Independent Appeal: Life after conflict for the girl soldiers of Ivory Coast

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The Independent Online

Sandrine remembers vividly events on the day Ivory Coast's civil war came to her village. "I was at school when the soldiers arrived so I ran home to be with my grandfather. But when I got there they were rounding up the young boys," she recalls with a sad smile.

Stories of boy soldiers in Africa have become commonplace. But this is a different story. It is of Africa's hidden girl soldiers and how, when the war is over and they attempt to return to their homes, they are rejected, whereas boys are often taken back into the bosom of the family.

Like thousands of other children, Sandrine was press-ganged into service by the warring factions in what used to be west Africa's most prosperous country. Routinely threatened with death if they refused to comply, the girls cooked, washed, spied or ran errands for the military. Some were taken as "wives" by soldiers and raped.

But others were fully exposed to the brutality of modern conflict. Sandrine was among them. Captured and taken to the regional capital of Man, once a popular stop on the west African backpacking circuit and now the rebels' post-conflict stronghold, Sandrine was given a weapon. She does not know what kind but she uses her child's hands to indicate something the size of an AK-47. "They told me I must kill people," she adds.

She knew what the alternative was. When the rebels swooped upon her village everyone had scattered. "My grandfather tried to run away but they shot him in the foot. When he started screaming in pain they shot him in the head and he died," she adds.

Sandrine and five other children were ordered aboard a lorry alongside "regular" soldiers. When they arrived at their destination they found the rebels had rounded up 30 people, mainly mothers and their young children. They made the girls get out of the lorry and ordered them to open fire on their captives. Within a few minutes all the villagers were dead. Sandrine was eight years old.

She tells her story, now aged 13, from the safety of a project funded by Save the Children one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. It focuses on young people formerly associated with the military forces. Here in Danan, a town inside Ivory Coast's buffer zone between the government-held south and the rebel-controlled north, the people saw some of the worst fighting of the war and atrocities were common.

First the rebel group Mpigo "liberated" the area from the government in 2003. Three months later it was the turn of the sadistically murderous militia Lima from neighbouring Liberia fighting alongside government forces to capture the territory and wreak its unique brand of havoc. While the country has technically been at peace since 2005 and is now edging towards a settlement, for girls like Sandrine the politicians' jargon-loaded talk of DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) does little to erase their memories or provide a future.

On previous form they have little chance of official help. In nearby Sierra Leone, only 4 per cent of girl soldiers took part in the mainstream reintegration process. Official programmes are laid on for boys, but girls are rarely included. When it comes to reunification with their family, boys are often taken back with rejoicing. But girls are perceived to have done something more "unnatural" and are often rejected or ostracised.

In the shady compound at Danan, the girls are playing football with skilful abandon. They chose the name for this project Kahiga or "just look at us now" in the local Yacouba language.

For these children are seeking to transform their lives. Before the war, they were typically among the most vulnerable members of Ivorian society. In the conflict they were traded as possessions for sex or services. Peace has also rendered them invisible and unwanted. Their communities are often too ashamed of them, angry, or simply frightened to welcome them back for fear the rebels will come looking for them.

Their stories are heartbreaking. Anne-Marie, now 15, recounts her ordeal from the project's classroom. "The soldiers wanted to kill me but my brother begged them not to do it. He said, 'kill me instead of my little sister'. But they said they wanted a girl. They beat him and took me away." Her uncle, who was fighting for the rebels, told her that her mother had died. "When I heard I felt so sad but one of the soldiers put a gun in mouth and threatened to shoot me if I started crying."

She was raped by a guard in the compound and forced to spend two and a half years with him. Anne-Marie still sees him from time to time but hides in case he spots her. "I feel embarrassed because he was so old and so fat. He frightened me. I was disgusted by him."

Ramata came from an unhappy home. "My mother did not love me. When I went to see my father he told me to go back to my mother. He used to say, 'you are old enough to take care of yourself what do you want from me?' He just wanted me to get married so I was someone else's problem." She ended up "married" to a member of the rebel forces who used to beat her with a bottle and forced her to join him in battle after spraying bullets between her feet.

"We went with them to a village and they gave us a uniform and arms and a special belt that they said would stop the bullets hurting us. The commander said he would call us when he needed more ammunition. But the loyalist soldiers spotted us carrying weapons and they chased after us and shot at us," she recalls.

She was captured by troops loyal to the government of the current President Laurent Gbagbo, who demanded sex and threatened to kill her if she refused.

She and a friend were tied up and left without food for four days. They eventually escaped by cutting themselves free and walking though the bush day and night, too frightened to stop, before they once again found themselves back in the hands of the rebels.

Dealing with girls who have lived through experiences as harrowing as these takes time and patience. In Ivory Coast, psychiatric and counselling services are virtually non-existent as both sides wait for the process of disarmament to begin today, kick-starting the full peace process again and hopefully paving the way for elections next year.

But for the girls, it is only the support of each other and the determination of staff at the project that helps them look forward to a new life.

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* The Independent Christmas Appeal has so far raised 127,975 for our three charities: Save the Children, the International Children's Trust and The Gorillas Organization. Last year's appeal raised a total of 329,812. Please continue to give generously.