Liberia's forced recruits

By Kate Davenport in Monrovia
© BBC World Service

Liberian guerrillas
Children and teenagers fought in the civil war

Hundreds of former child soldiers are being forced to return to the front in Liberia, weeks after President Charles Taylor called a state of emergency.

Since 1999, the army has been battling a mixed assortment of rebels from the 1989-96 civil war, who call themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

On 8 February, an attack on Klay Junction, just 35 km (22 miles) from the capital, Monrovia, set alarm bells ringing.

And this appears to be prompting the forcible conscription of former child soldiers, who are now sleeping rough on the streets.

Roughing it

Out of an estimated 15,000 child soldiers who fought during Liberia's civil war, only 4,300 have been demobilised.

Many boys as young as six were forced to fight for Charles Taylor's NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia), and other rebel groups. Displaced people returning to Kakata

In exchange for their years of fighting in the jungle, the former warlord promised them rich rewards when they helped him reach the capital.

But five years after Mr Taylor was elected president, scores of young ex-combatants are on the streets of Monrovia, trying to eke a living from cleaning windscreens, begging or stealing.

Some of them tried to return to their villages when the war was over, but they found their houses razed and their families dead or missing.

"Nobody wants to look after ex-combatants," says one sinewy teenager, with a disarmingly innocent face. "We are all on the street... we have to beg before we eat."

No choice

Eighteen-year-old Sammy (not his real name) was recruited into Taylor's infamous Small Boy Unit in 1990, after his entire family was slaughtered. NPFL rebel captured during the civil war

"They killed my parents and I was forced to hold arms to revenge my people," he says.

He said he went into hiding after soldiers assaulted him and tried to force him to go back to the warfront.

"They took all my money from me," he says. "They beat me at night. They wanted to put me on the frontline because they know I am a fighter."

But Sammy is realistic. He realises that fighting is the only trade he knows.

"We know everything about war," he says. "I killed a lot of innocent people - I was forced to do it."

His main objection is that he is being offered nothing in return. "I don't get any benefits, so why should I fight?"

UN blamed

Some soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) have not been paid for up to a year and there are some indications that some recent attacks have been carried out by soldiers. President Charles Taylor

Defence Minister Daniel Chea admits that there may sometimes be a few "bad apples" among the AFL, but insists the government is disciplining such cases.

He also denies claims of forced recruitment, instead saying that a wave of patriotic nationalism has taken over young people.

Mr Chea says hundreds of young men recently volunteered after a rebel commander called the BBC to say he had taken control of Bong Mines and Kakata.

He also blames the UN for failing to keep a promise to reintegrate former fighters in Liberia and Sierra Leone, saying many neglected child soldiers were later recruited by the Lurd.

"At the end of our civil war in 1996, there was this promise that the UN was going to come out with a comprehensive programme for the reintegration of former fighters into society.

"Unfortunately that wasn't done in Liberia, in Sierra Leone and in other places. Because those young men and women who were exposed to violence for seven years, were only disarmed and demobilised but with no proper incentive to be reintegrated into society," says Mr Chea.

"They were left alone, guns for hire... They've been recruited by Lurd forces, by the greedy, failed politicians to make war," he adds.

Sammy, though, does not want to fight. He dreams of swapping the battlefront for the classroom.

"I made up my mind to go to school because this is my only chance," he says.
Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 13:51 GMT

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002