For Child Soldiers in Liberia, Rehabilitation Is a Hard Road

TAMBA has the body of a child, skinned knees and all, and the set jaw of a bitter man. At 12, he's been fighting for three years in Liberia's rebel army. Now he's in a rehabilitation program designed to help restore the humanity of these child fighters.

The program, in a mission run by a former Nigerian drug trafficker-turned-evangelist, has 13 ex-combatants between 12 and 30.

The youngest of them can't talk about what they've been through. "I decided to fight for my country," was all Tamba would say during a 20-minute interview about his days as a rebel, shrugging off questions.

The rehabilitation process is difficult, and few people here have the means or desire to take on the job of helping heal the less-visible wounds of the war.

The mission is a home for former murderers, armed robbers, and drug addicts. It's on a hill in the countryside, far from the temptations of drugs and crime in the city.

"What we intend to do is build a drug-rehabilitation center for former combatants," says the Rev. Francis Thomas, who also ministers to hundreds of street youths who live in the slums of Monrovia, the capital.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child forbids the conscription of children below the age of 15. But at least 200,000 youngsters have fought in wars in 25 countries since 1988. An estimated 15,000 child soldiers are fighting in Liberia, and about 2,500 in neighboring Sierra Leone.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch children's rights report, both of the main warring factions in Liberia's six-year civil war, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), admitted to the group that they used children under 15 as soldiers. One faction went so far as to create a special "small-boys unit."

Liberia's civil war began in December 1989 when forces loyal to rebel leader Charles Taylor invaded from Ivory Coast to overthrow dictator Samuel Doe. Doe was toppled and executed, but what began as a popular rebellion degenerated into tribal warfare. The United Nations estimates 150,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

At the mission, the ex-soldiers sometimes sit around telling war stories, laughing at tragic deeds they have seen or done. It seems macabre, but for them it's therapy. The older former rebels are leaps ahead of the child soldiers, who are incapable of speaking about the atrocities they saw or committed. They are tongue-tied by guilt, terrified by flashbacks, and risk slipping into a life of crime similar to that of their older comrades. For some, carrying a gun is the only security they have had for the past six years of war.

Steering boys like Tamba on the road to reform is up to men like Fr. Thomas and organizations such as Don Bosco and the Children's Assistance Program, which provide vocational, educational, and counseling services.

Children are often the most valued soldiers. They can slip in and out of villages almost unnoticed to spy on the enemy or lay land mines. They also more readily carry out orders than adults who might ponder the consequences. "The younger ones just kill," says 27-year-old former combatant Bill Gabriel.

Not all the children are forceably recruited. Many joined up in the countryside for revenge because they witnessed the deaths of their parents or siblings. Others were recruited from the ghettos of Monrovia and have fought for at least three different factions as a means of survival. Sometimes they join merely for protection. "In the beginning, they said they were taking us to the front where they would give us some US dollars," Mr. Gabriel says. "When you were on the front, they told you, 'We took you here to fight; you either fight or you die.' "

Leaving the front doesn't necessarily lead to a different way of life. The ex-combatants often have nightmares or relive the atrocities they committed or saw.

And family reunification is difficult, says the Human Rights Watch report. Often their families and villages have been wiped out. Or villages refuse to accept them back because of their actions during the war.

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