Child `sex slaves' freed by rebels

THE SIERRA Leone hostage crisis in which five British officers were held captive ended last night with the release of up to 200 women and child prisoners, many of whom had to act as soldiers and sex slaves for Sierra Leonean rebels.

One United Nations military observer and 16 West African peace-keepers were also freed.

The released civilians are expected to be deeply traumatised by their months with the rebels, for whom gang rape, burning alive and mutilations by machete are common tactics. They are malnourished and aid workers say their release is largely due to their having become a burden in the jungle.

The British officers, who were released on Sunday and Monday, were still being debriefed last night.

Yesterday's releases marked the end of a six-day hostage drama in the jungle of the small West African country. The crisis began last Wednesday when more than 40 people, including the Britons, travelled out of the capital Freetown, ostensibly for a pre-arranged handover of the war-scarred women and children.

The freed children, who were not with their mothers and may have acted as child soldiers and sex slaves, were taken for trauma counselling at a special home set up in a defunct beach hotel near Freetown. The ex- tourist hotel already has 102 inmates, who are there to unlearn violence and relearn trust and childish ways. Some people say it is an impossible task.

Jimmy, 15, has lived at the home, which is run by an Italian aid agency and Unicef, for two months. A child soldier, seasoned in the use of AK-47s and field radios, Jimmy was brought here after escaping from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), only to be thrown out by his parents.

Jimmy said: "When I turned up at home in Freetown, my parents said they were scared of me. My father told me to go off to Unicef. He said that if he allowed me back into our house, I would kill the whole family. It hurt a lot."

He says his greatest dream is to go back to school and hopes that one day his parents will have him back. But they have heard the stories of how the RUF and other rebels bring children into their ranks by forcing them at gunpoint to burn their parents alive or cut them with machetes and axes.

Jimmy, who says he was taken by the RUF in March 1997, claims he never saw any atrocities. "The RUF are my friends, they did not do me any harm, nor the villagers we encountered. "We were always on the move. At first it was a little strange to use an AK-47", but you get used to it, he said blankly. But Jimmy, who care workers say is still terrified of the RUF, cannot return home even if his parents agree to take him back. On the right-hand side of his chest the letters RUF are engraved by razor blade - letters seen in Freetown as nothing less than the sign of the devil. He would be lynched by the neighbourhood.

Valerie Cresson, a 31-year-old French psychologist who counsels children at the home, said she is dealing with youngsters who are habitual liers, do not trust adults and think they can achieve everything they want with force or bullying.

She said: "As rebel soldiers and porters, or what are called `wives', they lose their identity. When you ask them to describe themselves, they say `I am not a child, I am a rebel'. This applies to children as young as six." Ms Cresson believes some of her clients are so damaged she will have to spend "months and months" with them.