U N I T E D N A T I O N S
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)
LIBERIA: Preparing for the transition from war to normal life
[This article is part of an IRIN web special on the issue of child soldiers published today. In addition to this story, the web special includes a special report on the issue of child soldiers, other country-specific features, background documents and links to resources available for further reading on the Internet. To access the web special please go to: www.IRINnews.org/webspecials/childsoldiers/]
MONROVIA, 12 December (IRIN) – Abdulai Kanneh, 15, used to wear a talisman around his neck and carry an AK-47 rifle in his right hand. The talisman, he said, was for protection from enemy bullets and the gun for defending the rebel checkpoint he used to man at the Po River, 17 km north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
He chuckled when IRIN asked him to relate his conscription by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement two years ago. “I was in a refugee camp in Macenta [Guinea] when they [the LURD] came,” Kanneh said. “They gave me a gun to fight for my country because [former President Charles] Taylor was against Mandingo people.”
Guinea was widely accused by diplomats of supporting LURD, which draws most of its support from the Mandingo people of northern Liberia.
Convinced that Taylor’s government was against his ethnic group, Kanneh became a battle-hardened killer and learnt to love the rough and tumble of war. “I enjoyed fighting. I want to be a soldier when war finished,” he told IRIN in September.
Relief workers believe the majority of fighters recruited in Liberia during the past 14 years of civil war were children, who were often conscripted by force. Most of the guns were given to boys, but many girls were also recruited to cook and provide sexual favours for fighters in the bush.
Ross Mountain, the United Nations Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Liberia told IRIN in October: “It is estimated that 70 percent of all the fighters are child soldiers below 18 years of age.”
The exact figure is still unknown because the total number of combatants remains elusive. Relief workers reckon there are thousands of so far unseen militiamen bearing arms in remote villages.
At the height of fighting between LURD and government troops in June-July, military experts in Monrovia believed that LURD had 20,000 soldiers. Then President Charles Taylor said his army was 35,000 strong.
Defence Minister Daniel Chea vehemently denied that children were made to fight for the government. “We have no child soldiers – except in one or two cases where local commanders have received young volunteers eager to defend their country,” he told IRIN in September. “We have a strict policy against using child soldiers and we follow it,” Chea said.
Asked why many of the militia fighters manning roadblocks on the main highway from Monrovia to Gbarnga, 150 km to the north, during the height of the war appeared to be children, Chea told IRIN: “Those are the one or two cases of volunteers I talked about.”
Andy Brooks, Save the Children’s Regional Protection Programme Manager for West Africa, rubbished Chea’s claims. “All the warring parties in Liberia are guilty of using children – both girls and boys. It is an enormous problem,” he told IRIN.
Brooks said over 70 percent of the fighters carrying weapons in Monrovia in September before UN peacekeepers restored order in the city appeared to be children. Save the Children was trying to put together numbers in order to determine the exact situation.
Unlike Kanneh however, not all the children enjoyed fighting. Dressed in combat fatigues, Johnny Sankoh, aged 11, stood guard one August day at a checkpoint set up by pro-government forces in Monrovia. He said he had been brought against his will from Nimba County in north central Liberia to help the government fight rebels attacking the capital. “I am fighting for survival. Don’t ask me any more questions,” he told IRIN, his blood-shot eyes flashing angrily.
Liberia’s second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), had also been a major recruiter of child soldiers since it emerged on the scene in March. Roman Catholic missionaries who visited MODEL-controlled areas near the port city of Buchanan said many of the rebel fighters there were minors.
Sister Barbara Brilliant, an American nun who was at the forefront of the church’s relief efforts, told IRIN: “Most of MODEL’s fighters are children. Even some commanders are young men. Those we have talked to are tired of it all. Many simply want to go back to school.”
The child soldiers have killed, looted and plundered alongside their older comrades. They were also widely linked to a wave of widespread sexual violence against women and young girls living in camps for displaced people in and around Monrovia.
Amnesty International documented cases where boy fighters as young as 12 have raped women and girls sheltering in camps for displaced people.
The human rights group gathered evidence on 40 cases of sexual attacks against women and a further 20 against young girls at the Samuel Doe sports stadium during one week in August. “Many of the cases occurred amidst threats of being shot and killed by the armed rapist,” Harry Evans of Amnesty Liberia told IRIN.
