When most people hear of West Point, the first place that probably comes to mind is the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, which, over its 200 year history, has been churning out elite military cadets for the United States Military, some of whom have gone on to become US presidents, renowned generals, and senators and statesmen whose patriotic service to their nation renain unparalleled.
But that’s not the same story in Liberia. In that small West African nation, with its barbaric recent war past where marauding wig-adorned rebel fighters used human entrails to set up checkpoints, when one thinks of the underworld abode of the most violent and despised criminal elements in society, almost without fail, the first place that is conjured up in the minds of Liberians is West Point.
Described as the worst slum in the world in an unflattering documentary called Vice Guide to Liberia, West Point is a precariously densely populated, poverty-gangrened and crime-afflicted township burrowed under the condescending hill where the capital city of Monrovia is proudly perched. But, notwithstanding it being so intimately coupled with the capital city, you would think it was some faraway place when you hear the city dwellers, many of whom have never dared to enter the township, turn their sneering noses in the air as they talk about West Point as if it were a place where even angels fear to tread.
And, truth be told, for someone who has no business there, West Point does appear to be just such a place. With only one narrow paved road audaciously slithering its way into West Point, whose entry point seems not unlike a hidden driveway clandestinely cutting through the Waterside Market, Liberia’s most populous marketplace, where vendors have invaded the sidewalks to set up their market stalls and forced shoppers to spill out onto the streets, the drive into West Point is a slow and deliberate one, requiring one’s undivided attention.
But, as if the constricting narrowness of the road—barely wide enough for two cars to meander alongside each other—was not enough, combined with a coterie of naked potbelly toddlers with mucus oozing down their noses, children with dirty tattered clothes and mothers with babies tied to their backs plying the sidewalk-deprived road, there are also speed bumps along the way, uncannily forcing drivers and passengers to imbibe the palpable poverty of the township residents as one cruises deeper into the bowels of West Point.
A Place That Seems Bereft of Promise: My Journey To Westpoint
Notwithstanding being born in Liberia, and even though during my early teen years I attended the B. W. Harris Episcopal High School on Broad Street in Monrovia, a short stroll away from the Ducor Hotel located at the highest point of the hill on which the capital city sits, and where one can view the maze of rusty corrugated zinc rooftops of houses in West Point; I never visited West Point then, because from that hilltop view, it seemed so bereft of any promise.
And, it will be many years later, after Liberia’s 14-year feral civil war when, as the assistant director for Communications and Media Affairs on the campaign team of one of the opposition presidential candidates during the Liberian Presidential Elections in 2011 that I would make my first visit to West Point on a campaign stop.
During the war years, which lasted from 1989-2003, I, like so many other Liberians, fled the country with my family and sought refuge in other countries. And, after having lived and worked in the US for over a decade, where I had obtained an undergrad degree in Public Relations and worked as a marketing professional, and having also obtained an MBA, I saw the 2011 Presidential elections as an opportunity to return to contribute to the promotion of democracy in my country. So, I had volunteered my services to assist the campaign of an aspiring presidential candidates.
We made several campaign stops in West Point, but those visits, as is the case with political campaigns, were to promote our candidate and message to the people. And, in the heat of a presidential campaign with 16 presidential candidates, we certainly were not the only ones expressing our heartfelt concerns for the destitution of the residents of West Point. They had therefore heard enough spiel from would-be political saviors and therefore, who could blame them for being cynical towards each and every politician seeking their votes.
They came in mass, especially the youths, to hear our standard bearer speak and to get whatever t-shirts or other campaign goodies that we may have had to distribute to them. And, in that charged political kaleidoscopic environment, I thought the residents of West Point were a key constituiency, because our campaign had developed policies and solution that, if implemented, could help alleviate their depraved conditions.
But our campaign lost the elections and I departed the country, while the sufferings of the people of West Point, especially its youths, continued unabated. With over 70% of Liberia’s population under 35 years of age, it worried me that the future of my beloved country was hanging on a precarious balance if something wasn’t urgently done to create more opportunities for these young people whose lives had been turned upside down as a result of their country’s devastating civil war.
During the political campaigning, I sat with a number of these young people, and listened to their heart-rending stories of disenfranchisement caused by the civil war. Some, like myself, had had parents killed during the war; others had lost so many years of educational advancement because of the war; and yet still so many others had been deprived of a loving and nurturing home and forced to become adults before their time. And, the more I listened to them tell their stories of deprivation, rather than simply expressing my empathy and walking away, their stories pricked at my conscience and moved me to try to do something to help.
