Former soldier Christian Bethelson’s only job skill was killing—until a chance meeting on a muddy road transformed his life, and many others through it.
“I tell my children, ‘Watch who you marry,’” says 53-year-old Christian Bethelson. “I married an AK-47, and it stole 27 years of my life. Bad marriage.”
He flashes a smile. One of his front teeth is missing, knocked out during a torture session in military prison. He’s also got a scar from a bullet in his right leg, and a host of terrifying stories from the front lines of Liberia’s civil war, one of West Africa’s most brutal conflicts in recent history.
Like the nation itself, Bethelson is trying to leave behind decades of military rule and no-holds-barred warfare. It hasn’t been easy. Even in a quiet living room in sleepy Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has come to develop his peacebuilding work and further his personal studies in meditation, Bethelson does not seem entirely at ease. He sits on the edge of his chair and gesticulates broadly, his heavily accented voice rising as he describes how he stumbled into the life of a soldier—a life he might still be living today, if not for the chance encounter on a muddy road that set him on a path to transformation.
Today, Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County is a roll of forested hills, cleared in no obvious pattern to make room for rice fields, rutted dirt roads, and clusters of palm-roofed homes. Somewhere, a bird is always singing.
In many ways, the region has changed little since Christian Bethelson was born there on January 1, 1958. Then, as now, its residents were mostly poor families, descended from any number of the 16 tribes that were living in the area when freed black slaves from the United States arrived in the early 1800’s and—despite sharing a skin color—established a two-class, colonial society that left families like Bethelson’s with scant political power or opportunity for economic advancement.
As was common at the time, Bethelson’s father had multiple wives—nine of them—and Bethelson’s earliest memories are not of playing, but of working the fields with his many brothers and sisters, scrambling sun up to sundown to scratch out enough food for everyone. From an early age, Bethelson intuited that education would be the surest path out of such a hardscrabble life. With dogged persistence, he trudged long morning hours to get to the nearest school—when his father would permit it—and then hustled home in the afternoons, lugging firewood he would pick up along the way.
Studying mostly on an empty stomach, he managed to graduate from the high school in the county seat. He knew he needed more.
“I had to go to college,” he says. “Education is the oxygen of the world. I was choking without it.”
When he learned the government was offering university scholarships for young men who enlisted in the army, he immediately signed up—only to find out the scholarships had run out. He was obliged to serve anyways.
That was 1978. Two years later, tensions generated by a century of injustice came to a head when a young sergeant named Samuel Doe murdered the Americo-Liberian president and installed himself as the nation’s first indigenous leader. Liberians flooded the streets of capital city Monrovia in jubilation, celebrating what seemed a step towards a more inclusive, democratic society.
But Doe soon proved ill-equipped to lead the nation into a more enlightened era: He conducted a macabre firing squad execution of several prominent Americo-Liberians, allowed his soldiers unchecked power, and grew increasingly corrupt. He played off Cold War tensions to stay in favor with the Americans, and cracked down on political dissidence at home by sending Bethelson and other elite soldiers to places like Israel and Libya for the latest training in anti-terrorism tactics.
The oppressive measures backfired. Powerful rebel forces rose up, stormed the countryside and destroyed Monrovia, sending some 500,000 Liberians—20 percent of the entire nation—into foreign refugee camps. By mid-1990, Doe and 500 of his remaining soldiers had retreated into the Executive Mansion, where they held out for months under unimaginable conditions.
Bethelson was among them, and even today, his voice breaks as he tries to describe those final months of Doe’s regime.
“People were drinking blood. People were eating people. Chickens were more valuable than humans. I kept a round in my AK-47—I knew that if the rebels caught me, it would be better to be dead.”
Bethelson survived on chicken bouillon and hot water until international peacekeepers brokered a ceasefire, and he and others escorted Doe to the port for peace talks. But no sooner had they laid down their guns, than a rebel faction broke the accord and opened fire. Many were killed; Bethelson scrambled aboard the peacekeeper’s ship, a bullet in his leg. (Doe was soon after tortured and executed in the Executive Mansion by a rebel named Prince Johnson, who caught international attention by releasing graphic video of the event.)
Bethelson was taken to a military hospital in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. Slowly, his physical wound healed. The emotional damage did not.
“I would get drunk, smoke dope, listen to Bob Marley. I was never in a good stage, never experienced happiness. I had been driven from my family, from my country, from my dignity.” He pauses, and then adds: “I had no conscience.”
What he did have were years of military experience and training—assets that quickly led him back to Liberia, now plunged into full-out civil war. Under the nom de guerre General Leopard, Bethelson spent the next 13 years leading rebel forces in ruthless battle against warlord Charles Taylor. He was imprisoned for three of those years, but managed to escape and return to the front lines.
It was not until 2003, when an uncertain peace arrived, that he finally set down his AK-47. His first move was to find his wife and children, whom he’d not seen in four years. He found them living in an unfinished house, half-starved to death. But the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, and there was no work to be found. The joy of being home soon faded before a crush of impotence, shame, and anger.
“My wife and kids would insult me, cuss at me, ask why I could not find food for them. I would leave early in the morning, go to the beach and get high, and return late at night, when they were asleep.
“At that point I hated myself for having no education, for having gone into the military, for having participated in the ways that I had, for having been a rebel general. I saw myself as a criminal.”
Read entire story at Nation of Change.