The Case of Liberian Child Soldiers

There are a number of international legal instruments intended to safeguard children. These include the UN Declaration on the Rights of Children, stating that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care”, as well as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two additional protocols of 1977 that provide for the special protection and treatment of children in armed conflicts. Protocol II to the Geneva Convention specifically forbids the use of child soldiers under the age of 15 in internal conflicts.  Most countries, including Liberia, signed and ratified these conventions. Yet, in almost 5 years working for UNICEF Liberia during the civil war, I witnessed incomprehensible violations of the basic human rights of children and the widespread cruel use of children as soldiers.

The years of civil war, beginning in 1989, exposed Liberian children to violence, hunger and hopelessness and robbed them of their childhood. Many children were separated from their families and at a very young age were forced to fend for themselves. Children are impressionable; hence they became easy prey for the various armed factions who either forcibly conscripted them or encouraged them to join voluntarily. For many of the children, joining the armed factions was a way to survive. Either way, the most brutal impact on children during the war resulted from their recruitment into the armies of these groups. Once recruited, they were used for many tasks, from cooking and manning checkpoints to actual fighting in battles. They were told to kill, and they obeyed without questions.

As part of my work, I sometimes had to travel outside Monrovia, to areas held by rebels. Travelling within the relative security of a UN convoy, we nevertheless had to pass through countless checkpoints manned by threatening rebels, pointing their arms at us. At most checkpoints, I could see at least one or two child soldiers, often armed with guns that were bigger and heavier than they were.

When the West African troops known as ECOMOG battled rebels during the Liberian civil war, they invariably captured children who were used by the rebel groups. They had no detention facilities for children and therefore turned them over to the Red Cross. Obviously, the Red Cross had no detention facilities either, which is why they ended up signing an agreement with us at UNICEF.  Based upon this agreement, the captured child soldiers were turned over to UNICEF. In fulfilling our side of the bargain, we had to quickly identify a suitable secure large building, a team of carers, counsellors, psychologists and nurses, supplies, food and a lot more.

We did not know what to expect when the first groups of child soldiers arrived and entered the gates of the UNICEF rehabilitation centre, accompanied by ECOMOG troops. Very soon we realised that the reality was far worse than our apprehensions. The youngest kid was 8 years old and a self-declared killer, and the oldest was 15 years old. In the months that followed, the counsellors and psychologist heard blood curdling stories of life in fear and terror told by these children. Stories of atrocities, abuse, torture and rape, of being forced to ingest gun powder, which supposedly made them invincible, of being forced to kill and maim.

Engraved forever on my mind is the picture of the traumatised young boy who kept stripping naked and throwing the clothes we gave him into the well. He did not speak. Finally, after three months of care there was a breakthrough.  I came one day to the centre and was told to stand by one of the classrooms. He was there. Singing. Two weeks later, he began to talk to the counsellors.

By 1994, less than 100 children were brought by ECOMOG to the centre. They were but the tip of the iceberg, as the total number of child soldiers in Liberia who were under fifteen was estimated by UNICEF to be at least 6,000 and the total number of those below 18 estimated at 20,000. It was almost a year before we were able to trace and reunify approximately half of the centre’s children with their families.  Not all the families wanted to have their children back with them though. Some were afraid of reprisals from their neighbours. Some of the children had no families to return to and had to remain in care centres run by local NGOs, some of which operated at least until the year 2000. Sadly, once released from these centres, many of these vulnerable children returned back to the only life they knew for a number of years. They returned to fighting with the armed groups.

So many years after these events, and despite the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, very few Liberian war criminals stood trial. In fact, some of the former Liberian warlords are the holders of high-level public offices in post-war Liberia. This may now be changing, as a few of them are finally being brought to justice: In Bellinzona, Switzerland, Alieu Josiah is currently waiting judgment in a trial for war crimes committed when he fought with ULIMO (United Liberation Movement for Democracy). He is charged with 18 murders, rapes, cannibalism and forced recruitment of child soldiers, all crimes committed between 1992 and 1997. He is accused of keeping a 12-year-old boy as his personal bodyguard. 

In Finland, the Sierra Leonean Gibril Massaquoi, who served as a commander and spokesman for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), is on trial for crimes committed in Liberia between 1999 and 2003. Witnesses said he called himself “Angel Gabriel.” He faces charges of murder, rape and human rights violations. Part of his trial is held in Monrovia, and the witnesses in his trial confirm seeing child soldiers. 

For many, these trials of Liberian war criminals are a vindication. They do not absolve the accused of their crimes, but there is, at least for me and I am sure for many others, some satisfaction in the knowledge that at least a few of those who committed the devastating atrocities against children in Liberia will finally pay the price.

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