Some children earned a reputation of being brave and fearless as a result of their prowess on the battlefront. “Some of the child fighters have been the most courageous, fighting hardest at the frontlines,” one Liberian journalist who had witnessed numerous fire-fights remarked. “In all the fighting groups, children as young as 15 became commanders because of their courage,” he added.
Child soldiers tired of fighting
Relief workers said that following a peace agreement between the government, LURD and MODEL on 18 August, many child soldiers saw no reason to continue fighting.
The peace accord led to a truce and the deployment of a West African peacekeeping force in the country. Later a UN peacekeeping mission took over from the West African peacekeepers, deploying an initial 6,500 troops out of a planned 15,000-strong force, around Monrovia.
The UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIL) expects to attain full strength early next year, take full responsibility countrywide for security and disarm the warring factions ahead of elections to be organised in 2005 by a broad-based transitional government that took office on 14 October 2003.
“Most of the children are now looking for alternatives. They want to get on with their lives,” said Brooks at Save the Children. “Many talk about education and jobs. It is a critical time for all child protection agencies in Liberia,” he added.
One of the key options is a return to the classroom. The United Nations Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) launched an intensive Back-To-School programme in November to get 750,000 Liberian children back into school. These include thousands of former child soldiers.
Before launching the programme, UNICEF had demanded that the Liberian government and rebel groups free the child soldiers. “Liberian children associated with fighting forces must be released and demobilised. Recruitment of children for armed combat and sexual abuse are the most graphic violations of childrens’ rights,” UNICEF-Liberia said in a situation report issued on 8 October.
“A rapid assessment conducted [in Liberia] in June 2003 found that there has been an escalation in forced recruitment of children,” the report said.
UNICEF said it would assist the release of the child soldiers by providing basic education and life-skills tra
ining to those who would leave the battlefield so as to facilitate their reintegration into Liberian society.
“UNICEF and other child protection groups have been holding regular consultations so as to have child soldiers demobilised as part of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program in Liberia,” UNICEF said.
But in a country whose government and economy collapsed, where illiteracy, unemployment and poverty are high, and which ranks at the bottom of UNDP’s Human Development Index, it will be a while before the child soldiers find positive roles.
Many of the children were until recently toting weapons or hanging precariously on the back of trucks in Monrovia, as fighting for the control of the city raged. The fighting died down after the peacekeepers began arriving on 4 August and Taylor resigned and flew into exile in Nigeria a week later.
Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that there are 300,000 child soldiers. “Children are more likely to become soldiers if they are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or deprived of school,” UNICEF says.
It defines a child soldier as any person under 18 who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or group in any capacity. It includes cooks, porters, messengers and camp followers such as girls recruited for sexual purposes.
Relief workers said Liberian commanders kept many of their child fighters drunk and stoned to encourage them to fight fearlessly. “Reintegrating them into society will have to include programmes to get off drugs and alcohol,” relief workers told IRIN.
According to UNICEF, the key to reintegrating former child soldiers and preventing their re-recruitment is long-term education programmes and psycho-social support.
Relief agencies trying to help
Don Bosco Homes, a Roman Catholic Children welfare institution in Monrovia, has established Interim Care Centers to cater for child soldiers and other war-affected children.
Paul Najue, the director, said that by early September Don Bosco’s four centers in Monrovia had received and provided shelter and other assistance for 35 child soldiers who had returned from fighting in other parts of Liberia.
“The issue of children being conscripted by armed groups in Liberia poses a serious threat to the survival of children in the war-torn country,” Najue said. “The number has increased […] since the outbreak of fighting four years ago.”
He added that statistics from a previous disarmament process showed that more than 15,000 child soldiers fought in rebel groups during the first phase of the civil war, which ended with elections that brought Taylor to power in 1997.
“Out of this amount only 4,319 children were fully demobilized, disarmed and reintegrated into the community,” Najue said.
“If child soldiers are not fully demobilized and disarmed and provided with the necessary skill training, our fear is that there could be more conflicts in the future since they have been exposed to war,” he warned.
It is for this reason that while launching the demobilisation programme on 1 December, Jacques Klein, the UN special envoy to Liberia said special attention would be given to children, women and disabled combatants.
“We will establish interim employment and training activities for the ex-combatants [such as] apprenticeships and micro-entrepreneurial activities,” Klein said.
According to the disarmament plan, the fighters are supposed to hand in their guns to UNMIL at special demobilisation centres. The first three are being set up in Monrovia, Tubmanburg, a LURD-held town 60 km northwest of the capital, and Buchanan, 120 km southeast of Monrovia.
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