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Child Soldiers in Liberia: History, Horror, and Hope

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Child Soldiers in Liberia:

History, Horror, and Hope
Late one evening, a ten-year-old with a pistol came, alone, into our house. He told my husband his commander was hungry and wanted one of our chickens. While my husband was catching the hen, that boy sat down to wait. He was thin and exhausted. I brought him a biscuit and water. He said he was tired and weak and as he left with the chicken turned to me and said, thank you, mam.

Later my neighbors criticized me for giving him that biscuit. I said I didn't care if he was a rebel or not. He's still somebody's child. Maybe he was abducted. God knows what they've done to him. I wanted to hide that boy and take him with us as we fled and just knew he would've come with us if he'd had the chance. I could see he wasn't happy.

Zainab, 24

Human Rights Watch Interview, Freetown, Sierra Leone, May 20, 1999
The UN estimates that at any one time there are more than 300,000 children (child being defined as any person 17 and under) fighting in armed government forces and armed opposition forces around the world in more than 30 countries including El Salvador, Columbia, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Kosovo. Some of the worst use and abuse of children has occurred during the brutal civil war from 1989-2003 in Liberia that has left the country’s infrastructure in shambles. Not only were Liberia’s children subjected to the usual terrors of war: widespread death, starvation, loss of schools, displacement, and uncertainty, but as many as 20,000 children not only faced beatings, mutilation, death, and rape, but they were forced or coerced into committing atrocities such as rape, mutilation, and murder. Many times the victims of these atrocities were civilian men, women, and children.

An entire generation of children in Liberia has known nothing but war for much of their lives. It is easy to give up on them and write them off as part of the unfixable damage caused by poverty, unrest and deep-seeded ethnic and governmental hate. Because child soldiers are a relatively recent phenomenon, there is not much information on the long term consequences of soldiers fighting at the young ages of Liberia’s child soldiers. However, lessons learned during the brief ceasefire in Liberia in 1997 and from rehabilitation efforts in countries such as El Salvador and Angola suggest that there are rays of hope in a community-based approach to rehabilitation. The quote from Zainab refers to a child of Sierra Leone—where child soldiers faced almost identical experiences in war as Liberian children—but it contains an important idea: treat these children as victims, not as wicked, evil killers, or all is truly lost.

Statement of Purpose:

While the use of children as soldiers is a widespread problem, and the situation of child soldiers in Sierra Leone is very similar to the situation in neighboring Liberia, in this paper I will focus on the plight of child soldiers in Liberia. The goal of this paper is to give the reader a good understanding of the roots of the civil war in Liberia, why children were chosen to fight this war, the unimaginable hardships that boy and girl soldiers faced, and the challenges of rehabilitating and reconstructing the lives of these children now that the long war is over. In the end, the reader will understand the past history, recent horror, and rays of hope for the future of Liberia’s war-scarred children.

Research Methods:

This research paper is a qualitative analysis of information from a number of websites and both paper and online versions of human-rights-specific magazines/journals. Most valuable to the construction of this paper was the fifty page report from Human Rights Watch titled “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia.” This report contained excerpts from interviews with more than forty Liberian children, all conducted between August and November 2003. This report was useful not only for its timeliness but also for the words of the children that are so much more effective in conveying the reality of war in Liberia than any summary.

The Numbers:

Before delving into the more personal aspects of the child soldiers, it is important to understand the situation on a higher level by examining the numbers involved. More than half of Liberia’s war ravaged population is under the age of 18. Of the 1.4 million children, it is estimated that as many as 15,000 to 20,000 have served as child soldiers in the Liberian civil war. According to a study report funded by the Ministry of Japan in 2001:

Of the 4,306 child soldiers (20% of the total number of fighters demobilized), the majority were between 15 and 28 when they turned in their guns. Of those 17 and under, majority 69% were between the ages of 15 and 17 followed by 27% between the ages of 12-14. About 4% were 10 or 11 with the remaining children, less than 1%, aged 9 years below or as young as 6. The fact that 69% of the child fighters were between 15 and 17 when they disarmed, it can be concluded that they were as young as 10 or 12 when they joined. In addition, a significant portion of those demobilizing as adults and who are now in the range of 18 to 22 would have been children when they joined. However, it is important to note that when reviewing data that it describes only those fighters who demobilized and such, not truly reflecting the composition of the fighting force as a whole (Deng, Liberia 2).

The study also concludes that:

The typical child soldier in Liberia was a boy in primary school when he joined the faction (s). After spending a considerable time of 3-5 years fighting, he disarmed when he was between the ages of 15 and 17, placing him between the tender ages of 8 to 12 when he first picked up as gun. It would however appear from the data collected so far that not all factions made equal use of child soldiers (Deng, Liberia 5).

