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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."