Liberia + 1 more

Liberia/Sierra Leone: Warlords reap from a 'children's war'

Originally published
AFRICANEWS - News and Views on Africa from Africa - Issue 45 - December 1999

by Linda de Hoyos

Children have been so badly abused in wars.The challenge now facing the two countries is disarming, treating and rehabilitating, and re-training and schooling of these children.

The wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia beginning in 1991 were fought by thousands of child soldiers. In Liberia, the United Liberian Movement for Democracy (ULMD) in Liberia of Roosevelt Johnson and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of Charles Taylor both used thousands of child-soldiers, and child soldiers were the chief cadre of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone.

In Liberia, according to a Human Rights Watch report of 1994 entitled Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia, the warring parties did not abduct or actively recruit child soldiers, but children came to them for food, protection, and to fight in revenge for the killing of their families by the other side in the conflict. The warring parties did not turn such children away but used them in the most brutal possible way. In Sierra Leone, the RUF actively recruited and abducted children.

During the December 1998-January 1999 offensive to take the capital city of Freetown, the RUF abducted 6,000 children withinweeks. One year later more than 2,000 of those children are unaccounted for. The treatment of these children by the commanders of the warring parties illustrates the way in which wars in the Africa of 1990s were fought: Armed forces did not square off against each other, but took retaliated for military attacks with atrocities against the civilian population in wanton destruction of life and property. "The troops move into a village; they take everything and kill and rape," a commanding officer of the Ecomog forces told Human Rights Watch. "They stay there a couple of weeks and then move on. The children are all part of this. It's civilians who are attacked; it's not soldiers against soldiers. Relatively few soldiers have been killed. But thousands of people have been displaced and turned into refugees"_or killed.

Children were the most cruelly abused victims of the war. The Human Rights Watch report on Liberia notes that orphans often joined the warring factions. Quoting sources that work with child soldiers, the report said: "Some children saw their parents killed and had no options. Some were forced to join. Some joined because of starvation, they could get food with a warring faction. Some joined because the rebels made promises to them, like 'We'll take you to a football game.'_ Food was very scarce; some joined to get food for themselves and their families."

A child care worker in Liberia told the human rights group that once recruited, "some children were the most vicious, brutal fighters of all. I once saw a nine-year-old kill someone at a checkpoint. Children learn by imitation; they saw killings and then when their commanding officers ordered them to kill, they did. Some of the kids killed out of fear; they were told they would be killed if they didn't carry out orders to kill."

A commanding officer of the Ecomog forces in Nigeria noted that "lots of children are used at checkpoints. Manning a checkpoint gives a kid power and influence, even if he's twelve years old. _ It's a children's war. Kids get promoted in rank for committing an atrocity; they can cut off someone's head without thinking."Child soldiers, reports Human Rights Watch, were treated extremely harshly. As one social worker describes it in the report: "First of all, boys from both factions have told us that there were initiation procedures when they joined in which they were forced to kill or rape someone or perform some other atrocity, like throwing someone down a well, or into a river. This was supposed to demonstrate that they were brave enough to be soldiers. Anyway, they were told that they would be shot if they didn't do it."

A counselor working with former child soldiers reported that "kids have told us that they were actually forced to witness the execution of members of their family or their friends. If they screamed or cried, they were killed. Boys have told us of being lined up to watch executions and being forced to applaud. If you didn't applaud, you could be next. Kids were flogged for minor offenses, or locked up."

In Sierra Leone and in Liberia, the child soldiers were deliberately put on drugs. According to a childcare worker: "The factions use both alcohol and drugs to control the kids. Children are given a mixture of cane juice (from sugar cane) and gunpowder which makes them high and is supposed to give them courage to go and fight at the front."As in another case a worker explained: "Kids are often supplied with drugs; marijuana is the most common drug, but kids are given cocaine too, and cane juice and gunpowder, which can cause brain damage. Also the kids talk about being given 'bubbles,' a tablet that is apparently an amphetamine, an 'upper.' The theory apparently is that if a kid is intoxicated, he'll be braver_jump over his friend's body and keep shooting."

Thus, many of those who are to be disarmed in Sierra Leone are child-soldiers, who were often captured, forced to kill or be killed, torture or be tortured, and are now drug addicts. The disarming, treatment and rehabilitation, and re-training and schooling of these children is no mean mission, but an extraordinary task that Sierra Leone cannot do on its own, without massive help from the international community to make the peace permanent and to launch the reconstruction of this country.

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