Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

Blama Massaquoi had known war. He wanted peace.

He’d been hurt. He wanted to help others heal.

Blama Massaquoi was the best of us.

He died in Cottage Grove on Feb. 11, from injuries suffered half a lifetime ago, as a schoolboy abducted and tortured during the Liberian civil war. He had just turned 34.

The world took more from Massaquoi than it gave. It stole his childhood, his health and, in the end, his life.

He repaid the world’s cruelty with compassion.

“I will help people,” he once told his aunt, Ola Pratt. “Because people helped me.”

He was an 11th-grader trying to do his homework when government soldiers snatched him off the streets of Monrovia. He and two other boys escaped, only to be captured and tortured by rebels, who beat them and forced them to swallow a corrosive poison. The other boys died and the chemical destroyed Massaquoi’s throat, leaving him unable to eat for years and in terrible pain for the rest of his life.

An appeal from the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture brought him to Minnesota in 2005, a skeletal 19-year-old on a feeding tube.

Surgeons donated their help for a series of operations that built him a new esophagus.

They gave him back the ability to swallow and eat, and they gave him 15 more years. Time enough for him to go to college, to pursue a career, to get an apartment of his own in Cottage Grove, and to become a father. His daughter, Lanija, is 10 years old.

“Blama’s ultimate goal was to serve humanity by giving back,” Pratt said. “He was so kind. He was so willing to help others.”

In 2012, he was featured in “Beneath the Blindfold,” a documentary about survivors of torture that’s now streaming on Amazon Prime. The camera crews followed Massaquoi as he studied to become a nursing assistant, even when he was in so much pain he could barely swallow solid food.

“When I was sick, I had a lot of people taking care of me,” Massaquoi said as the camera followed him to class, where he practiced gently washing patients’ feet. “So it is my pleasure also to take care of other people who’ve been sick.”

“I was able to survive,” he added, “so I can take care of somebody to survive, too.”

One who took care of Massaquoi was Jim Andre, a volunteer who befriended him and spent years helping him settle into his new home. Andre taught him to drive, kept him company at doctor’s appointments and treated him like family.

Then Andre suffered a debilitating stroke. And it was Massaquoi’s turn to take care of him.

Massaquoi spent hours by his friend’s bedside, helping him eat, keeping him company, repaying kindness with kindness.

“What’s beautiful is my father gave him so much love, because he was so mad about what had happened to him,” said Andre’s daughter, Susan. “Blama really gave back. ... He was just such a kind, gentle person.”

Massaquoi’s story, she said, “started with such horror, but so many good things came out of it.”

Massaquoi’s body was covered in scars, some from the trauma that maimed him, some from the surgeries that saved him. But he was an energetic, free-spirited and resilient man, his family said. He never gave up and he never wanted to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to him. The documentary showed him playing soccer, laughing with friends and family and dreaming of a brighter future.

He hoped to become a registered nurse and was taking college courses to prepare. But when his medical history ruled out that career, he started searching for other ways to help people. Maybe social work. Maybe he would study criminal justice.

“Auntie Ola, there’s more than one letter in my alphabet,” he told his aunt. “If one plan fails, I will keep trying till I find one that works.”

Even near the end, as his damaged lungs were failing, he was thinking of others. Of his mother, back in Liberia, and the house he wanted to build for her. Of his little girl and how much he hoped she would go to college.

“This Earth and the people here can be so cruel,” one of his cousins, Rachel Watkins, wrote after his death. “When my days are hard, I will feel you asking me to keep pushing. When the days are long, I will breathe deep and remember your desire to live. … I will remember my choice to rise above all the evil in this world and look forward to meeting you in Heaven.”