10 Shocking Facts About The Broken War in Liberia

''We were nude, fearless, drunk, and homicidal. We killed hundreds of people - so many I lost count.''

Between 1989 and 2003, the West African country of Liberia was torn apart by a civil war of apocalyptic proportions. A broken war that became synonymous with horrifying brutality ranging from cannibalism and mass rape to cross-dressing child soldiers, Liberia hosted one of the most shocking wars on the African continent.

Aside from a brief summary of the Liberian Civil War, this article doesn’t intend to go in-depth into the reasons behind the conflict itself. Instead, it will cover ten downright shocking elements, facts, and characters involved in this broken war that made it both apocalyptic and surreal.

The Broken War in Liberia

The basis of the civil wars that tore apart the West African country of Liberia can be attributed to two characters: Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe. In 1980, U.S. backed Doe overthrew the elected government of Liberia before holding a fraudulent election in 1985 in an attempt to legitimize his regime.

Joseph Duo, a militia commander loyal to the Liberian government, celebrates after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces at a key strategic bridge in Monrovia.

Taylor supported the coup of 1980 and was given a government position in Doe’s government before being fired for embezzling $1 million. He fled the country and surfaced in Libya where he received military training from the Gadaffi regime which he used to form and train the anti-Doe National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) on the Ivory Coast.

Around Christmas of 1989, Taylor moved into Liberia with the NPFL and launched an uprising to overthrow Doe. Monrovia fell in 1990 and Doe was murdered on camera by a rival of Taylor: Prince Johnson. After a peace deal, Charles Taylor was elected as the Liberian President in 1997.

However, Taylor’s reign was short-lived. Two years later, Liberian dissidents invaded Liberia from neighboring Guinea and surrounded the Liberian capital of Monrovia forcing Taylor into exile.

Cross Dressing Soldiers Became an Icon of This Broken War

For those of you familiar with the broken war aspect of Liberia, you’ll likely have seen the images of cross-dressing child soldiers with drugged-up eyes and wielding rusty Kalashnikovs. Whilst their outfits may be absurdly amusing to some, they were far from funny.

Interestingly, these cross-dressing soldiers first appeared as far back as when the Liberian Civil War began on Christmas Eve of 1989. The reasons behind it were a mixture of mind games, voodoo, and West African rites-of-passage rituals.

In interviews with these crossdressing fighters, they explained the reasoning behind their bizarre outfits. As well as causing terror amongst the enemy, it also provided a sense of invincibility based on the West African belief that dual identities can provide protection.

The Use of Drugged Up Child Soldiers Was Widespread

Throughout the Liberian Civil War, the widespread use of child soldiers became a symbol of a broken war. Child soldiers were utilized by various warring factions including government forces. The UN estimates that 15,000 children fought in the conflict.

Two child soldiers ride through the streets of Monrovia, Liberia on April 25, 1996. Credit: Corinne Dufka / Reuters file

Interviews with former child soldiers in Liberia reveal many were forced to join the fighting when warring factions raided refugee camps hunting down children to forcibly recruit. However, some children volunteered to join rebel groups either as a form of survival or to get revenge for various atrocities carried out in the war.

The role of these child soldiers, some as young as 9 years old, ranged from manning checkpoints and spying to the protection of warlords to engaging in urban warfare. Regarding the latter, these child soldiers were often sent as cannon fodder into some of the heaviest combat of the Liberian Civil War.

The War Featured Cannibal Warlords Like ‘General Butt Naked’

One of the most prolific users of child soldiers was a man named Joshua Milton Blahyi otherwise known as General Butt Naked who commanded the Naked Base Commandos. One of the most infamous warlords of Liberia, Blahyi was known for fighting completely naked and eating children alive.

An adversary of Charles Taylor, Butt Naked led a group of heavily armed child soldiers in the conflict. During combat, he would engage enemy fighters wearing nothing but boots and an assault rifle. Blahyi believed being naked would protect him from enemy bullets and claimed to have “met Satan regularly and spoke to him”.

But more shocking than his naked battlefield exploits, was his pre-combat ritual. To bring supposed protection and good fortune, Blahyi would ritually slaughter a child. The victim would be dismembered and the body parts distributed between Blahyi and his men to consume in a cannibalistic ritual.

”Blahyi stood naked atop a truck, holding an assault rifle in one hand and a man’s severed genitals in the other.”

– The New Yorker

Whilst it’s estimated that Blahyi is behind 8% of the 250,000 deaths that took place in the war, he still walks the streets of Monrovia as a free man. Why? Blahyi’s extensive cooperation with Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008.

This was an organization set up to investigate war crimes in the Liberian conflict. Blahyi told the tribunal in detail how he would cut out the hearts of child victims. He would then distribute the heart out to his fighters for them to eat. His cooperation granted him amnesty from prosecution.

The Introduction of Peacekeepers Was a Catastrophic Failure

In the early stages of the Liberian Civil War, skyrocketing civilian casualties led to an intervention from neighboring African countries. Under the command of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigerian and Ghanaian troops entered Monrovia to support President Doe against Taylor’s rebels.

Joshua Milton Blahyi, a former Liberian factional fighter known as “General Butt Naked”, threatens a fellow combatant with a knife during an argument outside the Barclay Training Center army barracks in Monrovia, Liberia, May 15, 1996. Credit: David Guttenfelder/AP Photo.

The peacekeepers failed to protect Doe. Following his death, they attempted to force peace by creating the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU). However, Taylor refused to accept and continued fanning the flames of war spawning even more warring factions and creating more death and destruction.

