MAKENI, SIERRA LEONE — For the people of Makeni, turning the other cheek is much to ask.
More than 290 children kidnapped and trained by one Revolutionary United Front battalion were unleashed on the Sierra Leone town for months to set homes ablaze and steal food and anything else.
Scurrying through the streets, they worked in packs, invoking terror as if it were a schoolyard game.
Taken from their parents when they were just four or five years old, most of the children have no recollection of their families, says the Rev. Victor Bongiovanni, an Italian priest who helps the children through his Makeni Child Protection Project.
For their often brutal crimes, the children are feared and loathed by their fellow villagers, Fr. Bongiovanni says. There are few places to turn for help.
"They were taught how to ambush, how to ... kill," he says. "We are not trying to tell people now that bad is good. But these are children, and we need to embrace them."
With many of its children schooled only in torture and violence, Sierra Leone's future is uncertain.
Nine-year-old Masseh Moganki is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children kidnapped and forced into violent servitude for Sierra Leone's rebel RUF.
Now freed, Masseh is trying to rebuild his life. Much of Sierra Leone is trying to do the same in celebration of yesterday's return of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the defeat of the rebels. But there remains an underlying fear and dread.
"When I was taken, I had to learn to do anything they told me to," Masseh says. Those that resisted, he says, were served swift and often fatal punishments.
Having taken shelter at the Roman Catholic-run Pastoral Center in the central town of Makeni, Masseh recently recalled his ordeal.
When abducted as a four-year-old, he was ordered to cook and clean for his captors. Before long, he grew strong enough to wield a 16-inch blade and was taught how to cut off human limbs in three or four blows.
When the Nigerian-led coalition army fighting to restore democracy captured Makeni last week, hundreds of child warriors wandered into the town from the bush and abandoned barracks.
"What we can never forget is that these children have been victims themselves, these are the first victims of Sierra Leone's crisis," Bongiovanni says.
He has given refuge to almost 194 children since last year, helping to place some of them in foster homes. Others have stayed in the mission, and a handful have returned to the rebels.