Few things exemplify the chaos of Liberia more than the sight of doped-up, AK-47-wielding 15-year-olds roaming the streets decked out in fright wigs and tattered wedding gowns. Indeed, some of the more fully accessorized soldiers in Charles Taylor’s militia even tote dainty purses and don feather boas. Why did this practice begin and what is the logic behind it?
The cross-dressing combatants blipped onto the Western press’s radar screen right around the time the Liberian Civil War started on Christmas Eve in 1989. During Taylor’s rebel siege on Monrovia in the ‘90s, his band of dolled-up marauders—aka the National Patriotic Front of Liberia—put on one of the most disturbing horror shows the planet has ever seen. Between 1989 and 1997, 150,000 Liberians were murdered, countless others were mutilated, and 25,000 women and girls were raped. The NPFL’s shock-and-awe antics were apparent from the very start of the conflict. In an essay in Liberian Studies Journal, an administrator at Cuttington University College tells a story of Taylor’s forces storming the rural campus during the initial stages of the war in “wedding [dresses], wigs, commencement gowns from high schools and several forms of ‘voodoo’ regalia. … [They] believed they could not be killed in battle.”
According to the soldiers themselves, cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can “confuse the enemy’s bullets” by assuming two identities simultaneously. Though the accoutrements and garb look bizarre to Western eyes, they are, in a sense, variations on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to bolster their sense of invisibility (and, therefore, immunity) during combat. Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren’t available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses.
The cross-dressing “dual identity” isn’t just a source of battlefield bravado, though. Cross-dressing has deep historical roots in West African rites-of-passage rituals involving “medicine men” who would recommend wearing masks, talismans, and bush attire as a means of obtaining mystical powers. Rebels dressed in gowns and wigs and adorned with bones, leaves, and other “forest culture” trappings are practicing a modern variation on this technique of using symbolic “clothing” to access sources of power far stronger than their own. And in common Liberian initiation rituals—which exist in memory throughout the country, if not always in practice—a boy’s passage to adulthood is symbolically represented by the donning of female garb. He must first pass through a dangerous indeterminate zone between male and female identity before finally becoming a man. A soldier dressed in women’s clothes—or Halloween masks, or shower caps, etc.—on the battlefield is essentially asserting that he’s in a volatile in-between state. The message it sends to other soldiers is, “Don’t mess with me, I’m dangerous.”
Liberia’s adult warlords appropriated and updated these rites-of-passage rituals in order to form tight-knit proxy fighting forces. The strongmen persuaded impoverished youths to join their battalion by offering them the chance to be part of a secret society and attain supernatural powers. In a country where the young had few if any options, this was seen as an opportunity to “be somebody.”
After Charles Taylor’s Cuttington University attack, other offshoot Liberian militias vying to control the country embarked upon similar gender-bending rampages. One of the more notorious henchmen of the era was Joshua Milton Blahyi, a commander whose nom de guerre was “General Butt Naked.” Hired for his ferocity by rebel leader and Taylor contemporary Roosevelt Johnson, his “Butt Naked Battalion” consisted of drug-fueled teens who went into battle in flowing dresses and colorful wigs. The general himself reportedly wore only laced-up boots and his weapon.
Not surprisingly, these troops became poster children for the war. Dressed in gowns and shower caps and “fortified by amphetamines, marijuana and palm wine [they] sashayed irresistibly for photographers,” writes Bill Berkely in The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa. “Liberia’s fifteen minutes of infamy seemed to spring full-blown out of the most sensational Western images of Darkest Africa.”
Today, some 14 years after Taylor’s troops first began their march toward Monrovia, Blahyi has put his clothes back on and supposedly found God. Prince Y. Johnson *, who tortured former Liberian president Samuel K. Doe to death in 1990 and recorded it on video, is talking about returning from exile in Nigeria with a promise to solve problems with “elections, not guns” once Taylor is gone. And Taylor himself is sitting in his Monrovian compound being shelled by new bands of rebels wearing bathrobes.
Correction, Aug. 4, 2003: This article originally misstated the name of the man who tortured and killed former Liberian President Samuel K. Doe. It was Prince Y. Johnson who tortured and killed Doe, not Roosevelt Johnson.