Former Liberia War General Butt Naked

By benim
In Uncategorized
Apr 7th, 2011

oshua Blahyi, the former General Butt Naked, now a preacher in Monrovia. Photo/Ryan Lobo.

A mass murderer speaks

The voice of a self-confessed mass murderer Joshua Blahyi.

During the Liberian civil war of the ’90s, Blahyi’s ruthless band of child soldiers was among the most feared militias in the country.

Back then he called himself General Butt Naked, which would be funny if he hadn’t been such a butcher.

He admits responsibility for thousands of civilian casualties, yet Liberia won’t prosecute him.

These days he’s an evangelical preacher in the capitol city of Monrovia, where he goes around apologizing to his victims and asking forgiveness.

Truly contrite? Or a terrible con?

It’s one of the questions raised by an award-winning new documentary entitled The Redemption Of General Butt Naked, which debuted at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

Daniele Anastasion is the film’s co-director and producer, along with Eric Strauss.

Daniele’s conversation with Rick, from Washington

Why Joshua Blahyi fights naked, from the movie.
The film will be featured at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto later this month, with the first showing on April 30th.

Where most documentaries impart information and answer questions, “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” is most rewarding when it poses questions instead.

Filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion tell the stranger-than-fiction story of a one-time tribal priest in the African country of Liberia, who first transforms himself into a notorious warlord known as “General Butt Naked,” butchering thousands by his own hand or those of his mostly child soldiers, and then reinvented himself as a Christian evangelist calling himself Joshua Milton Blahyi.

The questions pile on top of one another: Do you believe him? Is justice served when the perpetrator of so many atrocities merely says he’s sorry? Can anyone truly forgive such transgressions? On and on the questions flow.

Utterly fascinating with a charismatic central figure — love him or loathe him — who is made for the big screen, “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” could be a small hit in specialty venues for adventurous distributors domestically and certainly overseas.

First about that name: During Liberia’s 14-year civil war, this man and his warriors — and there is photographic evidence to back this up — strode into street battles armed with little more than AK-47s and cutlasses, seemingly impervious to their enemy’s bullets. Lacking clothes, many believed they wore the armor of invisibility. The Butt-Naked army was the most feared militia in all of Liberia.

The general preferred children to fight for him. They focused better and had no sense of their own futures, he admits. He explains — and this is sheer evil genius — that he screened for them Hollywood war and action movies, showing an actor being killed in one film only to re-appear in another. He tells his young soldiers that the people they kill go to live in another movie.

But that’s all past, a “dream” as he puts it. Now he has found Jesus and returns from a 10-year exile to preach about redemption and forgiveness. You’re allowed as much cynicism as you like over this war criminal who finds so much hope in the idea of forgiveness.

But he does seek out the families of those he killed and those victims who still live and does beg for their forgiveness. And he is the first warlord to testify before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission where he confesses to being responsible for upwards of 20,000 deaths. Another ex-warrior, 2011 presidential candidate Senator Prince Johnson, is seen on camera refusing to appear and angrily rejecting his guilt.

A TRC report recommending amnesty for Joshua stirs death threats, so he flees — abandoning his wife and children — to live in a refugee camp in Ghana. He later returns, but you can understand why a follower now believes all his actions are for his own “self-benefit.”

You might also notice his choice of words as a repentant. (English is the common language throughout this nation founded by former American slaves.) To one victim he declares: “You have to forgive me.” This is still the command of a general, not a preacher.

Strauss and Anastasion have not just caught lightning in a bottle in the five years they tracked this mercurial personality. They also get just the right archival footage, interviews, staggering confessions and highly emotional moments to draw a necessarily ambiguous portrait of this complex individual. They withhold any personal judgments to let audiences draw their own conclusions.

One man who knows Joshua estimates that in the balance between good and evil, Joshua is roughly 75 percent good and 25 percent bad. That may have to do for now.

This is an extremely unsetting film that holds you tightly in its grip for its almost too short 84-minute running time.

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