Sunday, October 3, is the anniversary of the day on which Hladini devi dasi was brutally gunned down by an extra-judicial firing squad in war-torn Liberia in western Africa on the orders of President Yormie Johnson.
The death squad arrived at the Hare Krishna temple in the capital city of Monrovia in the early morning hours, and ordered the devotees to come out. Seven devotees, five men and two women, exited the temple and filed into the waiting jeep. They were driven a short distance to the Sturton Bridge, where the devotees were forced out at gunpoint and herded onto the sand next to the river. The leader announced that only the men would be killed. Thus Hladini, a woman, knew she would not be killed.
As the leader raised his weapon to fire the first execution volley, Hladini leapt forward and attacked him with her bare hands. She shouted, “How dare you kill the devotees of Krishna? Better you kill me than kill them!” Hladini was the first to be shot.
Hladini was born on January 16, 1949. Her parents gave her the name Linda Jury. Later, she received the name Hladini from her beloved Guru Maharaja, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Hladini grew up in a suburb of Detroit with her older brother and sister. She had many friends and lots of pets, including a dog named Pepperdoodle and a frog named Herbie. She spent her summers at the family’s vacation cottage. Hladini had a happy childhood.
In 1969, Hladini married Mike Ryon. Like many young people, Hladini and her husband were searching for the truth and a sense of fulfillment. Mike read different books about Zen, Taoism, and other eastern religions to find answers to their many questions. After Mike read a book entitled “The Wisdom of God” by Prabhupada, heard the devotees chanting the Hara Krishna maha-mantra, and tasted the free vegetarian food they served, he was convinced that he belonged with the devotees.
Mike and Hladini moved into the Detroit temple. At first, Hladini joined the Hare Krishna temple simply because it was what her husband had wanted. Soon, however, Hladini became convinced that the temple was the right place for her. In March 1970, she wrote to Prabhupada and asked for spiritual initiation. Prabhupada replied immediately by letter, in which he gave her the name Hladini.
In 1972, Hladini and Mike moved to New Vrindaban. Later that year, Mike left New Vrindaban permanently, while Hladini chose to stay. New Vrindaban was her home. Soon, Hladini became one of the most popular devotees in New Vrindaban.
“I moved to New Vrindaban from Zambia [in southern Africa] in 1986 with my husband and four children,” said Manasa Ganga devi dasi. “Hladini blew my mind. I had never before met anyone who was so blissful. She always had a beautiful smile on her face and she was kind and gentle with everyone, especially the children. Hladini loved the children and encouraged them.” For eighteen years, Hladini lived and served in New Vrindaban.In December 1990, Hladini made the painful decision to leave the place that was so dear to her, and traveled to west Africa. The devotees there so much appreciated Hladini’s service and inspiration that she was given the honor of being the regional secretary. In this capacity, Hladini traveled from center to center, teaching and assisting the devotees in every possible way.
By the time Hladini reached Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the country was entrenched in a fratricidal civil conflict. The warlords of the seven rivaling parties were fighting for power, while there was wide-spread starvation amongst the people. Seeing the suffering of the people, the devotees of the Hare Krishna temple in Monrovia approached the warlords and arranged to start a Food for Life program.
The warlord who controlled Monrovia, Prince Johnson, agreed to the proposal and the devotees began the free food distribution program. Prince Johnson visited the temple more than once and accepted a Bhagavad-Gita As It Is from the devotees.
As the war intensified, the US government ordered all US citizens to evacuate the country. Hladini had to decide whether to stay in Monrovia or return to safety in Nigeria. True to her nature, Hladini’s compassion and mercy for others outweighed any concern she had for her own safety. She opted to stay. Hladini was the only senior devotee in Monrovia, and her presence gave solace to the native African devotees who could not leave.
On June 14, 1990, Hladini wrote in a letter to Radhanath Swami, a friend from New Vrindaban:
[T]here is never a dull moment. Now I’m stranded in Liberia in the middle of a war to overthrow the government. The airport has been seized and they asked all Americans and foreigners to leave the country immediately. American marines sent 6 battleships and 2000 marines to evacuate the citizens. I’m just going to assist the devotees through the hard times. There’s scarcity of food as all the roads are blocked and no supplies can come in. 150,000 people fled the country in the last few weeks. Every day at least 10 people get beheaded and the rebels are still 35 miles from the city . . .
Prince Johnson was killing all suspected friends and soldiers of the former president. Johnson was also known for killing his own men at a faster rate than the enemy. The warlord’s reputation for insane murder bothered some of the devotees, who therefore wrote a letter to him saying that he should stop killing people.
Johnson, who would not tolerate the slightest criticism of his actions, was angered by the letter. A well-wisher passed a message to the devotees that Johnson was likely to get rid of them. At that time, it was too late to leave the temple and take shelter elsewhere, as many of the buildings in the area were either destroyed or being controlled by Johnson’s troops. The devotees stayed at the temple and left their fate in the hands of Lord Krishna.
The death squad arrived in the early morning hours. Johnson and his men carried away by jeep the seven devotees who had been captured.
Two devotees managed to escape through the back door and climb up trees to take cover. Suddenly, those two devotees heard gun shots from the direction of the bridge. They saw that the captured devotees were being shot by Johnson’s men. At daybreak, they came down from the tree. Instead of going to the temple, they walked to the river where they saw Hladini’s sari floating on the water. Hladini, along with the five male devotees, had become a martyr of the Liberian War. Hladini was the first one shot.
“When we heard in New Vrindaban that there had been a coup in Liberia and Hladini was trapped, the whole community came together at the Palace of Gold and prayed,” remembers Manasa Ganga. “When we heard Haldini had been killed, it was a huge shock. We held a memorial service and everyone came because she was one of the most loved devotees in the community. She always had a smile on her face and she was always ready to help out.
“Nothing was ever a bother,” said Manasa Ganga with a sad smile. “For Hladini, taking care of others was always a pleasure. That’s what she gave her life for – taking care of others.”