MONROVIA, Liberia—Joseph Duo is 30 years old and spent nearly half his life on the battlefield. These days, he lives in a ramshackle concrete building, where someone—he doesn't know who—painted a bit of pious graffiti near the entryway: "A world at prayer is a world at peace." The words suggest a relationship between spirituality and violence that is as far as possible from Joseph's personal experience. Although he goes to church regularly in postwar Liberia, his most profound spiritual encounters occurred during the fighting—not in prayer, but in a series of mystical dreams. Like many former fighters, he believes God saved his life.
Joseph was a teenager when the war reached Monrovia in 1990. A small group of rebels, known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and led by Charles Taylor, had invaded the country from the east in an attempt to overthrow President Samuel Doe. The capital was under government control, and something as innocuous as wearing jeans or a red T-shirt could get you mistaken for a rebel. A midafternoon curfew was in force, and most mornings Joseph's neighborhood was littered with bodies.
It wasn't safe to stay, so Joseph and his mother and siblings set off on foot, joining a growing wave of refugees fleeing the capital. As they walked, government troops seized people for no reason and killed them. At a checkpoint in rebel-held territory, fighters searched their luggage. If they learned that your father worked in the government, they would take you away.
One night, a voice came to Joseph in a dream, urging him to join the revolution. He told his mother, but she didn't take it seriously. A few days later, he had the same dream again.
"So, I just woke up one morning and left them," he said. He believed that joining the rebels was the only way to stay alive and protect his family.
He hitched a ride down the coast and asked the way to the rebel base, where the commander welcomed him. He had been there three days when they asked if anyone could read and write. Joseph had been to school through 10th grade before the war. They ordered him to write down the names of 160 soldiers and take roll call. Afterward, they told him, "You're responsible for them. You're a commander."
He was 14 and had never held a gun. In a few days, he learned how to fire an AK-47, how to disassemble and clean it, how to cover and conceal. He became the commander of a Small Boy Unit in Taylor's rebel army. His youngest soldiers were 11, the oldest maybe 17. He called himself Shavy, a nickname he'd gotten when he used to break dance in his neighborhood before the war.
He and the other rebels fought their way toward Monrovia. At night, "the bigger ones," as Joseph called the adult soldiers, would return to base, leaving the boys lying in ambush. Most nights, Joseph lay in the thick undergrowth and cried, thinking about his parents. But one night when it was raining hard, he fell asleep.
An old woman appeared to him in a dream. "Stop crying," she told him. "Why do you cry? It was not your decision to follow the revolution."
She told him to follow her, and she pointed to a bucket of water. At her request, he bathed, and when he was done, there was a little water left. The old woman said: "Whatever's left, take it."
He saw a silver ring and a bangle lying in the bottom of the bucket, and he put them on. "Whatever is man-made will not kill you," the old woman told him. Then she disappeared. When Joseph awoke, he had a ring on his finger and a bangle on his wrist.
Soon afterward, he was wounded for the first time, shot twice in the knee. He didn't feel pain until he got to the command post and someone removed the bullets. A few months later, he was hurt again, when a fellow rebel was fixing a gun and accidentally shot him.
"It hit my side. I fell over," Joseph said. "Everybody said, 'He's dead,' but nothing happened."
He started believing in the protective powers of the ring and bracelet. He found that he could sense defeat before a battle. When he walked through a village, he could feel danger 30 yards away. In 13 years of war, he said that he was wounded more than 70 times. When I met him, he lifted his shirt and pointed to the puckered skin on his chest and the burns on his arms, rattling off dates: 1993, 1995, 2000. He said he once fired a .30-caliber rifle into his chin by mistake. Another time, a rocket-propelled grenade knocked him into a house, and the house collapsed on him. "Some people used to say that I'm not a real human being," he told me. "I saw people that were greater than me, and they died. It's God."
His luck disappeared as suddenly as it had come. In 2000, when Taylor was president and Joseph had become a government soldier, he grew exhausted after months of fighting in the north. One night, he took off the ring and bracelet and put them in his armor bag. He gave the bag to his aide-de-camp, a boy named Black Jesus, and ordered him to pitch a tent and bring ammunition and food. Then Joseph fell asleep.
A fire was burning nearby, and a cache of live ammunition exploded. The blast knocked Joseph across the room. His clothes and hair caught fire. He was taken to the hospital in Monrovia, where he spent more than a month recuperating.
His armor bag disappeared. He learned that another soldier had taken the ring and bracelet, but the jewelry soon vanished from the man's hand, and he died a few days later.
Joseph recovered and fought until the war ended in 2003. He turned in his weapon and got $300 and a chance to go to school as part of a U.N.-sponsored disarmament program. But he didn't want to be a student. "It was not my decision to go sit in class and have people calling you 'ex-fighter,' 'ex-rebel,' " he said. "After the war, I just wanted to be in the bush by myself."
Eventually, he did return to school, and now he's now trying to decide what to do when he graduates. He'd like to be a professional soldier or a Christian pastor, careers that, in his view, have much in common. "Even in heaven, God have an army," he told me. "Who are the angels? Remember, the angels burned Sodom and Gomorrah, right?"
In a place where powerlessness is exceedingly dangerous, the military and the church share a key advantage, Joseph said. If a commander tells a man to stay in the barracks, he won't leave. If a minister tells his congregation to come to Bible study, they'll come. "When pastor preach, everybody keep silent and listen to him," Joseph said. "That's like the military leader. When he talk, everybody listen."