JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The children had nicknames based on their grimmest deeds -- like "Castrator" or "Laughing and Killing."
Some dyed their hair bright orange. Others fought naked to terrify the enemy. Some girl soldiers fought in their underwear because they thought it would make them magical and bulletproof.
They carried the scars of secret initiation rites and wore neck charms that they believed would protect them from enemy bullets, though one 17-year-old, Isaac T., conceded that the magic did not work against larger artillery.
The commanders in Liberia's four-year war deny recruiting child soldiers. But, according to the accounts of child soldiers interviewed by the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, the government and two rebel groups abducted children as young as nine and turned them into combatants during the past four years. The kidnappings occurred when children were on their way to school or from camps for displaced people, said the group, which protected the children's identities.
The use of soldiers under the age of 15 is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The commanders sent the children to the front line first, to fight the most dangerous battles -- presumably because they were the most expendable. Girl soldiers were used as sex slaves, repeatedly raped, often by groups of fighters.
A Human Rights Watch report, due to be released today, paints a chilling portrait of the suffering of child soldiers in Liberia and the atrocities they witnessed and committed. It highlights the problems faced in Liberia, and other African countries, in demobilizing thousands of child soldiers and returning them to communities where they may have committed atrocities. The United Nations has estimated that 15,000 child soldiers have taken part in fighting in Liberia since 2000.
The Human Rights Watch report is being released ahead of a donors conference on Liberia in New York this week, when the U.N. will seek to raise $400 million to help rebuild the country.
According to the report, many children demobilized after a 1989-97 conflict got little support from the international community, could not afford to go to school or find work, and ended up idle in cities and towns. When the civil war restarted in 2000, many went back to fighting.
Samson T., whose age was not available, fought with former President Charles Taylor's rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL, and later for the forces who opposed him, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD.
Before every battle the commanders passed out drugs, tablets that the children considered magical.
"The medicine was for protection. If a bullet hit you, it would bounce right off. After I took that medicine, it made me feel bad, it changed my heart," Samson said in an interview with Human Rights Watch observers on Bushrod Island in Liberia last October.
Solomon F., who was grabbed by Taylor's NPFL forces in the 1990s on his way home from school, told researchers that children were given the drugs because "you need the drugs to give you the strength to kill."
Taylor was elected in 1997 after a cease-fire. Facing international war crimes charges, Taylor stepped down last August and accepted asylum in Nigeria. An interim Liberian government is now in power.
Human Rights Watch said that although many children left their units after U.N. peacekeepers moved into Liberia, some in areas outside U.N. control were still in fighting units. It called on the international community to fund the demobilization of children so that they would not cross borders to fight in other West African conflicts.
Boys as young as 10 fought on the front lines, the study found. They received a couple of weeks of training before being sent into war. Robert L. described training ordeals such as having to crawl through barbed wire while LURD commanders shot at him and other boys.
"During the fighting, I was very afraid. I killed many people. I saw friends dying all around me -- it was terrible," said Robert, who fought with LURD for a year.
Patrick F., 12, spent 18 months fighting in a government unit of child soldiers and commanded four girls and five boys.
"I was not afraid. When I killed LURD soldiers, I would laugh at them. This is how I got my nickname, 'Laughing and Killing,' " he said.
Captured enemy soldiers were killed ruthlessly -- either decapitated or tortured to death. One child soldier watched as three suspects were dragged from a car: Their hands and feet were severed and then they were forced to crawl back to their car, where they bled to death.
Some children said they fought to feed themselves and their families.
James T. joined government forces at 15 to buy protection for his family, who were being abused by those same soldiers.
Francis R., who worked for LURD rebels, refused to fight. "LURD would promise [the child soldiers] cars, money or mattresses," he said. "But in the end, they got nothing at all but death."