From Professor Paul Richards

Sir: The picture of a recently captured young rebel fighter accompanying Karl Maier's story from war-torn Bo ("Boys in arms find peace a trial", 27 September) summed up at a glance the tragedy that has played out in Sierra Leone these past five years. The technique of recruiting under- age combatants was introduced into the region by Charles Taylor's rebels in Liberia, but spread to Sierra Leone with Taylor's allies, the Revolutionary United Front.

The fighting in both Liberia and Sierra Leone bore down heavily on rural civilians and left many youngsters as orphans. These orphans were pressganged by the RUF to join their movement. With little idea how to combat sub- teenagers fighting on crack cocaine, the Sierra Leone army, or its proxy militia, began to adopt similar tactics.

Local communities know that youngsters captured by the RUF soon develop a sympathy for their captors. Villagers are hard- pressed to understand why their own children have turned against them. Sometimes they consider this an irreversible product of rebel "sorcery".

Elsewhere, therapists use the term Stockholm Syndrome to account for the bond that develops between hijack victims and their captors. Summary execution was, at times, the fate of young rebel suspects rejected by their communities. But attitudes are changing.

The Sierra Leone army now recognises that it must treat these rebel children as the victims of the conflict and not as "enemy troops" in the normal sense of the term. This is why young Musa Kpaka now stares out at Independent readers, where others of his kind occupy unmarked mass graves in the forest. Despite understandable civilian bitterness at the way an apparently meaningless war has wrecked rural communities, if this newer sympathetic approach holds then it may be the key to the long-awaited and sorely needed peace process in Sierra Leone.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Richards

Professor of Anthropology

University College London

London, WC1