It’s a story of transformation that has surprised thousands and shocked all who have heard: a brutal African warlord with a violent past finds Christ and dramatically turns his life around.
Selected for The Economist Film Project, an initiative by The Economist in partnership with PBS NewsHour, “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” is a chilling documentary about the changed life of Joshua Milton Blahyi, once dubbed to be one of Liberia’s most feared warlords.
Now renouncing his violent past – which includes confessing to killing nearly 20,000 people during Liberia’s 14-year civil war – after converting to Christianity, Blahyi seeks to reinvent himself as an evangelist, traveling the nation as a preacher and asking for forgiveness from those whom he had hurt in the past.
Filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion spent five years with Blahyi, closely following his troubled life as he sought forgiveness from his former soldiers and his numerous victims.
Strauss had become interested in Blahyi after he read about him in a book called The World’s Most Dangerous Places.
“It was just a tiny blurb about a notorious warlord who had killed thousands and was now walking the streets preaching truth and reconciliation,” Strauss told The Los Angeles Times. “I wondered, ‘Could someone like this really exist?’”
“Was transformation this extreme even possible?” Anastasion added. “And how would that play out in the real world?”
Offering a glimpse into their questions through their documentary, the filmmakers created “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” highlighting faith and forgiveness.
“The film forces [viewers] to question the very nature of what true, meaningful reconciliation looks like in a country where justice has not been available,” the film’s website noted.
“It’s only Christianity that can help this nation, because Christianity, it is the only belief, the only faith that tell you to love your enemies, that tell you to accept and forgive the one who hurts you,” Blahyi stated in an excerpt from the movie, according to PBS.
“All of us you see sitting here were notorious rebels. The only thing that is able to disarm them is love, the love that disarmed me. Only God is able to turn lives around.”
Prior to his conversion, Blahyi, a member of the Sarpo tribe in Liberia, was a spiritual consultant to the late Liberian president, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe.
At age 11, he was initiated as a tribal priest and participated in his first human sacrifice, which he practiced monthly until he was 25. Later appointed as high priest to the Krahn people and then spiritual adviser to Doe, Blahyi previously told the South African Star that he “met Satan regularly and talked to him.”
He was dubbed “General Butt Naked” for entering battle with nothing but shoes and a gun, believing that his nakedness made him invincible to bullets. The previous general also claimed that he killed children, offering their blood to his god, and sometimes even plucking out their hearts and eating it before battle as well.
It is no wonder that all throughout the country, people still fear him, despite his conversion.
In 1996, Blahyi had a dramatic encounter with Christ during one of the most brutal fights in the history of the Liberian war, an encounter many deemed similar to Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
Jesus appeared to him as a blinding light and told him that he would die unless he repented of his sins, the Daily Mail reported.
Accepting Christ and asking forgiveness for his sins, Blahyi promptly laid down his weapons, left behind his soldiers, and went to a refugee camp in Ghana where he began his conversion process.
Now preaching where he once murdered, Blahyi hopes to rebuild the people whom he once hurt, advocating peace and not violence.
“It’s the toughest moment in my life to see somebody who I hurt in the past,” Blahyi reflected in the film. “There are thousands of people that can stand up here and say, this is what he did to me, this is what he did to my brother. I’m guilty. I’m 100 percent guilty for all the things I did in the past.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he repeated. Though many believed in Blahyi’s repentance and transformation, a few believe he is lying.
Despite their doubts, however, the former warlord continues to prove his turnaround through his actions, tirelessly preaching the Gospel to everyone he comes across.
He is currently the president and founder of the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries in Ghana, which he founded in 1999, existing to shine the light of Christ in remote parts of Africa, including Togo, Benin Republic, Nigeria, Chile Republic, Guinea, and Liberia, his home land.
He returned to Liberia after six years of living in exile in 2004 and assisted in the disarmament process for one year, according to his ministry’s website, before returning back to the refugee camp in Ghana.
Three years later, he traveled back to his home country with a desire to return to Liberia with his family, which consisted of his wife, Josie, and their four children.
During that period, Blahyi agreed to admit his crimes before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an act very few warlords agreed to do, though he did not know what the consequences of his confession would be.
“I went to the TRC because I wanted to reconcile with my country and be free of my conscience,” he shared in an excerpt. “And the fate turned out that they recommended amnesty for me.”
After he was recommended amnesty, however, Blahyi received several death threats from other warlords and fled to Ghana as a result. He has now returned to Liberia, preaching the truth of Jesus Christ to his people and teaching the broken about God’s infinite mercy and hope for mankind for sinners like himself.
The film will air on the Documentary Channel on Jan. 22.
PBS NewsHour ended their yearlong collaboration with The Economist magazine this week, highlighting the work of independent documentary filmmakers through The Economist Film Project.
Though they received more than a thousand documentary submissions, they chose only 19 films to showcase, ranging from skateboarding in Afghanistan to art made in the world’s largest landfill in Brazil.