Can kindness heal an 8-year-ols execitioner?: In Sierra Leone's civil war small children have been recruited to carry out military atrocities. Richard Dowden was allowed into a camp where a priest and a psychologist are rehabilitating some of the killers

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'Many of them know how to cut a person's head off,' said one man working with the children. 'They know to cut from the back not the front, and they will tell you in detail what happens next. Some have seen even worse things. We had one 12-year-old who described finding a human hand in the cooking pot.'

Since the civil war began in 1991, children as young as eight years old have been used by government forces in Sierra Leone to execute suspected rebels, sometimes cutting their heads off with machetes. Adult soldiers, afraid of revenge by the family or the spirit of the executed person, encourage the children to carry out the killing for them.

Last July, after representatives of Unicef (the United Nations organisation for children) had told the country's young military leaders that the use of children in war was against the UN Charter, 360 children - many of them deeply traumatised by their warring experiences - were suddenly handed over to Unicef. Unicef was unprepared and hurriedly set up a scheme led by Father Michael Hickey, an Irish missionary who works with children in Sierra Leone, and Dr Tamba Matturi, a Sierra Leonean psychologist.

Now there are about 100 children between the ages of eight and 15, at one camp near Bo, in central Sierra Leone. Last week I asked Dr Matturi to show me some of the children who had confessed to killing people. Like a favourite uncle, he bent down to one of the two children who were cuddling up to him and spoke to him in Mende. Then he said: 'This is one. He is Sahr James Aiah. He is 12.'

Sahr James Aiah looked about eight, a sweet-faced child with large, innocent puppy eyes. He was shy and buried his head in Dr Matturi's side. 'This is one, too,' he said, but the boy on the other side, Sayu Mariah, looked away. Dr Matturi explained that Sayu Mariah had been very depressed when he arrived and would not speak.

When we first saw the children, they looked like pupils who had stayed on at school into the holidays: bored, casual, unfettered. It was difficult to imagine them as killers. But when we reached the main hall, they were mounting a strike in protest at their food. They were fractious and aggressive, so different from most African children, who are easy-going and self-confident. At once a fight broke out, the bigger children pushing and hitting the smaller ones for no apparent reason.

One child demanded that I give him my watch and pen, and became threatening when I refused. Dr Matturi shrugged. 'A couple of months ago we could not have brought you here at all,' he said. In Bo, as if imitating Lord of the Flies, the children have formed their own government independently from the teachers and supervisors, and have a president and ministers.

Africa's wars have forced millions from their homes, bringing starvation and death. They have also given birth to less visible horrors, which will ripen later. In Uganda, Mozambique, Liberia and now Sierra Leone, war has produced what are euphemistically called 'boy soldiers'. Childhood does not exist in Africa as it does in Europe. Children are expected to behave like mini adults from an early age. They plant and harvest, trade and carry and - in wartime - they kill. Many of them have done much more than march around in outsize uniforms carrying guns they can barely lift.

Dr Matturi painted a portrait of the typical child sucked into Sierra Leone's vicious war two years ago. 'Revenge is his bigggest motive. Maybe his village was overrun during the fighting. Maybe he lost his father or both parents in an attack by the rebels. So he says to himself, 'I must take up arms to avenge them'.'

Others, said Dr Matturi, come from broken families and walked to the war zone to escape from their homes. There the army used them, gave them uniforms and guns, and turned them into soliders. They were more or less fearless, so they did a lot of fighting. According to Dr Matturi, when they first came to this centre (brought on a bus by the army four months ago), they were completely confused and could not stay still for more than a few seconds. 'Their attention span was very short, they were all hyperactive and we couldn't talk to them,' he said.

'They didn't sleep and when they did, they had bizarre dreams. Many of them had been on drugs - and some still are. It was mostly marijuana. Some of them became very withdrawn, while others went on pretending they were still at war and carried sticks that they pointed like guns. Some talked of putting gunpowder on their rice to make them fight better.'

The 10 girls in the camp had been picked up as wives by the soldiers in the war zone and used to cook and carry, but they may not have killed. It took Dr Matturi and the other workers a long time to gain the trust of any of the children or to interview them formally. They found that they gave different answers on different occasions to even the most simple questions about their past.

'I pick them at random and ask them to come and speak to me sitting under a tree. We talk for about 30 minutes about where they come from, what they did and what they want to do. Most of them are still traumatised. Some want to talk about their experiences but others still freeze up. For them the war syndrome will take about five years to come out,' said Dr Matturi.

The people of Bo have had to accept nearly 50,000 refugees in the past two years, most of whom have walked to the town from the war zone with only those possessions they could carry. Most of them are in a large camp of neat mud-and-grass huts, seven miles south of the town. Others have found lodging with friends or relatives in town. There has been little tension between refugees and townspeople and no one has starved. But this additional imposition of 100 deprived and dangerous children close to the centre of town has caused problems.

Once Dr Matturi had to retrieve police guns stolen by the children. It is impossible to keep these youngsters on the compound for long; some drift off for days and stay on the streets in town. They can still obtain drugs from a grass hut shop nearby. Meanwhile, attracted by free meals and the basics of education, street children from town come and stay at the camp.

The future of the rehabilitation centre and the children is unsure. Tracers, sent out to find the children's parents and homes, have just returned, but with little good news. Mostly they found the village had been wiped out or deserted and the parents dead or disappeared. In certain cases, if the child was known to have committed atrocities, he would not be allowed back to his village. Even if they have been forced to act as porters and helpers by rebels or soldiers, the children may be identified as being 'with them' and so blamed for whatever happened to the village.

In Africa, where family and community play such an essential part in the establishment and maintenance of law and morality, a person rejected by his family is a total and eternal outcast. 'My fear is that we will still be stuck with a lot of children whose parents don't want them back,' said Dr Matturi. 'Who is going to be responsible for them?'

The 360 children handed over to Unicef (who now live in three camps) are only a small part of the problem. There are still scores of youngsters in the army, and there is no doubt that there are as many, if not more, among the rebel fighters. Their future is uncertain. Most have no families and Unicef has no proper budget for them. Left to themselves these children would almost certainly join roving gangs of ruthless bandits and killers.

As we walked back through a classroom, we paused to meet the English teacher who was preparing the next lesson. He was teaching them Macbeth, and on the blackboard there was a terrifying message. Were these dangerous children able to read it, it would herald an appalling future for Sierra Leone. For the teacher had chalked up: 'Thou shalt be King hereafter'. But, then again, if Dr Matturi's rehabilitation project proves effective, it might not be such a chilling prospect.

(Photographs omitted)