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Change Agent

A warrior turns peacemaker in Liberia

Former soldier Christian Bethelson’s only job skill was killing – until a meeting on a muddy road in Liberia changed his life, and many others.

By Seth BidermanYES! Magazine / January 12, 2012

A former soldier shouts in front of a United Nations peacekeeper during a demonstration to demand back payments from the government in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2007. Christian Bethelson spent decades as a soldier in Liberia but now is dedicated to helping the war-torn country rebuild.

Christopher Herwig/Reuters/File

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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.”

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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, N.M., 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.

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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 Jan. 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 1800s 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 anyway.

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