others in a country where some feel everyone is tainted said they would rather not dig up the past. Because the violence was so widespread it's not uncommon to find Liberian families that have both victim and perpetrator under the same roof — a daughter that was raped and a son that took up a gun and went on to rape the daughters of other families.
"Liberians have tried to forget these stories," Mary Kollie said as she went home from church service Sunday.
In his interview, Blahyi told The Associated Press: "Some people see me and congratulate me. Others see me and say I should not be walking down the streets of Monrovia posing proud. But I continue to tell such people I am not proud, I am ashamed."
In 1996, while charging naked into a battle, Blahyi said God appeared and told him he was a slave to Satan, not the hero he considered himself to be, according to an earlier interview with The Associated Press.
He became a born-again Christian and for a while, traversed the war-wracked streets of Monrovia selling cassettes of his sermons.
Violence began in 1979
Liberia's violence began in 1979 when security forces killed dozens of people during massive riots. The following year, President William Tolbert was ousted in a coup by Samuel K. Doe, an illiterate master sergeant, who ordered Tolbert's Cabinet members tied to poles on a beach and executed.
Rebels led by ex-rebel Charles Taylor invaded in 1989, plunging the country into another civil war. The war went into a momentary lull after 1997 when Taylor was elected president and again surged, ending only when Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003. He is now facing charges of crimes against humanity at a tribunal in the Hague for atrocities committed by a rebel movement he allegedly supported in neighboring Sierra Leone.
While Taylor faces trial for crimes committed in another country, one of his former rivals in Liberia, Prince Johnson, is now a senator who last year accompanied a group of U.S. politicians as they toured the country. Johnson videotaped his men torturing and then killing Doe. That videotape is still widely available in street side stalls here.
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