Amid laughter and smiles, Liberia's child soldiers bid farewell to arms

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine