Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 13:39 UK

Warlord's quest for forgiveness


Life on the Edge - The Unforgiven

By Steve Bradshaw
Executive Producer, Life on the Edge

Wearing his candy-striped shirt and white tie, Pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi preaches forgiveness with the energy and charisma of a Southern Baptist preacher.

His congregation in the suburb of Monrovia, Liberia's capital, are with him all the way - applauding, weeping, praying.

Among the worshippers are young men who most certainly need forgiveness - former warlords, and less celebrated ex-combatants who took part in Liberia's long civil war.

But what is really remarkable is that none of them have quite the notoriety of the preacher himself.

"I have abused a lot of rights. I went fighting, killing a lot of people, destroyed a lot of people, people who were not even part of the problem," says Pastor Blahyi.

War crimes

During the horrific Liberian conflict, Joshua Milton Blahyi was known as General Butt Naked.

I remember hearing about him in 1995 when I reported from Sierra Leone during its overlapping civil war.

My question is: 'Why does the Westerner think that if a man is a killer, then he's going to remain a killer?'
Joshua Milton Blahyi

By 2005, when democratic elections sealed the end of the war in Liberia, he was one of the best known of Liberia's warlords - although he was by no means the only leader to transgress so many moral and legal norms.

Fighting naked, except maybe for boots and ammo belt - either as "spiritual" protection to deflect harm, or more knowingly as a form of psychological warfare - is not unknown in some African conflicts (witness some of the Mai-Mai in the Democratic Republic of Congo).

But Joshua Milton Blahyi also confesses to more horrific wartime rituals, from human sacrifice to cannibalism.

And some of the other ex-combatants in the chapel with him admit to rape and other war crimes.

It's always possible some of these are misplaced boasts rather than confessions. But like anyone who reported these conflicts in the 1990s, I know myself how bloody and gruesome they could be.

What's more, it is still possible - if perhaps unlikely - that individuals may be prosecuted for war crimes in Liberia.

So confessing is not without possible consequences, and the pastor may well need forgiveness.

Weighing the options

He was preparing for battle on a bridge in Monrovia, he says, when he was converted: "When I met Christ I saw an image of a man - this guy was bright, very bright [so] that I could not look at him twice."

Monrovia, Liberia
Liberia is peaceful now but prosperity is a long way off
Prosecuting the pastor would presumably not help the 50 young men in his congregation who he says he is now trying to rehabilitate.

But aren't some crimes so terrible they can never be forgiven?

This is a dilemma Joshua Milton Blahyi himself recognises.

The truth is that many in Liberia say all war crimes must be forgiven, and not just because of the country's widely and passionately-held Christian beliefs.

Many also reckon it is the only way forward for the country. Once prosecutions of ex-combatants start, it is feared, the process could be endless, and could easily rekindle the fighting.

Joshua Milton Blahyi is one of dozens who have given evidence to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is expected to report next year on the way forward, and Liberia's democratically elected government is still weighing its options.

Former President Charles Taylor is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes allegedly committed in Sierra Leone - whose conflict is the subject of an international Special Court.

Appeal for forgiveness

The general-turned-pastor has also spoken about leaving Liberia. Who can say what future awaits him?

He makes a plausible case why he should be forgiven. And, perhaps more surprisingly, he also explains eloquently why he should be punished.

Milton "General Butt Naked" Blahyi (archive image)

"If the punishment deserved, according to law - and for the future history of this country - is death, fine. If it is to be hanged, fine. If it's life imprisonment, fine. Or if they can pardon me, fine also," he says.

"The last time I gave the government and the nation two options; either collect every one of us, dig one big hole and cover us to die. Or they consider us, and work with us to give us some discipline, and use us as rebuilding tools."

Liberia isn't the only African country in which forgiveness is seen as a more Christian course - and a more pragmatic one - than retribution.

"In some instances that may be appropriate," says Justice Minister Philip Banks, "but in others it indicates the wrong signals."

"I am trying to do a lot of good to appeal for their forgiveness," Joshua Milton Blahyi says of the war's innocent survivors.

"My question is: 'Why does the Westerner think that if a man is a killer, then he's going to remain a killer - why is it so?'"

While considering the wisdom of this carefully judged remark, it is worth remembering the history of the man who made it.

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Tuesdays at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.

Should Pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi and his followers be forgiven or held to account?

Your comments:

I believe that Mr Milton should be held 100% accountable for his crimes against humanity. He is a man who boldly confessed on camera to the world, therefore he should boldly stand up as a man and accept what ever punishment is handed down by the rule of law.
Derrick Thomas, (Liberian-born), Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi has to be forgiven because he has repented of wrongdoings. He recognised that he was a killer but now he is a new man and ready to rebuild his country with the government. He should be forgiven.
Mimi Lonza, Abuja, Nigeria

General Butt killed people. He needs to be held accountable for his actions. There is no peace without justice. How do you think relatives of those who died in hands must be feeling? Let us be fair. It's time for General Butt to go to jail and preach to the other killers in jail - even if it's for a brief period. We must send a strong message that killing has no place in our African society.
General Mutua Mwakwasi, Luanda, Angola

The Liberian Civil War created a paradox: forgiving the perpetrators and or punishing them. There can be no peace without justice. While we stand to forgive the perpetrators, we must be mindful not to send the wrong signals - that people can commit crimes and expect to be forgiven. We have forgiven the perpetrators, but justice must be done or seem to be done to victims or their survivors.
Roland Farley Smith Sr, Monrovia, Liberia

I highly welcome the plea of brother Blahyi that we forgive the ex-combatants, not only that, but to also provide them the requisite skills to make them useful in the society. If this is done, we will not experience our bitter past.
F Wanyi Harrison Sr, Monrovia, Liberia

I think Pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi and his followers should be forgiven - although it's a very difficult decision.
Adekunle Samuel Owolabi, Johannesburg, South Africa

I see it as a means to escape from their crimes. They should be punished according to the law.
Tchuigoue Siewe Alphonse, Douala, Cameroon

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