Because the most recent outbreak of fighting just ended in August of 2003, the most recent numbers regarding child soldiers are not yet available, but are expected to be comparable.

Armed Conflict in Liberia: a Brief History1

The roots of Liberia’s civil war, and it’s consequences for children, go as far back to the country’s founding. Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. The new settlers, known as Americo-Liberians for 133 years, subsequently controlled the republic. They ran their new country like a colony, establishing a feudal structure with all social, economic, and political power in their hands. In the name of this Christianizing and civilizing mission, the indigenous population—who outnumbered their colonists by twenty to one—were subjected to a wave of abuse, including forced labor, disenfranchisement, and exclusion from the coastal, enclave community, all of which led to their impoverishment and cultural alienation while the ruling class prospered.

By the 1970s, however, this once unassailable power structure was beginning to show sign of crumbling as a new constituency of disaffected, often foreign educated, Liberians, as well as schools of indigenous technocrats, joined forces in various opposition groups and began voicing their demands for reform. Their dissatisfaction culminated in 1979 with the “rice riots,” a 2000-strong protest, sparked off by a 50 percent increase in the local staple, which turned to mayhem when police began firing into the crowd, killing more than one hundred protestors. It was growing discontent that paved the way in 1980 for the military coup that brought Samuel Doe, a Krahn from Tuzon, to power. Although he himself later became a symbol for greed and corruption, the new president’s bloody debut was initially welcomed by the majority of Liberians as an end to more than a century of colonization.

The years that followed were marked by mounting unrest due to an increasingly Krahn-dominated authoritarian regime that promoted the joint militarization and ethnically based politics and reigned over a sagging economy characterized by bourgeoning inflation and growing unemployment. Against this background, the other ethnic cliques began plotting their own rise to power, culminating in 1985 with a brutally suppressed coup attempt by Thomas Quiqonkpa, an ethnic Gio from Nimba County. After murdering Quiwonkpa, Doe’s soldiers, the Krahn dominated Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) began a bloody campaign of reprisal killings, mainly targeted at Gios and Manos, a closely related group that resides in the same region of Liberia.

Most recently, over the last fourteen years, Liberians have known little but warfare. The conflict began in December of 1989 when rebel leader Charles Taylor invaded Nimba County from the Ivory Coast. They called themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The AFL responded with a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign, indiscriminately killing civilians, burning villages, raping women, and looting. In response, NPFL ranks swelled with the long-victimized Gios and Manos, many of whom were boys orphaned during the waves of reprisal killings or simply enraged by the attacks against their people. Meanwhile, the NPFL was conducting its own reign of terror on civilians and suspected supporters of the Doe regime, primarily members of the Krahn and Maningon group. By 1990, the rebel group had over-taken every military position except Monrovia and the capital city of Liberia.

What ensued was a slow burning seven years of war fuelled by the formation of one ethnic-based rival group after another. By 1992, the NPFL splinter group, the Independent National Patriotic Front (INFL), which captured and killed Doe, had already reached its zenith and faded. But the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO), formed by Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone who had been loyal to Doe, were making gains from across the border into southwestern Liberia. In 1993, the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), a largely Krahn offshoot of the AFL, challenged the NPFL and gained significant control over the southeast.

From 1989-1997, there were numerous failed efforts to bring the country into peace. These eight years are marked by the blood of brutal ethnic killings and massive abuses against the civilian population. Thousands of Liberian men, women, and children were killed and subject to torture, beatings, rape, and sexual assault. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “[this abuse] resulted in massive displacement inside and outside the country. Although the conflict was rooted in historical grievances stretching back more than 100 years, the brutal tactics employed from 1989 to 1997 including the targeting of particular ethnic groups by Taylor’s NFPL, the AFL, and later the ULIMO were previously unknown in Liberian history” (Tate 7). Finally, in 1997, a ceasefire was negotiated. Soon after, Charles Taylor, the former head of the NPFL, was elected president of the country.

Unfortunately, the Taylor government was rife with corruption and abuse, further widening the divisions and deepening popular resentments caused by civil war. State power was regularly used for the personal enrichment of government officials with little or no accountability to the Liberian citizenry. The LURD incursion from Guinea, which began in 2000, was the fifth serious outbreak of violence in Liberia since Taylor’s election and launched Liberia back into four more years of civil warfare. In August 2003, a negotiated ceasefire, the departure of Charles Taylor from office and the country, and the deployment of regional and later international peacekeepers have brought an end to major conflict, although fighting and human rights abuses persist in areas outside the U.N.’s control.

Why Children?