What inspired me the most though was that, despite their obvious victimization in a society where the adults who were supposed to nurture and protect them had become their veritable abusers in an unbridled greed for power, most of the young people I met valiantly refused to wallow in a state of victimhood.
I, therefore, decided to put up whatever meager resources I had left to return home again, but this time around, to use my writing to tell the stories of some of these young people who have been most disadvantaged by Liberia’s devastating civil war, as a way to give them a voice and hopefully engender some goodwill to offer them the chance that they have never had to forge better lives for themselves.
And, unsure of how this journey would turn out, but armed with a keen desire to use my writing to give voice to some of the most disadvantaged war-affected youths of Liberia, I returned to Liberia again in May this year. I encountered many challenges with most of these young people were either not willing to tell their stories because they didn’t see any intrinsic value in rehashing those past traumatic experiences in their lives, or because they especially feared that telling their stories would stigmatize them.
I was even ridiculed by some people who thought the idea of trying to capture the stories of Liberia’s disadvantaged war-affected youths, especially those former child soldiers, was rather laughable. But, that notwithstanding, and constrained by my lack of a suitable means of transportation to get around to meet as many people as I could, coupled with me balancing my time between my temporary job as the Acting News Editor for one of Liberia’s leading daily newspapers, I pressed along.
Meeting a Confessed Cannibal and Former Warlord
It was at this time that I got to meet one of Liberia’s most notorious former warlords. You may call it serendipity or an act of God, depending on where you stand in the belief spectrum, but my meeting with General Butt-Naked, now Evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi, occurred as a result of a striking set of coincidences.
I was intend on interviewing a set of identical twin brothers, Emmett and Eugene, who I had met and talked to during my political campaigning days in Liberia. And, as fate would have it, I found out that they had been former child soldiers recruited by General Butt-Naked, as part of his ruthless band of Naked Commandoes, who terrified their enemies as they marched into battle completely in the nude.
At the time, one of the twins, Emmett, was trying to turn his life around from petty robbery and washing cars in the streets to eke out a living, and Blahyi had opened up his home to Emmett during this delicate juncture in the young man’s life.
I was able to get in contact with Blahyi who invited me to his house to do my interview with Emmett. I did the interview (see My Encounter With The World’s First Twin Child Soldiers and General Butt-Naked, the Notorious Liberian Warlord) and never had any particular plan to stay in touch with Blahyi.
But as I sat in Blahyi’s home that day, fully aware of his brutal past in which he confessed to killing young children to perform human sacrifices as part of his ritualistic worship to a demonic deity, I nonetheless felt I was sitting across from a man who was sincerely trying to make atonement for that brutal past.
Blahyi, who has been referred to as ‘the most evil man in the world’, told me about his theophanous conversion to Christianity, and that since that experience, his mission in life has been to preach the Word of God to save souls from everlasting damnation in hell.
While I can hardly pretend to be a qualified judge of who a true Christian convert is, Blahyi seemed honest about the new Christ-driven life that he had now committed himself to follow. He’s even launched a budding Christian ministry with a church called, Holy Temple Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith to substantiate his new righteously grounded life.
And, notwithstanding Blahyi’s claim that God had forgiven his past and given him a new lease on life, the same can hardly be said of his nation’s attitude towards him, especially those who directly experienced the savage brutality of General Butt-Naked and his gang of murderers. But Blahyi doesn’t act like a man who believes that because of his conversion to Christianity and his new lease on life, that he should be expunged of his past crimes.
During the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in 2008, Blahyi profusely confessed to his atrocious past, even admitting to being responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people. Expressing his deep remorse for his past crimes, he even said he would be willing to submit himself to a war crimes tribunal if that decision was arrived at by the Commission.
Blahyi’s unrestrained confession of his heinous crimes and his apparent earnest efforts to contribute to a meaningful reconciliation process in his country, resulted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommending that he be granted amnesty from prosecution.
In a nation where most other former Liberian warlords have categorized their atrocious war past in terms of acts of heroism to defend their tribesmen, Blahyi’s profuse expressions of remorse for his crimes has been like a whiff of refreshing air that has swept over the Liberian nation, whose own convoluted efforts for meaningful peace and reconciliation seem only half-baked as those notorious perpetrators of heinous crimes of war bask in their impunity from prosecution, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation that they be prosecuted.
And, despite growing calls by victims for the prosecution of those most responsible for the commission of war crimes during Liberia’s civil war, in which as many as 250,000 persons lost their lives, all things being equal, it seems like their pleas will continue to fall on deaf ears, at least for the foreseeable future.
