Global Policy Forum

Children Forced to Kill


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
April 8, 2000

Kenema, Sierra Leone - When Revolutionary United Front rebels abducted 10-year-old Ernest Vanboi from his home three years ago and burned his house to the ground, they used razors to carve the initials RUF into his thin chest. Then they gave him an AK-47 rifle and forced him to join them on raids, first against his own village and family, later wreaking havoc in other parts of the country. He was given cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs to prepare him for combat. The carving ensured he could not run away without the likelihood of being killed by government troops. Since demobilizing in December as part of a tenuous peace accord that ended Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war, Vanboi and thousands of other children who were forced to become killers are emerging as one of the nation's most tragic and potentially dangerous legacies.

The civil war, begun in 1991, was one of modern Africa's most brutal. While the use of child combatants was well known, only now is the scope of the phenomenon and the range of the brutality inflicted on children as young as 7 beginning to emerge. A peace agreement was signed July 7, granting the RUF a share of power in the government and amnesty for all atrocities it committed in exchange for disarming. Although the U.N. Children's Fund estimates that some 250,000 children under 18 are engaged in combat in 16 conflicts around the world, in few places have children faced the level of abuse or committed such a large number of atrocities as here, according to humanitarian aid workers. Human rights groups now estimate that the rebels forcibly abducted 4,500 to 10,000 children under 16 during the war.

In Sierra Leone, said social workers and the child combatants, taking drugs-especially amphetamines and cocaine-was a regular part of "military training." Human Rights Watch found in a 1999 report that "child combatants armed with pistols, rifles and machetes actively participated in killings and massacres, [and] severed the arms of other children. . . . Often under the influence of drugs, they were known and feared for their impetuosity, lack of control and brutality." Because the children often attacked their own villages, many communities and families don't want them back. Many children cannot find any surviving relatives. And no one knows how deep the psychological scars run in children who no longer have any sense of what a family is or how to survive in a world without war and drugs.

The International Rescue Committee and a handful of other organizations are working with the demobilized children. Because of funding limitations, most children receive only 30 to 90 days of rehabilitation before they are forced to find jobs and fend for themselves. "The question is how do we effectively reintegrate the children," said Kelly MacDonald, the Rescue Committee's director for Sierra Leone. "If not in their home communities, what is the alternative and what does that mean? Those are the questions we are wrestling with now."

So far 1,504 children have turned in their weapons at U.N.-supervised demobilization camps, and most of the children who have come out of the camps say the RUF is preventing many more from demobilizing. The immediate demobilization of children was part of the peace agreement. But so far the RUF and other armed groups have missed numerous disarmament deadlines. According to government figures, only about 4,000 of the RUF's estimated 16,000 fighters have demobilized. Of the estimated 8,000 Armed Forces Revolutionary Council combatants, 4,000 have turned in their weapons. Relief workers and psychologists say that because most of the children have demobilized in the past two months, it is much too early to assess the war's long-term impact on them accurately. "It is not the fault of the children. A child is a child," said Musu Burah, who runs a community-based child-care center here that has taken in child combatants. "But whoever led the children astray is responsible and is a monster."

Psychologists and relief workers said child combatants are always traumatized by war and often suffer nightmares, alienation, outbursts of anger and the inability to function socially. Here, they said, the trauma was probably even greater. "Deliberately or not, witnessing at least once such events as torture, execution, amputations, people being burnt in their houses and public rape often results in traumatic stress or even post-traumatic stress disorder," Doctors Without Borders said in a report issued in January.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh, now in the government, has publicly apologized for some of the abuses committed by his troops. But diplomats and U.N. officials who deal with him say that he denies the RUF abducted minors or is holding any children now. Those statements contradict the testimony of more than a dozen child combatants as well as social workers who have spent months working with them.

