Liberia's boy soldiers plan a final orgy of looting

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Built like a brick house and smoking marijuana like a train, Colonel Mohammed Jabbie sank back into his chair beside a checkpoint. He had killed many times, he boasted with a watery smile, pointing to the machine-gun by his feet.

"They call me Marabugu," he said, pulling hard on a spliff, "It means 'the death squad commander who always implements orders'." Outside, the river Po flowed lazily under a bridge, 12 miles north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

If the rebels returned, the muscular militiaman said, he was ready to fight. But with his leader Charles Taylor, fondly referred to as "Pappy", apparently preparing to flee, he had other ideas. "You think my only focus is the gun. But now we gotta do something. We gotta lift ourselves up for tomorrow."

He was thinking of the younger generation, he said. On the wall beside him, a nine-year-old boy, the commander of the "Small Boys' Unit", gripped an AK-47 rifle and swung his legs lazily. Under Charles Taylor, violence has become a way of life for Liberian teenagers. But as his grip on power weakens, they are growing restless, demoralised and, perhaps, slipping out of control.

Mr Taylor is a pioneer in the dark trade of child soldiering. He has practically institutionalised it in Liberia. When he started his rebellion in 1990, he used armed boys and girls to oust the government. When he came to power, he used them to defend it.

They make for powerful, unquestioning fighters. Bolstered by drugs and alcohol, they use women's wigs, clothes and enemy bones to give them "supernatural" powers. Those who perish are easily replaced. Now that Liberia's warlord-cum-President is apparently on the verge of leaving, fears are rising about what will become of his ill-disciplined, unpaid and drug-addict teenage fighters.

The US is considering sending peace-keeping troops to support a 3,000-strong West African force. Mr Taylor has promised to leave if they deploy. But his fighters, some not paid for months, have hinted at a final spree of looting as a form of severance pay. They call it Operation Pay Yourself.

"If those troops come and treat us bad then we go back to the bush. Then we will do some more killing," a gunman from the "Jungle Lions" militia said. However, others said they yearned to return to school.

"Firing a gun is not what I want to do any more," said Rufus Kollie, a 21-year-old who admitted he could write only his name. "We want things to quieten down so I can learn."

President George Bush's decision on deployment is expected today after a meeting with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, in New York. Mr Bush may not see any great strategic value in sending soldiers to Liberia when he is stretched elsewhere.

Butif nothing is done to stop Liberia's war "consuming" its neighbours, the International Crisis Group says, "there will be further large-scale violence along much of the West African coastline." Across one border, in Sierra Leone, Mr Taylor helped start the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Across two others, in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, he also supported insurgencies.

And to circumvent United Nations sanctions he welcomed unscrupulous characters to Liberia.

Those dealings are now coming home to roost. Guinea is supporting the main rebels, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), which last month nearly stormed Monrovia.

Côte d'Ivoire is backing a smaller group to the east. Between them they control 60 per cent of Liberia. Both appear to have a sole objective of toppling Mr Taylor; neither is afraid to kill or maim civilians who gets in the way.

The next few days are expected to be crucial. The Lurd has threatened a fresh offensive if America refuses to send troops. And it is not clear what Mr Taylor's demoralised young soldiers will do.

Comments