General Butt Naked and God in Der Spiegel

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Let me commend for your reading a story in last week’s Der Spiegel on the Liberian war lord General Butt Naked. The article in its English-language version entitled “The Penitant Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes” recounts the war crimes of Joshua Milton Blahyi and his subsequent transformation into a priest.

But there is a chauvinism among many newspaper readers that when terms familiar to them are used in a story — “priest” being an example — the word means what they understand it to mean. Call someone a “priest” and many will assume that person is a Catholic, for example. What sort of priest is General Butt Naked?

The 3,600 word article focuses on the question whether Blahyi’s confession and conversion can be believed. It opens with the a summary of his crimes, and adds a hook to catch the reader’s attention.

Blahyi had a reputation for being more brutal than other military leaders. Everyone knows his nom de guerre, which he says he will never lose: General Butt Naked. He was a cannibal who preferred to sacrifice babies, because he believed that their death promised the greatest amount of protection. He went into battle naked, wearing only sneakers and carrying a machete, because he believed that it made him invulnerable — and he was in fact never hit by a bullet. His soldiers would make bets on whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and then they would slit open her belly to see who was right.

Blahyi is now a priest who goes to chess club on Saturdays.

The article sets his crimes against his current life and beliefs, offering several exchanges between the reporter and Blahyi.

 ”Do you sleep well at night?”

“I am blessed with good sleep.”

“Are you happy?”

“Yes, very.”

“Will you go to heaven?”

“That’s what it says in the Bible. He who believes in Jesus shall not be condemned.”

As it works towards its finish the article states there is no way to measure the sincerity of Blahyi’s convictions, but notes that he does not have to play the penitent to avoid prison or reprisals — there has been a de facto amnesty for war crimes in Liberia.

And it closes with these observations:

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