That is especially attributable to the fact that, notwithstanding being coroneted with the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is bereft of the moral credibility to commission a war crimes tribunal in her country because she herself suffers disrepute for having blood on her hands as a result of her early financial support for convicted war criminal and former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, whose rebel army was accused by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of committing the most atrocities during the war.
In is with that backdrop, where others bearing the most responsibility for the commission of heinous crimes of war during the Liberian civil war have disingenuously sought to parry the nation’s peace and reconciliation process that Blahyi seems an inspiring standout. And, for that, he deserves no small amount of credit.
Joshua (as I began to refer to him after we struck an acquaintance) and I therefore remained in touch during my stay in Liberia. He told me about his efforts to set up a “home” for young men who were former child soldiers and other crime-prone young men who had been cast by the wayside with no hope for a bright future.
Sincy my goal was to tell the stories of such young men who had been most
disadvantaged by the country’s civil war, I was therefore hugely interested in Joshua’s venture.
In a nation where most other former Liberian warlords have categorized their atrocious war past in terms of acts of heroism to defend their tribesmen, Blahyi’s profuse expressions of remorse for his crimes has been like a whiff of refreshing air…
My Return to West Point with the Former Warlord
Joshua told me that he made regular visits to West Point to meet and encourage some of the young men he was planning to take into his sanctuary for boys when the project got off the ground. We therefore scheduled a time to meet again so that he could take me to West Point to meet up with the young men.
I borrowed a car and drove to Joshua’s home to pick him up. We then first drove to the three bedroom apartment, which is only a stone’s throw away from the unfinished concrete structure where he hosts his church services.
Through the assistance of the City Light Church of New York, the apartment had been rented for a whole year to serve as a place of respite for those troubled young men, and it was a luxury compared to the reprehensible squalor of the makeshift corrugated zinc houses were many of them lived.
Joshua gave me a tour of the unoccupied apartment. Then, there were only the wooden frames of bunk beds in the rooms. Joshua explained to me that he intended to cram up to 9 bunk beds in the three bedrooms to be able to take in as many as 18 young men.
Without asking, I thought to myself how challenging it would be to deal with 18 hard-nosed street youths living together in such a tight living quarters. But as Joshua told me about his vision to salvage some of the worst crime-prone young men from the ghettos to bring them under one roof, he didn’t show the slightest trace of worry about dealing with all these young men together. It was probably because Joshua was a former general who had led some of the most hardened killers into battle and they had submitted themselves to his leadership, so he didn’t seem deterred by the challenge of dealing with these street-hardened young men.
We then drove to West Point. On the trip, we talked about the future of our nation and how it was a critical imperative, if our nation was to have a bright future, for more to be done to try to give the youths, especially those destitute young men a better chance to improve their lives since they would be highly susceptible to potential diabolical forces intend on pulling the country back into war.
In West Point, as soon as Joshua got out of the car, people recognized him and began to greet him. They seemed to hold him in admiration. And, as I locked up the car, I pulled him aside and told him that I had my laptop in the car and was worried that when we left the car, someone might try to break into it and steal the laptop.
We tried to push the laptop under the car seat, but it wouldn’t fit. So we left it on the floor in the back of the car, visible to anyone who was passing by and would care to take a glimpse into the car. There was a group of shirtless young men apparently doing some woodwork on the roof of a house across from where we had parked. They greeted Joshua adoringly, and he told them he was going to see his “guys” and would be back.
As we dashed through the labyrinth of mostly zinc shacks that passed for houses in West Point, Joshua told me not to worry, assuring me that once those guys had seen him come out of the car, they would keep an eye on it for us. And true to his word, when we got back, my laptop was lying in the car where we had left it.
Walking through the nondescript alleyways that ran between the houses, residents along the way continued to greet Joshua, with some even stopping him to chat. And, as part of his three-man entourage with my Canon Rebel camera hanging by my side, they nodded their heads to also greet me.
After sometime, we then arrived at the beach and were greeted by the sound of waves smashing on the shores. The cool breeze that rose from the Atlantic Ocean was a welcomed relief from the blazing heat and humidity of the typical sweltering May day.
In some other place, with its defiantly golden sandy beach, notwithstanding the overwhelming squalor of the surroundings, this would have probably been the location for a tropical paradise. But this was West Point, where rather than five-star hotels, the beach was lined with dilapidated corrugated zinc shacks, with torn up plastic rice sacks and tarpaulin covering some, to shelter its owners from the torrential rains that begin to fall around this time in Liberia.