The use of children as soldiers dates to the start of the conflict in 1989 (Verhey 8). Taylor’s NPFL became infamous for the abduction and use of boys to increase the size and strength of the forces. Other Liberian fighting factions soon followed suit, and this tactic was eventually adopted by other groups in West Africa (including neighboring Sierra Leone). Boys were favored because their immaturity made them more likely to take risks and less likely to question authority. Also, young boys—particularly ones with little or no education—didn’t always understand the war so they could be indoctrinated with beliefs more easily than an adult. They could be made to believe that looting, stealing, and other activities were just games. Also, when enticed with proper incentives such as promotion and food, boys were eager to prove themselves.

The prevalence of lightweight arms made it possible for small boys to be just as effective fighters as grown adults; strength and power are not required in the simple pulling of a trigger. Children could also be assigned to guard positions because when one his holding an AK47, he has authority no matter how old he is. Additionally, many of the boys chosen for non-armed positions were still at an age where they readily accepted the word of authority.

The use of girl soldiers started around this same time. Many girl soldiers were abducted during this time as well, although they were rarely referred to as soldiers and didn’t think of themselves as such. They were forced to be servants as well as sexual slaves to male soldiers of all ages. Later, the oldest and strongest teen girls were supplied with arms and expected to fight along side their male counterparts.

Recruitment by Force:

Although there are no precise numbers available, interviews by groups such as Human Rights Watch and UNICEF relief workers suggest that the majority of the children picked up by armed forces on all sides of the conflict were recruited by force. They were picked up during recruitment drives and during the capture of territories. Sadly, many children were forced to join warring factions while they were seeking stability at internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

The NPFL used child soldiers extensively in groups known as Small Boys Units (SBUs) in the 1990s. During the brief period of ceasefire from 1997-2000, many children left the forces. Some left to go to rehabilitation centers while others tried to go back to their old lives as students or working odd jobs. Unfortunately, many children in both categories were rounded up again (against their will) during the LURD incursion. Seventeen-year-old Charles Q described his involvement in a Human Rights Watch interview at Bushrod Island on November 1, 2003:

Last year, I was still in school and on my way home to Congo town (Monrovia). There were government forces in my neighborhood. They had just come in pickup trucks and forced us to go with them to Lofa. That day, I had just left school, put down my books and was outside. They told us ‘we are looking for people to fight,’ not really asking you, just picking you up. There was no choice (Verhey 15).

Another child, Morris C., told a similar story in a Human Rights Watch interview in Monrovia on September 2, 2003:

I am from Bomi but my family fled to Bushrod Island a few years ago. I was fifteen when I was caught and made to fight. I was on my way to school around 8:30 in the morning when I was caught at Point 4 junction. Other children wearing yellow t-shirts with Jungle Fighter written on the back forced us at gunpoint into the trucks. They said I had to join them to fight to protect Monrovia (Verhey 15).

As a result of these raids, many parents stopped sending their children to school and kept them at home.

Government forces weren’t the only ones recruiting children with force. LURD used similar tactics. They recruited from IDP camps as well as from refugee camps often exchanging gunfire with nearby government forces in the process. In early 2003, MODEL split from the LURD and began capturing town in eastern Liberia, initially operating from bases in western Cote d’Ivoire (Deng, Liberia 3). MODEL used the same methods to recruit children as LURD and the government forces. Ellen S., who later became a female commander, told Human Rights Watch, “[LURD] can force you, you can say no, but they carry you or they can beat you to death” (Tate 11) in an interview conducted on October 26, 2003 in Montserrado County.
Voluntary Recruits:

Not all children were physically forced to join armed forces. There are three major reasons why some children chose to fight in the Liberian civil war: revenge, escape from abuse, and lack of other alternatives.

Some chose to join to avenge mistreatment by another group. Seventeen-year-old Eric G. explained to Human Rights Watch in October of 2003 that he joined the LURD to avenge the brutal treatment that both he and his family experienced at the hands of government soldiers:

After government militias beat and slapped me and held me in dirty water. On July 6, seven militia men came to my house, they tied my elbows behind my back and beat me. They raped my mother and two young sisters in front of me. My youngest sister is sixteen years old. The seven of them took turns with them and I was forced to watch. So, I had to go and fight them to revenge my mother and sisters (Tate 12).

Situations similar to the one Eric described happened on all sides of the war. Many children joined one force to avenge the wrongs inflicted on them and their families by another force.

Other children joined not to avenge one armed group for their wrongdoings, but out of desperation to keep that particular group from harming them or their families yet again. James T. explained:

Why did I join the government forces? To end the abuse against me and my family. Government militia members would beat my uncle and force him to carry cooking oil long distances. Myself, I was made to tote large bags of cassava to distant military positions. Finally, I decided I couldn’t take the abuse and forced labor anymore. Better to join them so they would not continue to disturb my people. I joined in March 2003. I was fifteen years old (Tate 12).

