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THE WORLD

Ex-Child Warriors Easing Into Mainstream

Africa: A year ago, they were feared, fighting in Sierra Leone's civil war. Now, thousands of youngsters are trying to reclaim lost childhoods.

July 14, 2002|ALEXANDRA ZAVIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Kicking a soccer ball in a bustling street, 12-year-old Moses is indistinguishable from the other ragged children in this bullet-scarred capital.

Little more than a year ago, the shy boy with an easy smile was part of the rebel movement that terrorized this West African nation for a decade, its fighters raping, maiming and killing adults and children even younger than Moses.

Now, like thousands of others, he is back with his family, trying to reclaim a childhood torn apart by bloodshed and fear.

An estimated 7,000 children left the battlefields when combatants in Sierra Leone's savage civil war started turning in their weapons last year. The youngest was 6 years old.

Released into the care of aid agencies, most spent months at centers designed to ease their way back into civilian life and now are reunited with relatives.

For many like Moses, whose mother, brother and two sisters were shot to death in front of him when he was kidnapped two years ago, the struggle to adjust into the families and communities from which they were torn is only just starting.

When Moses first got home, he got into fights, and the neighbors were always complaining about him, his uncle says. But with time--and discipline--his behavior has improved. He is now helpful around the house and does well at school, the uncle says.

"I feel happy," says Moses, a skinny boy in shorts and plastic sandals.

"I am learning a lot. I have friends, and we play together."

But when asked about the months he spent with the rebels, his face clouds.

"What I saw in the bush is too terrible to explain," he whispers, eyes downcast, twisting his hands in his lap.

Child soldiers like Moses were among the most feared in Sierra Leone.

Abducted and forced to fight by all factions, they demonstrated little fear in combat and committed some of the worst atrocities of a grisly war.

"We were given drugs and told to attack, burn houses, rape women and take what you like," says Boyzie, 15, who was even younger than Moses when he was captured by the rebels and forced to do these things.

He pulls up a grimy sleeve to reveal scars where he says rebels cut his arm to inject cocaine and other drugs he can't identify. Under their influence, "a person just looks like any chicken," he says.

After months of counseling, Boyzie was reunited with an older cousin who lives at a camp for displaced people. But he didn't stay long.

His cousin, who is married with three young daughters, found it difficult to share her one-room shelter with a teenage boy and asked him to find a place of his own.

She still feeds him when she can. But he sleeps in an abandoned car with four other former rebels at the garage where they are training to become mechanics under a government-sponsored program.

The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, says many child soldiers find it difficult to stay with their families. Many are in regions that were destroyed by the war, with no schools, job opportunities or enough food to go around.

Some are rejected by their communities--including members of their own families--because of the atrocities they committed, UNICEF representative Joanna Van Gerpen says.

Even when friends and neighbors don't know what the children did, the stigma of having been associated with the rebels--even as captives--can make it difficult to fit in.

"They come from a very brutal war.... Everybody is still afraid of them," says the owner of the garage where Boyzie works. He asked not to be quoted by name to protect the identity of his young apprentices.

Many child fighters were themselves commanders, and were also sexually active, making it difficult to live in what often are one-room dwellings under the authority of parents or other adults.

Mohammed, who says he is 18 but who social workers believe is much younger, says with some pride that he was a "strong man in the bush."

Kidnapped when he was no older than 9, he rose through the ranks to head a unit of child fighters and got a "girlfriend" by abducting her.

"We never bought anything.... We just took it," the boy dubbed "Black Cat" by his captors says at the group home where he is waiting to be reunited with an older brother. "Now, when I want something, I have to think about finding a job."

But jobs are scarce, and Sierra Leone's economy is in ruins.

In neighboring Liberia, which was destroyed by a 1989-96 civil war, pressures like these pushed many former child fighters onto the streets of the capital, Monrovia. From there, some were drawn into crime--or back into fighting.

Today, young children toting machine guns are again among the soldiers battling a 3-year-old insurrection in the north of Liberia--though their commanders claim the youngsters are only there to do cooking, laundry and other camp chores.

Hoping to avoid a repeat in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and other agencies strive to keep in touch with former child soldiers. Social workers meet regularly with the children, their families, teachers and other community members to provide counseling and mediation.

But with tens of thousands of Sierra Leone citizens on the move, returning to areas from which they were displaced by the war, UNICEF concedes that it is difficult to keep track of the children.

It can also be hard to break the youngsters' links with former commanders.

The Revolutionary United Front rebels formed a political party to contest recent elections, and Boyzie says he was approached by some of his former friends to help campaign.

This time, at least, he said no.

"I suffered a lot with the gun," he explains. "I am at work now.... I am capable of doing better."

On the Internet:

UNICEF site on child soldiers: http://www.unicef.org

Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers also has a site, at: http://www.childsoldiers.org

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