The Clothes Come On: Documenting Butt Naked’s Redemption

Re·demp·tion (noun) act of redeeming  or the state of being redeemed.
4.atonement for guilt.
General Butt Naked
Murderer, sadist, cannibal, Liberian tribal leader, devil worshipper, religious advisor, criminal, father, husband, Christian, redeemer.

To be redeemed, one must be devoted to deliverance from the sins they have committed, so as to keep them forever in the past. Joshua Milton Blahyi is better known by his nom de guerre: General Butt Naked, leader of the Butt Naked Brigade. His faction slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians throughout Liberia during the 1990’s. There seem to be no words to describe the level of horror he inflicted upon communities across the nation. Redemption is not about levels, though. Redemption , if we look to the very extreme case of Blahyi, may not even be about being redeemed. It is about the act of admitting the crimes one committed with a fearless and unwavering accountability for those past actions, and that is all. There is not relief for the sinner, but I am not sure if Blahyi has recognized that it will be a lifelong series of verbal apologies, which cannot outweigh the destruction he once caused.
For good reason, the documentarians who made this film did not try to account for whether monsters are born or made. What they did do was reconstruct one version of the history of a man trying to live beyond his monstrous past. Blahyi was initiated into a brutal system at the age of eleven. He grew to be the fiercest worshipper of traditional gods in his tribe, and fought others to the death for his place as a leading warlord in the Liberian Civil war. Even before the civil war, he shed the blood of young children, for ritualistic purposes. During the war, he maintained his own ritual: kill before, kill during, rest only to consume the blood or heart of a sacrificial body, drugs, or alcohol. Now, he seeks forgiveness. His mission throughout the film is to apologize to the surviving members of families he brutalized, robbed, and slaughtered off during the deadly fourteen year conflict.
“I’m sorry” is, indeed, a term for those who seek forgiveness- especially those who have completely stopped committing the crimes of their past, like Blahyi. It is shocking to witness the calm acceptance of the victims families when Blahyi approaches, because the last time they set eyes on him, he was wearing his uniform of nothing but sneakers and a loaded machine gun: how could he ask for forgiveness? How can they face him? Each person he comes into contact with throughout the course of the documentary was someone he maimed in one way or another, and everyone forgives him without a shred of hesitation. A young boy he orphaned cries and hugs him after he explains that he wishes he could be a father to him, in place of the father he killed. Some might think this is outrageous, but it does not shock on screen, after over an hour of absorbing the information that led to these apologies. The people want peace. Consider this: their government is corrupt, their journalists live in fear, their is no security. Logically, the population has no energy for anything but actions that could lead to peace. It seems an imitation of Blahyi’s wildest dreams of atonement: he confronts the public and review board for an assessment of his war crimes and is not considered a threat to society, no one physically harms him when he goes to apologize, some of them even become his friends, and all in the name of peace- nothing personal.
The violence, it seems, died with Blahyi’s inner monster- the one he shut away when he found his God. Some people, though, were not happy that he wasn’t recommended by the national board for punishment (if there is even ever a trial for the crimes that took place during the Liberian Civil War). In the film, when he begins to receive death threats, he flees from Liberia, questioning the results of his redemption for the first time. At one point, he goes so far as to close himself away in the toilet of his motel room, asking “when is this going to be over?” This self pity seems a setback for his otherwise convincing efforts to not be a bad influence on the world. When we confront things of which we cannot exact a magnitude of suffering, terror, devastation, all we can do is let go and hope for something better. Blahyi created this magnificent suffering for a generation of Liberians. His redemption is about never being finished.

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