Some orphaned girls soldiers took this approach as well. Knowing of the rapes in other communities (and even their own communities), they hoped that by joining the perpetrators they might be able to obtain arms and thus be able to fend off such attacks. Sadly, this “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach fell flat for girls. Life in armed forces often (but not always) meant sexual servitude for girls. They were raped or forced to be “wives” to other soldiers in the army. In a heartbreaking perpetuation of the sexual abuse cycle, girls in their late teens—who were often fighters as well as “wives”—often resorted to abducting younger girls along raids to offer as sexual slaves to the boys and men in the group, thus avoiding further sexual abuse themselves.

The third major reason that young boy soldiers in particular gave as a reason for choosing to join LURD or the government forces was that they simply had nothing else to do. The despair of poverty combined with the devastating effects of the ongoing civil war on Liberian communities left many boy children feeling hopeless. While girls were for the most part expected to stay home during both wartime and peace, boys were expected to either be in school or be out on the streets making money for the family. War wreaked havoc on the little schooling that was available to children from families with little money. The lack of schooling left groups of boys on the streets with nothing to do all day but try to find odd jobs and scrape up enough money to eat, and as people from all cultures know, young boys with nothing to do all day end up in troubling situations.

Peer pressure is alluring to children in pretty much any society, and Liberia is no exception. When groups of boy soldiers would come to town telling how much easier it is to obtain food and other goods when one has a gun in hand, other boys would join in hopes of being able to bring food and supplies back to their families. In fact, by June and July of 2003, many children had become the only source of income.

Some boys who had fought prior to the cease fire of 1997 picked up arms again as they saw old comrades marching by. Others, like twelve-year-old Patrick F., joined not only because his school was no longer functioning but also because other boys his age bragged about their exploits (Tate 16). Some naive boys were lured by the false promises of members of the LURD that they would receive luxuries such as cars, money, and mattresses. But, as a boy named Francis said, “In the end, they got nothing at all but death” (Tate 13).
Life as a Child Soldier in Liberia:

Navy SEALS go through some of the toughest military training in the world. The training pushes young men to the brink of their physical and mental capabilities. Training includes forcing oneself to remain in frigid waters for hours at a time even though one’s body is screaming for relief, and running through grueling obstacle courses until exhausted and then being tested on a one-shot, highly complicated mental task (practicing the disarming of an explosive, for example) after having slept only a few hours the night before. US Navy SEALS are trained to be able to accomplish any task of war no matter what the circumstances. Trained medical professionals are nearby during all Navy SEAL training to intervene should any of the trainees suffer a physical disaster during training.

Imagine a child being forced to undergo Navy SEAL training. Perhaps the strongest of the strong could do it. Now imagine this child being forced to go through the training at gunpoint with no medical staff around for hundreds of miles. Imagine thousands of children practicing the killing of the “enemy” on real people, and you start to understand what life was like for a child soldier in Liberia. War always has its horrors, and as the tales of US soldiers in Vietnam reveal, even an adult soldier firmly dedicated to his cause can find it difficult or disturbing to murder or use physical force on a human being who represents what he despises. Liberian children, on the other hand, often had little idea for what they were fighting. Even the ones who chose to fight because of hatred for “the other side” did so on a whim and with little education they were vulnerable to the propaganda spouted within their supported side. Even worse, most of the people that soldiers killed, tormented, and fought against in Liberia were not other soldiers. They were civilians: men, women, and children suspected of supporting the other side and sometimes, for no reason at all other than to show the strength of one particular side. Without a doubt, life as a child soldier in Liberia was brutal.

While some children joined armed forces because they were abducted, and some joined out of obligation or idleness, the vast majority of child soldiers—once a member of an armed force—were unable to leave. In interview after interview, children tell the painful stories of what would happen to children who tried to escape the armed groups. To discourage the new recruits from running away, those who were caught trying to escape were abused, beaten, and even killed in front of other children to set an example. Susan, a sixteen-year-old abducted recruit described the ordeal of a boy she knew who tried to escape:

One boy tried to escape [from the rebels], but he was caught... His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, "Why are you doing this?" I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms... They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape. . . I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying (Schleicher 7).

Children learned quickly that escape was not an option, and they followed orders to avoid beatings and death.

It is important to note that while the term “soldier” conjures images of guns and bullets and guns, not all child soldiers were armed. Many (but not all) boy children were given arms; most girl children were not. Most child soldiers started out as porters (carrying guns and ammunition), cooks, spies, messengers, and servants (cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes) of soldiers higher in rank. Those in these service positions were told that only in an emergency would they be armed and sent to fight. The boys (and some older teen girls) who appeared the bravest and most fearless were “promoted” to fighting ranks and received training on how to kill.