The children's accounts paint a chilling picture of how the RUF and its AFRC allies systematically abducted children, became the children's surrogate family and forced them, under threat of death, to wreak havoc. Often the children, mostly boys, have scars on their temples where, they said, cocaine and gunpowder were inserted in cuts that were then covered with plaster or adhesive tape. The children also talked of being given small blue pills and drug injections. The effect, they said, was that they could go on murderous binges for days. "That is what they would do when they wanted us to have mayhem days, so when we got up we could go for up to three days without stopping, just to kill," said Siamba, 16, who was abducted in 1992 and is now learning how to be a tailor. "The commander told me when I was captured, 'Your father is gone. Now I am your father.' In the bush we committed a lot of atrocities. We did many evil things."

Many children said they saw other children executed for balking at killing their own relatives or village friends. "After you are captured you cannot think about your family, that is out," said Sahr Jimmy II, a 15-year-old abducted three years ago, sitting on a rusty tool chest at the Sarve the Nation garage, where he is learning mechanics. "Sometimes, when I was by myself, I would think about them. But when you are captured you have to change or you are a dead man." The interviews were conducted at IRC-run homes for the children in this city of 165,000, 175 miles east of Freetown. So far, 75 children have passed through these homes and another 30 are undergoing counseling and vocational training. A tailor and a mechanic have agreed to help train some of the children, and other local businesses are considering similar programs.

While the families of some of the children have been traced, many do not even know their real names. And many have lost all knowledge of what a family is. At the home for younger children, a social worker used a chalkboard to outline family relationships, explaining that the father's sister is "auntie," and that his brother is "uncle." "They have these terrible feelings that they did horrible things," said Samuel Kamanda, 32, an IRC program supervisor. "They tell each other God cannot forgive them for what they did."

At the Amputees and War Wounded camp in Freetown, Kadia Tu Fafanah, a 41-year-old mother of nine, told the story of how two preteen boys used an ax to hack her legs off above the knees. "It was Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1999," she said as she fanned a small fire in front of her tent in the camp, recalling the days when the RUF and AFRC stormed the capital in one of the war's chapters. "They put us in a house, about 100 of us, and tried to set the house on fire, but it wouldn't light. So they put the men in one line and shot them. I tried to run away, but I fell in a gutter. The children caught me. They amputated five others, but I was punished more for trying to run away. They were small boys, and they held me down while one cut me off." "They keep saying we should forgive them, they were only children," Fafanah said. "Maybe I can forgive them. That is in the Lord's hands. But I will find it very, very hard to forget. I cannot forget."

Mohamed Nyalay, 17, who fought for seven years, said he could not forget either. "I want to see my family, that is what I dream of," he said. "I did many, many bad things, but God let me go. There was a whole lot of fighting. But life is different now. We are not doing evil. We want to go home."

Children at War

Numbers of child soldiers are difficult to obtain, but the Save the Children group has made some estimates for 1998:

Country: Afghanistan Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: n/a Youngest age found: 10 Country: Angola Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 7,000 Youngest age found: 8

Country: Burma Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 50,000 Youngest age found: 7

Country: Burundi Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 10,000 Youngest age found: 8

Country: Cambodia Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: n/a Youngest age found: 8

Country: Colombia1 Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 9,000 Youngest age found: 8

Country: Congo Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 6,000 Youngest age found: 7

Country: Israel* Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: n/a Youngest age found: 12

Country: Peru Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 2,100 Youngest age found: 9

Country: Rwanda Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 20,000 Youngest age found: 7

Country: Sierra Leone Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 5,000 Youngest age found: 6

Country: Somalia Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: n/a Youngest age found: 11

Country: Sri Lanka Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: n/a Youngest age found: 8

Country: Sudan Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 28,000 Youngest age found: 7

Country: Turkey Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 3,000 Youngest age found: n/a

Country: Uganda Number of child soldiers 15 or younger: 8,000 Youngest age found: 5

* found among Hamas Islamic fighters

Source: Save the Children

More Information on Sierra Leone


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