MONROVIA, LIBERIA — When the principal of A.M.E Zion Academy in Monrovia, Liberia, was told he would have to accommodate 34 freshly demobilized fighters in his high school classes, he expected a rough time.
"We thought they would be arrogant or a bit brash," Edison Gbana says.
To his surprise, they were not. "In fact, we had a little misunderstanding over seats the other day and we least expected that these ex-fighters would be the ones to save the day. They prevented the others from disrupting class."
The students are among thousands of young men in this West African nation who spent their teenage years fighting in the jungle - many committing the atrocities that became a trademark of Liberia's civil conflict, which claimed up to 150,000 lives. Now, they are reintegrating into civilian life.
And it is stories like the one at the A.M.E. Zion Academy that give Liberians hope that the country's current peace accord - the 14th in the seven-year-old war - will finally secure a lasting calm.
In the hallways and classrooms where blue-and-white uniformed students gather, it's impossible to tell which ones have just come from the front lines.
Principal Gbana says it's school policy not to make any distinctions except for the discreet tutorials offered to help the former combatants catch up.
"We don't [want to] make them believe they are behind so much, that they are looked down upon," he says.
Forgiveness for the past
For their part, the newest students say their classmates seem to have forgiven them for their role in the nation's destruction.
"My friends tell me that since I've put down the gun I should be serious," says Sadacious Bainda, a polite and quiet 23-year-old. "They say, 'Use high school to do something for yourself,' and I'm happy that they encourage me like that."
Yet Mr. Bainda's smooth transition seems more the exception than the rule. He is on an educational scholarship sponsored by a local nongovernmental organization. For thousands of other young ex-fighters, the future seems as bleak as the devastated ghost towns they are now stuck in.
"The war is finished and we are tired of fighting," says Harrison Saywun, who is living with several dozen other former fighters in Harper, the eastern town which he and the others helped conquer early in the conflict.
"But," he says, "we have no food and no clothes. There is no medicine for us excombatants, and we are suffering. What are we supposed to do to eat?"
As Mr. Saywun speaks, a fight breaks out nearby which dramatically illustrates his point. A group of former fighters has just caught a raccoon, the first fresh meat most have seen in weeks. One youth, nervous about getting his portion, grabs a hindquarter and takes off down the deserted street. Shouts erupt, and within seconds, pairs of men are locked in angry tugs-of-war over the remaining pieces.
Underlying such desperation is deep disappointment at the failure of what many of these men refer to as "the revolution." Another ex-fighter, Benedict Comonteh, explains the hopefulness he and others felt in 1989 when militia leader Charles Taylor declared a war of liberation against the corrupt, elitist, and ethnically biased rule of President Samuel Doe. Doe himself came to power in a military putsch in 1980, when he pushed the descendants of American slaves, who founded Liberia in 1847, out of power.
"During the Doe administration, some of our parents had gone to school and got degrees, yet they didn't have any work. They were not offered jobs from the government, and we felt that we had been left behind and neglected," Mr. Comonteh says.
But the revolution soon degenerated into a tribal power struggle among seven rival factions, who continued to fight for control of the country's mineral and timber wealth long after Doe's execution in 1990.
Now, as the militia leaders are transforming themselves into politicians ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May, Comonteh and others are again feeling left behind and neglected.
What's more, democratic activist Gloria Scott says, after having dropped school and useful jobs to take up guns, most among Liberia's generation of young veterans are even worse off than their parents.
"So you will still have a society tomorrow of a small group of privileged people with a larger group of unprivileged people, so there might be a repeat of this circle we now find ourselves in," she says.