Liberia's ex-fighters

Five days before the country's first postwar elections, the future of thousands of jobless former fighters is a concern.

In many ways, the future of this West African nation - and the fragile region around it, which supplies nearly 10 percent of US oil - depends on how young men like Moses Kanneh sort out their lives.

This compact 30-year-old with an easy smile and spit- polished black shoes, is a former teenage fighter. He and tens of thousands of youths were pawns of warlords and dictators who fought rolling regional wars for much of the past decade.

Now, five days before Liberia's first postwar elections, things are calm. Liberia has the most UN peacekeepers per capita in the world. In the past few years the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) has disarmed thousands of former fighters, and launched various campaigns to reintegrate them into society.

But despite the efforts, many of these veterans are still jobless and considered to be vulnerable to recruitment by their former rebel leaders, or even by leaders of other armed groups in neighboring countries. Indeed, experts say, whether Liberia's ex-combatants can be enticed to fight again is one of the biggest questions for stability in a region with multiple conflicts. "There's a lot of good potential in Liberia right now," says Corinne Dufka, a West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But the large concentration of people vulnerable to recruitment is a major risk factor."

Creating jobs for this segment of society is a top campaign issue for the 22 candidates vying for the presidency, but with 85 percent unemployment, the task facing the new government will be huge.

Kanneh and his friends now hustle in the streets of Monrovia - hawking stolen goods, finding prostitutes for rich hotel guests, smoking marijuana. He went to a UN reintegration program. But after 14 years of war, he says, "they talk to you for five days" and show "Jesus videos" about redemption.

When Kanneh fought for former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, he remembers sleeping in the bush a lot. There's the time when "my close personal friend was killed." He adds quietly, "it could have been me." But because of fighting that day, Kanneh had to "just put leaves over him and go."

The central problem over the past decade in this part of West Africa has been one country's willingness to actively meddle in the affairs of another, observers say.

Ivory Coast, for instance, backed Liberian rebels starting in at least 1989. Liberians later supported rebels in Sierra Leone, which retaliated by backing Liberian insurgents. Guinea also supported rebels in Liberia, which in turn backed fighters in Ivory Coast. And so forth. The young and vulnerable - who had no other employment options and little connection with the calming influence of elders - became foot soldiers in these brutal wars. But with the forced exit of Mr. Taylor in 2003, among other things, calm began to emerge.

For Kanneh the end of wars meant going to the UN program and, briefly, to a UN-sponsored vocational school, where he was supposed to learn masonry skills. But the school lacked good equipment. It was "only theory, no practicality," he says. He soon left.

Like many well-intentioned UN programs, the disarmament and reintegration suffered from a lack of funding and solid strategy, observers say. "Disarmament didn't really happen," says Taya Weiss, a consultant who has traveled widely in the region for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "A lot of weapons were taken over the border into Guinea."

Also, agents from Ivory Coast and Guinea are now reportedly recruiting in Liberia - paying between $200 and $400 to entice young fighters into going on "missions."

"There are people on stand-by," says J. Aloysius Toe, head of the Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy in Monrovia. "If they are called to arms, they will go, without questioning the cause."

Yet there are former-soldier success stories that provide some hope. Spencer Smith's is one of them. Like Kanneh, this 26-year-old fought for Taylor. Unlike Kanneh, he's scheduled to complete his masonry classes in December - and expects to get enough work to support his wife and two kids. "They fooled us" once, he says of the warlords. But they won't do it again. "I know my right from my wrong," says Smith, whose legs are dusted with powdered concrete after a day of masonry work. "If someone brought a whole carton of money to me to go back in the bush, I would say no."

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