Boy soldiers get lesson in peace

David Orr sees the effect on children forced to fight in Sierra Leone's civil war
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Freetown - The physical scars which 12-year-old Safia Kumba carries after his ordeal as a child soldier with the Sierra Leone army are plain to see: multiple marks on his head and deep welts on his shoulder from machete wounds inflicted by the rebels who left him for dead in the bush. What mental damage he might have incurred is harder to detect but psychiatrists at the Benin home for demobilised child soldiers in the capital, Freetown, are pleased with his progress. He still has nightmares, but after three months at the centre he is mixing well with the 156 other young residents.

"I'm learning to read and write here", said Safia. "Soon I'll go to live with my relatives. When I grow up I would like to be a tailor. I cannot use my arm properly but I think that job does not need too much strength."

Safia was nine when he joined the army. His father was killed when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels attacked and burned his village in the interior. Separated from his mother, whose whereabouts is unknown, Safia attached himself to an army unit which trained him to spy on rebel positions. He was captured by the rebels last year while on a mission.

There are thousands of child soldiers like Safia in Sierra Leone, which has been riven by civil war since 1991. The RUF and the government last month agreed to extend a ceasefire first signed in March but a peace accord has yet to be reached.

Unicef, the United Nations children's fund, estimates there are 2,500 child combatants in Sierra Leone, whose law proscribes enlistment of soldiers under the age of seventeen-and-a-half. Most child fighters are on the rebel side; only 370 of them have been officially demobilised by the army, though another few hundred left of their own accord. No more than a handful of children serving with the RUF have been freed. As many as 1,500 children, abducted by the rebels from their villages, are still living in the bush.

"The kids we've dealt with are all traumatised to various degrees", said Father Michael Hickey, Irish director of Children Associated with the War (CAW), which runs the Benin centre. "They've raped, killed and tortured. Most of them were given alcohol or drugs, mostly marijuana, but sometimes heroin. Often their food had gunpowder put in it to make them fearless. You can imagine the terrible effect such things have on the minds of children, some of them as young as eight or nine".

The children who are taken into care by CAW undergo a six-month psycho- social counselling course before they are resettled with their families. With orphans, of which there are many, efforts are made to locate their nearest relatives. In addition to the Benin centre in Freetown, CAW runs a project in Bo, in the interior. Having reunited 100 children with their families last week, the Bo centre will now take in another group.

In most cases, the children require little persuasion to leave the army. So far, CAW has only rehabilitated children from the government forces, some 500 to date. It hopes the ceasefire will bring the release of children held by the rebels.

"When we first see them they're hyperactive and have a very short attention span," said Tamba Matturi, a consultant psychiatrist with CAW. "They're unruly, they often wet their beds at night and they have nightmares. A lot of them have flashbacks to the time they were at the front and they show signs of extreme anxiety. These kids were forced to commit terrible atrocities, like beheading people and cutting off limbs, and suffer from guilt feelings. A few are severely depressed, though most like talking about what they have been through."

The RUF, launched with the backing of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, has relied heavily on child fighters in its campaign to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The unformed minds of young conscripts prove receptive to indoctrination in the most barbarous of guerrilla methods, particularly when fortified with drink and drugs.

"A lot of children have confessed to atrocities", said Cornelius Williams, of Unicef. "They have participated in attacks on villages where the inhabitants were butchered. We have also had reports of cannibalism and of children being forced to drink the blood of their victims."

The government is planning reception centres for child soldiers but the success of securing the release of those held by the RUF depends on the progress of the peace process. Crucially, the populace has to be persuaded to accept them back into the community: a number of child soldiers coming out of the bush have been victims of revenge attacks.