One major goal of training was to completely dissociate the children from their past lives. Many children told Human Rights Watch that when they were abducted, commanders ordered them to forget about their old life and forget about their parents. After all, a child who forgets his old family knows that he has nowhere to run and recognizes the armed forces as his only family. He becomes more obedient and eager to prove himself as worthy and strong in his new life as a soldier. One way this was accomplished was by giving children war-related nicknames so that not even their names would remind them of home. Many times, the nicknames served the duel purpose as positive reinforcement for a child’s willingness to kill/maim or take orders. One boy got his name “Laughing While Killing” because he was a very obedient killer and while drugged almost to the point of insanity he laughed at what he had done. Another boy was called “Mother’s Blessing.” The commander of his group told him that his mother had died fighting and blessed him to fight against government troops. The boy later discovered the commander lied. His mother was still alive (Tate 26). Other names simply reflected the child’s personality; “Disgruntled” was a boy who seemed upset at all of the fighting. “Iron Panty” was a girl who refused to have sex with the boys in her unit (Tate 26).

Additionally, commanders on all sides of the civil war exploited local traditions to help dissociate children from their old families and establish loyalty to the forces. Many boys went through secret initiation rituals and, because of the cultural value placed on the secrecy of initiation rituals in Liberia, many refuse to explain to aid workers what exactly happened during the ceremonies (Tate 27).

The other major goal of training was to eliminate fear. In addition to performing the initial service-related tasks, child soldiers underwent brutal, informal training. Some of the training was similar to common military training used all over the world in adult armies. Examples include climbing over and under barbed wire, learning to clean and operate weapons, and learning to take cover. Most of the training, however, was nothing anyone would ever choose to do and demonstrates just how expendable children were considered to be in these armies. First of all, the children learned that not only was escape not an option, but neither was fear. They were taught not to feel it and especially not to show it. Other soldiers told them that the ones caught crying would be killed. Along with how to fire a weapon, one of the first things the children were taught was to fight their fear of gunfire. Not only did they learn to take cover, but they also were made to crawl under barbed wire and advance through streams and creeks while being shot at. They were taught to advance towards the gunfire. A boy named Eric said of his training with LURD, “There were over one hundred of us doing the training. They gave us a gun, we had to learn to fire. We would crawl over and under barbed wire. We were made to lie down and they would see if you were brave by firing near your body. I was afraid during training but I didn’t show it on my face” (Tate 20).

After the brief training to insure that the child would follow orders and that his fear of bullets was eliminated, children as young as nine years old were taught to kill. Boys from both the government factions and the LURD were forced to commit atrocities as initiation to desensitize them to future violence. Once a child has been forced to murder his best friend, for example, he will be much less likely to balk when ordered to kill a stranger on command. Initiations described by children to Human Rights Watch workers included the killing of a fellow villager, a rape, throwing a live person down a well or into a river. Children also described being forced to witness the execution or rape of a family member and then being forced to applaud and act happy. Screaming or crying meant certain death. A counselor worker who worked with former child soldiers put it succinctly, “If you didn’t applaud, you could be next” (Hoyos n.p).

Oftentimes, however, simply training to eliminate fear is ineffective—especially in the short term. Fear is a fundamental part of the human psyche. A child who behaves one way during a training exercise is in no way guaranteed to act the same way during a real fight. (It is worth mentioning that his is in no way unique to children. Even the best trained US Army soldier could still freeze during a traumatic event). This is why many children in Liberia were supplied with drugs such as cocaine, hashish, marijuana, and amphetamines (uppers). Child soldiers—typically boys being sent out to kill or mutilate—on all sides of the war were forced to take these drugs. Many times commanding officers would make small incisions on the children’s faces or temples and place a brown or white substance (usually rock cocaine) into the slits. The cuts were then closed with a plaster-like substance (mud, for example) or tape. Other times the drugs were put in the children’s food. Sometimes, boys were told to stand in a line and they were all given injections. Children were also given alcohol and marijuana to calm them and make them more obedient and to numb or quell any negative feelings they might have about their actions.

Not surprisingly, after a short period of forced drug use, many child soldiers became addicted to the substances. This made them more irritable and thus more likely to lash out violently if, for example, dissatisfied with a civilian’s insistence that he had no money in his pockets. Children without drug addictions looted for food, but children with drug addictions looted for anything they could sell to get money for drugs.

In combination with drugs, many units of armed forces took advantage of the naiveté of the children to eliminate fear of fighting. Many children interviewed with Human Rights Watch honestly believed that the only reason they were still alive was because their commanders had done special things to make them bulletproof. Some of them said that charms (obtained during initiation ceremonies) they carried with them during battle kept the bullets off. Others claimed that markings cut or burned into their bodies kept them safe. Girl soldiers in their late teens were known to be particularly fierce fighters, and many of the boys claimed that this was because they had special powers. A female commander in LURD explained that her unit would enter combat wearing only their undergarments because they believed that this would not only intimidate enemies but also “strengthen their magical protection” (Tate 31).

