Liberia + 1 more

Feature: Liberia's child soldiers relive lost childhood in Sierra Leone

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BANDAJUMA, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) - At an age when they should be playing basketball with the other kids, two teenaged boys have chosen to sit it out on the bench, staring blankly ahead with troubled eyes.
Bollah, 16, and Emanuel, 15, are no ordinary refugee youths. As former child soldiers in Liberia, they have seen more than their fair share of death and suffering, and are just starting to get used to a normal life in Sierra Leone's Bandajuma camp.

In 2000, the Liberian boys were abducted by rebel forces while helping out at a clothing shop run by Emanuel's father in Monrovia. They were taught to load and fire guns in a week, then sent to the civil war's frontlines in the north-western Lofa county. Even today, Emanuel still grimaces when he recalls being forced to execute a captured rebel soldier at point-blank range.

A year later, they escaped and crossed into Sierra Leone. They surrendered themselves to the local police, and spent three months in the police barracks in Freetown before being moved to the Pademba Road prisons with three other children.

The boys lived under cramped conditions in prison, and were beaten daily with a hanger - the scars are still visible on their backs and arms. They were fed twice a day and locked up after 4 pm every day.

Finally, they asked for UNHCR assistance through the Red Cross. After an interview with a UNHCR protection officer, they were sent to the Center for Orphanage run by an Italian non-governmental organisation, Coopi. Two weeks later, they moved to Jimmi Bagbo camp, then transferred to Bandajuma camp, where they are living now.

Bandajuma camp hosts some 6,500 refugees, of whom about 3,000 are below the age of 18. Out of this number, some 70 are unaccompanied minors like Bollah and Emanuel.

When he first arrived at Bandajuma, Bollah suffered from severe anaemia and anxiety attacks. His condition is improving. Emmanuel is more outgoing, but he too slips into depression occasionally.

Their new life at the camp is an important step for a positive change and for healing the trauma of war. Now they are going to school and starting to play with other young refugees. In the process, they are making new friends and integrating into the community.

Recently, the boys moved out of a transit centre shared with 50 other refugees, into an individual shelter they built with their own hands. They were visibly excited about receiving the UNHCR package comprising blankets, a hurricane lamp, a lantern, sleeping mats and kitchen sets. In particular, they were looking desperately for soap to clean their clothes so that they could be properly dressed for school.

But what they crave most are love and attention. They enjoy hugs and smiles. Sometimes they say they feel weak and sick, but these are often just pleas for attention.

Given their traumatic past, it is hard to imagine that they will ever know peace. But they have not given up on their future, and dream about becoming mechanics and engineers back in Liberia.

Bollah and Emanuel's story is fairly common, according to UNHCR's protection officer at Bandajuma camp. The refugee agency has received numerous reports of routine abductions and forced conscription among adolescent boys in Monrovia. Many of these boys have managed to escape from Lofa county into Sierra Leone.

Concerned about the number of Liberian combatants arriving among the refugees, the Sierra Leonean government set up Mapeh internment camp near Freetown in October 2002. In accordance with international law, the government is making serious efforts to separate combatants from civilian refugees. This is important for UNHCR because a combatant, unlike a civilian, does not have the right to seek asylum. Only after one has been genuinely disarmed, demobilised and placed under observation for a few months in the internment camp, can he be considered a former combatant and thus eligible to apply for refugee status and protection.

Special procedures apply for Liberian child soldiers who flee into Sierra Leone in view of the fact that their rights as children have been violated and that due to their age, they cannot be held as responsible as adult combatants. These children cannot be held at the Mapeh internment camp. Those who have been mistakenly detained are relocated to refugee camps after a screening process involving interviews and age verification based on full documentation of their personal data and history. The UN refugee agency carries out the screening, together with the UN Children's Fund and various child protection agencies (like Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee) in the refugee camp concerned.

UNHCR's role in helping Liberian child soldiers seeking refuge in Sierra Leone is guided by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol.

Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the recently-established Special Court will prosecute people who forced thousands of children to commit unspeakable crimes as child soldiers during the country's 11-year war, which ended in early 2002.

As an official record of what happened during the conflict, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission includes statements by and hearings for children. A special framework was developed to ensure collaboration between the Commission and various child protection agencies, with a similar framework currently being worked out with the Special Court.

Child abduction and forced recruitment are crimes in the Special Court's statute, but have never been prosecuted before by an international tribunal.

By Francesca Fontanini
UNHCR Sierra Leone