When Taylor and his men captured Monrovia after Operation Octopus, the ECOWAS were trapped. Eventually, the Nigerian-brokered Abuja Accord led to new elections that allowed Charles Taylor to win the presidency and seize control of the entire country.

The introduction of peacekeepers not only failed to stop the carnage of this broken war, but it actually prolonged it and culminated in handing over power to the rebel warlord they were tasked to stop: Charles Taylor.

The Liberian Civil War Killed Almost 250,000 People

Over the course of this 14 years long broken war, the intense fighting between all sides killed almost a quarter of a million people. With a population of around 2 million people in 1989, Liberia suffered ver 12% of its population killed. In addition, a similar number of people were made refugees by this broken war.

For those left alive after the guns fell silent, it was a long road to recovery. For the countless child soldiers, rape victims, those made to carry out forced labor, the mutilated and injured, the path to any kind of normality was often non-existent.

Liberia Mutated From an Internal War to an External War

Whilst the First Liberian Civil war was largely an internal conflict, the Second Liberian War was certainly an external one. With the anti-Taylor rebels of LURD being heavily supported by the governments of neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, Taylor resorted to similar tactics.

The war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Taylor utilized anti-government dissidents in Guinea and Sierra Leone to actively destabilize both countries. He formed an organization called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in an attempt to export the armed warfare plaguing Liberia to these neighboring countries.

As a result of the horror spreading across Sierra Leone and Guinea as well as his open trading of weapons for blood diamonds from Sierra Leone, Taylor attracted mass condemnation and opposition from the United Nations. His neighboring adversaries soon attracted support from the UK and the US.

The U.S. Military Was Deployed

In the latter stages of the Second Liberian Civil War, the U.S. Military was deployed to the country in response to the rapidly worsening situation in the capital Monrovia as anti-Taylor LURD rebels surrounded and launched a gruelling artillery attack on the city.

The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia had not only come under attack during the siege, but it was also undergoing food shortages as a result of the closure of Monrovia port. A small detachment of U.S. troops were deployed to reinforce the embassy and evacuate non-combatant personnel.

The Current Senior Senator of Liberia is a Former Warlord

Remember Prince Johnson, the man who tortured and mutilated President Doe in the First Liberian Civil War? Well, he’s still around. In fact, he is the current Senior Senator of the Liberian government after narrowly missing out on becoming the country’s president.

Prince Johnson in the 1990s with his militia members.

The footage of Prince Johnson shocked people around the world when he captured Samuel Doe in 1990. He was pictured being fanned by a subordinate and sipping a cold beer as Doe was tortured and mutilated in front of him before later being executed.

As arch-rival of Taylor, Johnson was forced to flee the country to stay alive when the second war broke out. In a bizarre twist of roles, Johnson returned from exile in Nigeria when Taylor was ousted to begin his own exile in the neighboring country and Johnson later took up a position as a Liberian Senior Senator.

The Most Infamous Players in This Broken War Later Found God

From Butt Naked to Charles Taylor, we’ve covered a lot of pretty nasty characters who played gruesome roles in this broken war. These days, many of them have allegedly turned their backs on their former wicked ways and are said to have found god in an attempt to repent for their many sins.

Former-General Butt Naked in his role as a pastor in modern-day Monrovia.

Former naked warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi is now a pastor in Monrovia. Aside from hosting sermons, he also attempts to rehabilitate former child soldiers, gang members, and drug addicts. He often visits the former families of his victims to ask for forgiveness. Many of them quite naturally refuse.

Prince Johnson, who is not any form of royalty but simply bears the common Liberian first name of Prince, also found religion whilst in exile in Nigeria. As a newborn Christian, he reconciled with the Doe family for the torture and murder of Doe upon his return to Liberia.

”The country we destroyed is the country we want to rebuild”

– Joshua Blahyi.

Taylor has not been so repentant. Currently serving his 50-year prison sentence in a maximum-security prison in the United Kingdom, he has been accused of pulling the strings in Liberia politics. In 2017, a phone call from the former warlord was broadcast to a gathering of his supporters on his birthday.

Charles Taylor’s Conviction Was Historic

In the summer of 2003, the then Liberian president Charles Taylor was forced to flee Liberia when the capital of Monrovia was rapidly surrounded by his adversaries. He moved into a villa in neighboring Nigeria and prepared for life in exile.

Liberian ex-President Charles Taylor is escorted at the Freetown, Sierra Leone, airport on his way to the Netherlands in 2006.

Provided he steered clear of Liberian politics, a peace accord gave Taylor immunity from prosecution. But this warlord-turned-president couldn’t abide by this and subsequently breached the condition, leading to his arrest for crimes against humanity.

Taylor was extradited to the Hague, placed on trial and found guilty of 11 charges relating to war crimes and crimes against humanity. After being given a 50-year prison sentence, Charles Taylor became the first former head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since Hitler’s brief successor of Karl Dönitz was tried at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.

Related Broken War Articles

The Situation in Liberia Today

Two years after Charles Taylor was forced out of Liberia, the oldest republic in Africa added another historic moment to itself. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the 24th Liberian President and became the first female leader of any African state.

Thankfully, since the end of the second Liberian Civil War, the country has been at relative peace and has made significant progress on the road to recovery. The U.S. has played a large role in the post-war transition process, reinforced by the various roles carried out by the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

In memory of the hundreds of thousands of Liberian people who were killed, abused, displaced, or were never the same in the horror of a broken war that tore Liberia apart.

Prove it, Warlord! (sources)

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