For 14 long years, children as young as seven years old helped fight the civil war in Liberia. Most were around 10 or 12 when they first joined and spent the next 3-5 years in the hostile environment of the armed forces. Many rejoined for another few years after the first ceasefire in 1997. These child soldiers witnessed, experienced, and engaged in violence that is beyond the imagination of people who have lived their lives in peace. They were drugged and abused. They have grown to be accustomed to using violence, threats, and looting to get what they want. Girl soldiers were faced with the additional burden of their gender. They experienced rape, sexual torture, pregnancy, birth, forced abortion, and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Now that a ceasefire has been officially enforced in August of 2003 and the country has moved into a critical stage of demobilization and disarmament, it is time for the people of Liberia as well as the people of the world to start pondering a hugely important question: What’s next?
Devastation: Is the Damage Too Great?

When one views pictures of grade school children armed to the hilt with AK47s, ammunition wrapped around their thin chests, and when one reads the heartbreaking stories that these young people tell of unimaginable violence and terror, it is easy to conclude that life after warfare is hopeless for these children. The physical and psychological devastation is just too great, the images of mutilation, rape, abuse, and killing is burned too deeply into their still underdeveloped minds. Are these children at worst trained killing machines and at best physically and psychologically shattered victims? After all, the human psyche can only take so much.

When learning of the sad tales of life as a child soldier in Liberia, it is undoubtedly hard—as an American—to suppress the terms that creep to mind. In WWI it was called “shell sock”. In WWII it was “battle fatigue”. By the 1990s it became “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) and it is most recently called “combat stress.” Brave men, decorated with prestigious medals, who accomplished incredible deeds on the warfront, were shattered for decades after their experience. Many of them were left unable to speak about their experiences even to their wives and close family.

When compared to the difficulties that these men (many of whom believed in what they were fighting for) faced upon leaving the armed forces, it may look like the psychological recovery of the Liberian children is simply too steep of a hill to climb. But they face more than just psychological damage. Not only do they have to recover from the violence and rape that they saw and/or committed and/or experienced, but they also have to become accustomed to a life where guns can no longer be used to solve problems. They must no longer rely on looting for food and money. Some counselors at Jembe Refugee Camp in Sierra Leone—where many Liberian children have gone because fighting is still happening outside the U.N. controlled city of Monrovia— have, on condition of anonymity, expressed serious doubts regarding a nonviolent future for the young boy soldiers. They express frustration that the boys have taken their rations, beds, and even door frames in nearby buildings, and sold them for money to feed drug and alcohol addictions developed in the armed forces. Additionally, many of the boy soldiers have become used to getting sex whenever they want it from whoever they want. A female social worker said, “They come to my house at night and demand food and sex saying that they know I am not a virgin and that in the bush they slept with women even better than me. . .I have decided to always wear trousers while in camp because they are quite serious with their threats” (IIRN news 1).

In some ways, these boys are in similar situation as young American inner city youth who get dragged into selling drugs. A boy who learns that he can make $300 in an hour for delivering or selling drugs will be very reluctant to pick up a job working full time at minimum wage. The longer he spends in the instant-gratification lifestyle (even a violent one), the harder it is for him to give it up. Immaturity plays a big role in this dilemma, and for child soldiers in Liberia, the concept is the same. The soldiers are used to instant gratification—clothes, sex, food, drugs—that was all available at the flash of a gun as a soldier. They felt like the had control. Now, they face difficult conditions, and frustration with this slow way of life has lead many to head to neighboring countries to continue the soldier lifestyle. Why wait for food to come in from foreign aid when you can grab a gun and go do it yourself? They have grown accustomed to the violence of a soldier’s life and prefer violence and nice things to peace and poverty.

The girl soldiers who gave birth on the warfront must make decisions about whether to leave their abusive soldier “husband” and try to raise her child[ren] on her own or if she should just stay with him and hope he doesn’t abandon her. Many girls grow attached to their soldier husbands, even if they are treated badly. They see it happening to the other soldiers’ wives and accept it as a normal part of the husband/wife exchange. They are reluctant to leave because they know they cannot raise a child on their own and by staying with their soldier “husband,” they are at least guaranteeing themselves and their children food and security. Girl soldiers who have avoided pregnancy also face the stigma of having had their virginity ‘spoiled.’ Even girls who haven’t had sex with anyone in the forces face the stigma because people tend to assume that if a girl has been in the forces, she has had sex with many soldiers and therefore she is undesirable. Finding a husband in a culture that practically requires girls to marry (and expects them to be virgins when it happens) will be difficult or impossible. Clearly, to many boys and girls, life as a soldier is simply more appealing than life as an ex-soldier.

