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Liberia: The dreaded bloodthirsty ex-General now rehabilitating former child soldiers

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The dreaded Liberian "General Butt Naked," now an evangelical pastor, was a perpetrator of atrocities during Liberia's civil war and now travels the slums of Monrovia to get former child soldiers off drugs and out of crime.

Born in 1970, Joshua Milton Blahyi was a leader of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (Ulimo), which supported President Samuel Doe, whose assassination triggered one of the most atrocious conflicts on the African continent, with 250,000 deaths between 1989 and 2003.

Better known as "General Butt Naked", he wreaked havoc at the head of a troop of young, drugged and naked soldiers known for their cruelty and penchant for magic during the first civil war (1989-1997).

In 2008, he confessed before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to the murder of thousands of people, claiming that during the war he had magical powers due to his initiation into a traditional secretive society when he was 11 years old.

"Every time a city was taken, I had to make a human sacrifice to maintain my power. They would bring me a living child and I would cut out its heart, which I would eat," he explained before this commission, estimating that he personally killed "at least 20,000" people.

For the past 15 years, the former rebel leader, who has converted to Christianity, has regularly gone to meet former combatants, now adults, in the poor districts of Monrovia.

- "Making amends" -

"For me, these kids are victims, not criminals. We made them take up arms and use drugs. I have to make up for these mistakes," he recently explained to AFP.

To facilitate their rehabilitation, he had a complex built 25 km north of the capital, surrounded by high walls, where some 500 ex-child soldiers received training in carpentry, plumbing and painting.

"I usually tell them my own story and then ask them to do the same by offering their lives to Christ and turning away from drugs," he says, as a young man hoes a vegetable garden before his eyes, not far from a small chicken coop.

Former child soldier William Wilson, 38, says that before he met Blahyi, he used to play with a machete to get money for his drug habit. "I chose Bible school. Today, I am an evangelist, father of three and married to a pastor's daughter," he smiles.

Another former child soldier, Titus Sylvester-Borbor, 33, says the former rebel commander also helped him give up his addictions and put him on the path to college.

"My parents are happy now, they agreed to take me back," he says, while many children were rejected by their relatives after their demobilization.

- Pressure for trials -

Civil wars have brought the country, one of the poorest on the planet, to its knees, ravaged a decade later by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

A Swiss court in June sentenced a former rebel commander convicted of multiple atrocities during Liberia's civil wars to 20 years in prison. He is the first Liberian convicted of war crimes in his country.

Despite pressure from civil society, Liberia has yet to hold a trial on this period marked by a litany of abuses attributable to all parties: massacres of civilians, torture, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers.

A number of personalities directly involved still hold prominent positions in politics and the economy.

Prince Johnson, a figure from the first civil war, was elected in May to chair the Senate Defense Committee, despite being one of the warlords whose trial was called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009.

President George Weah, in power since 2018, has been reluctant to create a special tribunal, an issue that recently led to a hearing before a U.S. House of Representatives committee.

Joshua Milton Blahyi is pushing for former warlords, including himself to be tried.

"I destroyed the children of so many people," he says. "If I refuse to answer for it, the same violence I initiated will come to me and my children," he adds.

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