Aid agencies help to rid child soldiers of war's scars

Child protection groups in Sierra Leone believe that thousands of children were branded by rebel armies.


It's a hot evening in Bafodia village. A handful of children sit around the Mango trees, drenched in sweat, half-heartedly humming tunes as they slap away the mosquitoes.

All of them are shirtless in the heat, except two. Kaiadicu Kamara wears a turtleneck. Alfred Mansaray itches at his wool sweater. They are hiding the scars of war, scars which inflict a special kind of shame.

During Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war, which left 50,000 people dead and countless maimed, some 5,000 children were abducted into service by the rebel armies. With last year's cease-fire and waves of rebels surrendering weapons, aid workers are seeing first-hand that some of the former child soldiers were branded by the rebel army.

Using razors, broken glass, knives, an odd iron or needle, rebel groups would carve "RUF," the initials of the Revolutionary United Front, or other groups, onto the chests, arms, and even foreheads of the children - some as young as 9 - to make sure they wouldn't escape.

Rabih Torbay, West Africa director of the L.A.-based International Medical Corps (IMC), first heard about these brandings from one of the nurses working for his agency in Sierra Leone.

"She told me she had come across a kid who had these scars on his body. The kid had tried to remove them with caustic soda because he was so embarrassed," says Mr. Torbay. "We realized it was as much a psychological problem as a medical one ... and we wanted to help."

Last month, IMC launched a six-month pilot program to remove some of these brandings. With funding from USAID and UNICEF, and a budget of $150,000, IMC brought in a plastic surgeon to perform operations in Lungi hospital, near Freetown.

So far, 120 children have signed up for the procedure. But staff from IMC, UNICEF, and other child protection agencies predict that as more areas of the country open up to aid workers, hundreds if not thousands more children will line up.

The operations are only part of widespread child rehabilitation efforts going on in postwar Sierra Leone. As rebels disarm, and the interior becomes safer, child protection agencies are fanning out across the country to set up transition camps for these often traumatized young combatants.

Many of the child soldiers were given hard drugs and forced to carry out the worst of the war's atrocities: amputations on people in their own communities or even families.

"These children are terrified that they will be rejected when they return home," says Maurice Ellie, a child demobilization officer at the nongovernmental organization Caritas, which runs demobilization camps in northeast Sierra Leone. "We tell them there can be forgiveness."

"These children burned down shops and houses, and the attitude toward them is 'Why should I help,' " says Martha Lansana, a project officer for Action Aid who helps ex-combatant children return to school or find apprenticeships. "We are trying to change that. But if the children have the name of the rebel group tattooed to their bodies, it makes it all that much harder for anyone to forget."

A step closer to healing

"I am ashamed to go to town," says 16-year-old Kamara. "I am ashamed to wear short shirts. I am ashamed to wash with the others. My parents are ashamed... I tried to remove my shame by scrubbing it with leaves and herbs, but it did not come out."

Kamara spent three years with the RUF, only returning home in May when the cease-fire began. "I was for cooking. I was for laundry. I was for sex," she explains. "We walked 10 to 15 miles a day, and I was also to guard the looted property and arms. We were given a lot of drugs - marijuana, cocaine."

A year after her abduction, Kamara tried running away. She was caught and pinned down by two men. "They performed the operation with a razor blade," she says, carving "RUF" crookedly across her chest.

Young Alfred Mansaray had not heard of the operations in Lungi for removing scars, but his eyes light up when told about them.

"I was branded because they said I would run away, and now I can't even run away from my own self. Evil is with me all the time, imprinted on my body," he says, speaking slowly but without hesitation.

Words like these have moved aid workers to act.

"I had meetings with the parents and the social workers. I was telling them that removing the scars does not remove the past," says Cresenzo D'Onofrio, IMC's plastic surgeon. "But now I think it is I who will have learned something. I understand now that I am giving the children clearer dreams. If I can delete the letters, I can help. It is impossible to change past, true, but we can still make the future easier."

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