Rays of Hope: Lessons from El Salvador, Angola, and Liberia Itself

The future of Liberia’s child soldiers may not be as hopeless as one might jump to believe. It is true that some child soldiers may be lost for good—destined for a life of violent warfare—the majority is not. Many children expressed relief to be out of the armed forces because once they left they didn’t have to take orders all the time. They could do as they pleased. When reading interviews with these ex-soldiers, one sees many positive patterns. The majority of the interviews have two wishes in common: The children want to forget about their life as a soldier and they want to go to school. They express regret for the things they have done as soldiers, but they recognize that they didn’t have a choice. Sometimes they were on drugs that took over their minds, and other times they were terrified of being killed for disobedience. They were just trying to survive and they didn’t enjoy hurting people. Many of the children recognize that if they go to school, they can get a job and make something of their lives. With education and skills, they won’t have to rely on the armed forces as a source of food. They can be self-sufficient.

Although there is not much guidance or literature on massive rehabilitation efforts for child soldiers, lessons from Angola and El Salvador can help point relief efforts in the right direction. By learning from the past, the children of Liberia may indeed be able to accomplish both the forgetting (in part) of the bad things they did and getting the education they so desperately need. According to a report on demobilization in El Salvador and Angola, “Angola’s demobilization from 1995-1997 was one of the most extensive in the history of the United Nations and was perhaps the first time that children were specifically included in the peace process. The experience of El Salvador provides a longer-term perspective on the transition process to civilian life for child soldiers and is significant because some 30 percent of the child soldiers were girls” (Verhey 2). Efforts to follow the guidelines set out by lessons learned in El Salvador and Angola are already underway in Sierra Leone. Not enough time has passed to judge the effectiveness, but because there is no reason to believe these efforts will have a negative effect on the country, Liberia is following suit as soon as possible.

The report recognizes that demobilization programs directed specifically at children must be adequately protected because they can quickly be manipulated into recruiting events for other wars. The UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) is taking this fully into consideration and has managed to keep recruiting at camps for children from other West African countries to a minimum. Also, the report has found that it is extremely important to find a balance between stigmatizing child soldiers and giving them special treatment compared to other children who were not soldiers. If the children are stigmatized, they will be reluctant to remain in the program. If the children are given special treatment, the communities will resent them in addition to whatever negative feelings the community might have towards children who engaged in combat.

Relief workers in Angola and El Salvador encountered similar difficulties as the workers at Jembe Camp: the children had inflated expectations of what the program will provide for them, excessive pride in their military accomplishments, and a tendency to use violence to solve problems. They that there were three major things that helped ease the children into a noncombat life: family reunification, psychosocial support, and education/economic opportunities (Verhey 4). Family reunification was especially important because it was vastly helpful in reminding the child of what life was like before fighting. When no family was available, foster family situations were ideal, but hard to come by. In those situations, more weight was put on the community and making the child feel like part of a community again. The community was also important for child soldiers who had given birth children during the war. In Angola, one of the most successful projects was a “self building project” in which extended family members or other community members gave land for new homes or helped build them (Verhey 4). Regarding psychosocial support, the report concluded that, “Experience shows that psychosocial approaches are more beneficial than Western derived trauma assistance. For example, counselors in Liberia [in 2001] estimated that less than 5 percent of child soldiers required specialized psychological care” (Verhey 5). In Angola, one particularly helpful ceremony to help children move on and forget the horrors of war involved the ceremonial burying of a weapon that the child used frequently (an AK47, for example). The burying was meant to symbolize that the fighting stage of the child’s life was over. He must move on and, just like he was trained to forget his family life when he joined the forces, he must forget his life as a soldier. Forgiveness in these situations isn’t specifically mentioned, but it is implied. The child has “washed” away his former, dirty life as a soldier. Finally, in the areas of education and economic opportunities, the report found that, “apprenticeships, micro-enterprise and support to locally based small businesses have shown to be more effective than vocational centers” (Verhey 5).

Relief efforts in El Salvador and Angola, as well as the first round of efforts made during the ceasefire in Liberia in late 2003 underscore the necessity of girl soldier orientated programs. Girls face the additional burden of re-entry into a society that treats women as second-class citizens. For example, rape in Liberia is generally only considered a crime if the woman was a virgin. If not, the woman takes the blame for being seductive. In fall of 2003, UN workers noticed that only a handful of girls came to assistance programs offered for child soldiers. They suspect that sexual stigmas kept the girls away, and they decided to use a more community-based approach of reaching girls. Community-based means avoiding having central locations for the girls congregate and therefore be identified. Sometimes it takes several months before girls will admit to being part of the armed forces. This effort was due to start in May 2004, so there are no reports on it out yet. Similar community based approaches were especially helpful in El Salvador. There, girls were 30 percent of the child soldiers, so relief programs gained valuable experience on how to treat the female soldiers. Girls also need specialized medical care to deal with the aftermaths of births, gang rapes, forced abortions, and sexual assault. Finally, girls who have had children need special support for their children as well so that they are not tempted to remain bound by poverty to their soldier husbands. In fact, recent events suggest that even if these girls want to remain with their husbands, many cannot because they are being abandoned for younger, healthier girls. The girl-directed relief program for May 2004 is set to handle and care for these abandoned mothers.

