From cannibal to pastor

By Drum Digital
24 December 2010

DRUMBEATS fill the air as the newly chosen high priest of the Krahn tribe in Liberia prepares for his initiation. He's led by a man in a carved black mask to an isolated area where he waits for the ceremony to begin.

The priest stands naked before an altar as the tribe's elders bring a little girl to him. After taking off her clothes they smear her body with clay – then the priest slays the child as the traditions of the tribe dictate.

So begins a cannibalistic ritual that spans three days, during which the girl's body parts are eaten. The priest also has a vision – he meets the devil, who tells him he'll become a great warrior and to increase his power he must continue the rituals of child sacrifice and cannibalism.

This vision marks the end of the initiation and the priest is now one of the most powerful leaders in West Africa. His name is Joshua Milton Blahyi – and he is just 11 years old.

That was 1982 – and the boy did grow up to be a warrior. In fact, he became one of Liberia's most notorious warlords and earned the nickname General Butt Naked, because he and his boy soldiers would charge into battle wearing only boots.

His first sacrifice at his initiation was the start of a reign of terror that struck fear into the heart of Liberians. General Butt Naked, who says he killed 20 000 people during the 14-year civil war, became known as one of the most ruthless guerrilla leaders in Africa.

Details of his horrific acts of violence were revealed during Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008, but he has yet to be punished for his crimes.

These include child sacrifice, cannibalism, the exploitation of child soldiers and trading blood diamonds for guns and cocaine, which he fed to boy soldiers as young as nine.

Despite this the TRC believed he showed remorse and in 2009 called for a pardon.

Today General Butt Naked is a preacher and a married father of three. He says he's prepared for any punishment – but right now he wants to lift the lid on his country's secret societies that conduct child sacrifice in an effort to bring the practice to an end.

FOR 14 years Liberia was blighted by civil war – between 1989 and 2003 about 250 000 people were killed, one million were displaced and one in five children became soldiers.

General Butt Naked was one of the leading warlords. We meet Blahyi (39) for the first time in the courtyard of a hotel, about 45 minutes' drive from Monrovia, Liberia's capital. He's chosen this deserted spot because after his TRC confession he became the subject of assassination attempts.

He spreads his arms wide. "Welcome to Liberia," he says. The first thing you notice about him is his bulk. He left armed combat more than a decade ago yet his physical presence remains intimidating.

His shoulders and arm muscles strain against his T-shirt. At one point he knocks the bottle of malt drink he's sipping off the table. Without taking his eyes off me he catches it a split second before it hits the ground – the soldier's reflexes remain as sharp as ever.

He then describes how he was told first by his father, then by his tribal elders, that he was born to be a warrior. On the orders of the elders he was conceived and taken from his mother minutes after birth.

At seven his father handed him to the elders who tutored him in the rituals of the priesthood. When he was initiated he became a powerful figure – one of his most important jobs was to perform sacrifice rituals and cannibalism.

Read the full article in DRUM of 6 January 2011

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