As soon as a group of young men saw Joshua, they ran toward him shouting: “Our papay na come, our papay na come.” Some of them, with bloodshot eyes, who seemed too hardened or drugged up to display emotions, even endearingly gave him a hug.
Joshua introduced me to the group and told them that I was a young Liberian writer who wanted to give them a voice by telling their stories to the world to raise awareness about their plight with the hope that it would inspire people of goodwill around the world to come to their aid.
I also spoke to them explaining why I had joined Joshua to come and see them. But, notwithstanding the fact that I was with Joshua, you could tell that they were still suspicious of my intentions. They seemed reluctant to be used as some spectacle to further whatever they perceived my ulterior motives were. But, since I was with Joshua, they hesitantly condescended to posing for me to take pictures of them.
Joshua spoke encouraging words to them, telling them to continue to have faith that the Lord will empower him to come to their aid. But, they seemed tired though of waiting for the Lord to empower Joshua to come to salvage them from their lives of destitution.
“Every time you come here and tell us to be patient and that you are working on getting us out of here. But how long do we have to keep on waiting?” they prodded Joshua.
He assured them it wouldn’t be much longer. He then asked for a few of the other guys who were not present. One, they said, had been stabbed to death only the week before in an argument with someone and nothing had come of the case. Another had been jailed for armed robbery. They narrated these stories without emotions, as if these were routine occurrences in their lives.
As we departed, a group of at least 10 young men escorted us back to the car. They pleaded with Joshua to assist them with some cash to buy food to eat. Joshua put his hand in his pocket to give them some money and the group encircled him in a frenzy, stretching out their hands to get the cash. But Joshua told them to calm down and they obeyed. He then gave the cash to one of the guys, who was apparently their leader, and ordered him to use it to prepare a meal to share with everyone.
We then got in the car and drove away as the guys burrowed back between the maze of makeshift houses to return to their beachfront hideaway. I thought to myself that there would have most likely been a violent tussle for the money if Joshua had not ordered them to remain calm.
Joshua Finally Fulfills his Promise
Several weeks after our trip to West Point, I got a call from Joshua telling me that he had finally completed the finishing touches on the living quarters for the boys and he was returning to West Point to “take them from the ghetto” as he put it.
Sadly though, hampered by my lack of a suitable means of transportation to get around, I could not attend the ceremony. But I promised Joshua that I would come to visit the boys at their new home when I could.
And, when I finally could, I drove to meet the boys in their new home. Some of them I had met on the beach in West Point and others I didn’t know, but they welcomed me. Joshua again walked me through the apartment, and where there were once only the wooden frames of bunk beds, they were now decked with mattresses for the young men to sleep in comfort.
The guys proudly showed me their beds and the foyer area where they had a TV and DVD player set up. We took pictures together and they seemed unable to contain their insuperable euphoria. Joshua had finally fulfilled his promise to them and now, just as he had a new lease on life, they seemed to be almost blissfully overjoyed that someone finally cared enough about their lives to pull them out of the bowels of the ghetto and give them a chance to forge better lives for themselves.
Joshua told me that his main struggle now was to provide sustenance for these young men.
“These guys eat a lot Moco and it is quite expensive feeding them,” he said jokingly.
We both laughed, but I couldn’t help imagining how feeding 18 young men daily must be such a financial strain, especially without any kind of dedicated support from the government or any international organization.
“How do you manage to afford to feed them?” I asked.
“We are managing by the grace of God, along with some support that we sometimes get from partners abroad and also through my own initiatives here,” he said.
And, notwithstanding his financial struggles to feed them, Joshua told me that his ultimate goal was to send each of the young men to vocational schools to provide them with employable skills that they could use to earn an honest living, so that they would never return to their lives of crime.
As I left that day, Oliver Johnson, one of the young guys whom I had met on the beach in West Point, and who especially seemed suspicious of my motives and would not even stare directly in the camera as I took their pictures, pulled me aside and told me bluntly that he had thought my intentions were to use them for my own selfish gains.
“I initially thought you were just trying to scheme us. But please do write and tell the world about our story so that they can support Pastor Blahyi to help us improve our lives,” he said.
“I will try to do my best,” I replied.
But, Oliver’s story, along with so many young men like him, have been buried under the wretched debris of a war that has bequeathed for them an existence of destitution and hopelessness. And they have been crying out for help but their voices have been muffled under this wretched debris of war.
With this writing though, I hope a few more people in this our global village will hear their cries for help and be moved to extend whatever goodwill they can, to give these young men a fair chance to forge better lives for themselves.
To get in contact with Joshua to support his program, you can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by phone at: +231886548245, +231777548245 or +231777001000.