As of late May 2004, Liberia is still in the demobilization and disarmament stage of recovery. Fighting is still happening in many places outside of Monrovia. The UN and other foreign aid have stepped in with peacekeeping troops in Monrovia and right now, the goal is to get child soldiers away from the armed forces and to get them to turn in their guns. Liberia is in the infant stages of reintegration and recovery, and even though the future looks grim on the surface, the words of children interviewed by relief workers and recent experiences with child soldiers in other countries suggest that—if children can be kept safe from recruitment into other countries’ wars, and if these children can get a basic education—these ex-child soldiers can be part of a recovered and peaceful Liberia.

The Liberian people have faced extreme adversity for the last 14 years. Children in Liberia have paid dearly for the deep-seeded hostilities that fueled the bitter civil war. Many children fought in a war that they didn’t even understand. Many were kidnapped and forced to fight on multiple sides of the war, further confusing and hurting them. Those that are still children will never have a childhood as we think of it in the Western sense—innocent and carefree, but this does not mean they can’t lead productive, peaceful lives. Hope for these children and the children of the next generation rests heavily on education for all. Recently, Liberia has signed an international agreement to provide a free primary school education for every child. This will be essential in helping children now and preventing future violence. Many adult commanders in the armed forces have admitted that children who can read and write are harder to recruit. They question authority and are less likely to be lured by easy access to material goods. Free education will not be easy to implement, however, and it will take foreign aid. It is essential that countries such as the United States not cut funding to Liberia because the country is technically out of the emergency stage and has entered the recovery stage. Recovery is just as essential as help to quell the civil war. Fifteen thousand children are in need of help, a country’s future depends on the future of these children, and it is simply irresponsible to ignore the situation.

Works Cited and Information Sources
Source for title page picture:
Written Sources: “History of Sierra Leone” n.d.

online at:

Deng, William Deng. “A Survey of Programs on the Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers: Country Profile: Liberia,” 30 March 2001.

online at:

Deng, William Deng. “A Survey of Programs on the Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers: Country Profile: Sierra Leone,” 30 March 2001.

online at:

Hoyos, Linda. “Liberia/Sierra Leone: Warlords Reap From a ‘Children’s War’” ReliefWeb: Africa News Dec 1999.

online at:

Kelgbah, I. “Since Commencement of DDRR in December: Over 25,000 Ex-Combatants Disarm; Humanitarian Crisis Hits Lofa,” The Inquirer (Monrovia) 12 May 2004.

online at:

Liberia Coalition Project, the. “Program Structured Exclusively to Serve "Child Soldiers" in Liberia” (press release) 15 March 2004.

online at:

no author listed. “Sexual Violence Within the Sierra Leone Conflict” Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Sierra Leone 26 Feb 2001

online at:

no author listed. “Sierra Leone: Child Soldiers—Victims of Their Pasts” ECHO 2003

online at:

no author listed. “Sierra Leone: Liberian Child Soldiers Still Make Trouble Without Guns” IRIN News 4 Dec 2003

online at:

Reuters. “Liberia’s Child Soldiers Struggle to Rebuild Lives.” 31 Aug 2003

online at:

Schleicher, Annie. “Disarming Liberian Child Soldiers” MacNeil-Lehrer Online 27 Aug, 2003.

online at:

Tate, Tony. “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia” Human Rights Watch Vol 16, No. 2(A) Feb 2004
Taylor, Louise. “We’ll Kill You If You Cry” Human Rights Watch Vol. 15, No. 1 (A) Jan 2003.
UNMIL Official Website:
US Navy website:
Verhey, Beth. “Child Soldiers: Lessons Learned on Prevention, Demobilization and Reintigration” Africa Region Working Paper Series No 23 Nov 2001

online at:

Additional notes:
Regarding the section on the history of Liberia: This section is essentially a carbon copy of page 1 of section 2.3.1 of William Deng Deng’s “A Survey of Programs on the Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers.” I found his summery to be most useful in my understanding of the history of the civil war in Liberia, and when I tried to write my own version, it came out sounding far to similar to his. Therefore, although I have added my own words into the history section, I must credit Mr. Deng for the history summary. The final paragraph from the history section is from “How to Fight, How to Kill,” page 8.

1 Please see the works cited page for credits in the writing of the history portion of this paper.

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