Amid laughter and smiles, Liberia's child soldiers bid farewell to arms
Saturday 31 January 2004
Swinging his legs idly on an upturned canoe, Stephen waited on the rubbish-strewn city beach, staring out to sea. Times were tough, he said, no money, no food. During the war, at least, he had respect.
As Monrovia blazed with battle last summer, the 16-year-old strutted its deserted streets. He had an AK-47 assault rifle over his shoulder, a joint between his lips and a nickname inspired by movie-star violence: Judgement Day.
But these days people treat the former combatants as beggars or criminals. "You say you have no chop [food]. They say go away," he said, his small eyes glazed with a haze of marijuana. "They say suffer and die."
Liberia is flooded with teen- agers like Stephen, the discarded cannon fodder of 14 years of civil war. This month, the United Nations relaunched its plan to demobilise as many as 50,000 such Stephens, and fold them back into a broken society.
It is a formidable task, so the UN is proceeding with great care. The first attempted demobilisation, in early December, quickly turned to chaos. After being refused dollars for their weapons, thousands of former combatants stormed the city streets, firing in the air and looting. At least eight people died. The UN eventually paid the 12,000 soldiers $75 each, and destroyed only 8,000 weapons.
This time the UN is doing things differently. Thousands of armed peacekeepers are being rapidly deployed, with orders to open fire if necessary. Within a month, 15,000 troops from 45 countries should have fully deployed, making Liberia the world's largest peace-keeping mission.
And the UN has started disarmament with a few good gags. "Sensitisation" seminars are being held across Liberia to educate fighters about the mechanics of demobilisation. Singers, dancers and a circus comedy act are being used to convey the message. "We want them to understand what it is all about," a UN spokeswoman, Margaret Novicki, said. Last year, the first UN team arrived in Bo Waterside, on Liberia's western border with Sierra Leone. It is also a stronghold of the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). About 100 ragged rebels listened to a Swedish soldier, sweating heavily in the muggy heat. In return for their guns, he said, the fighters will receive three weeks of medical check-ups, career advice and $300 in cash.
Officers from Lurd, the second rebel group Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model) and the former Taylor government forces spoke next, reinforcing the message. But the greatest welcome was reserved for the entertainment. An old man wearing a Tony the Tiger hat played a harmonica. A singer wiggled her hips and grabbed a dreadlocked rebel by the waist, staring into his eyes as she crooned. And a face-painted clown named Boutini had the rebels in stitches of laughter. In between gags, he drove home the official message. "War is over, time to demobilise," he told the hooting teenagers.
The fact that it takes a clown to communicate highlights how many soldiers are children, and how much war has changed Liberian society. After 14 years of corrupt rule and brutal fighting, an entire generation is well schooled in violence but knows little about literacy. "The younger generation is less well educated than the adults. It's very usual," Jacques Klein of the United Nations said.
The mammoth task of reconstruction starts next week. A donors' conference in New York will seek up to $500m (£276m) in emergency funding, in addition to $445m already pledged by the US congress for peacekeeping and aid.
"We're not trying to rebuild Paris or London here. It's about lifting sunken ships from the harbour, starting the electrical grid, healthcare and education, things that really need doing," Mr Klein said.
The former president, Charles Taylor, remains in exile in Nigeria where he fled last August. Fears he would try to destabilise the country by phone from his air-conditioned villa have eased. The US has placed a $2m bounty on his head, and war crimes investigators from Sierra Leone are pursuing his extradition. Instead, tensions within Lurd are the main source of worry.
Sekou Conneh, one of the rebels claiming to lead the movement, has threatened to block demobilisation unless his cronies get extra jobs in the transitional government, chaired by the businessman Gyude Bryant. This week the rebel leader called for Mr Bryant's resignation. But most of his foot soldiers say they are tired of the politicking.
"What Sekou Conneh says about jobs does not concern us," General Boima Sambola said in Bo Waterside. "We just want peace."
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 5 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia
HSBC review into moving headquarters from UK 'underway'
£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...
£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...
£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...
£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...