Boys in arms find peace a trial

Karl Maier in Bo, Sierra Leone, meets the child soldiers who are trying to rediscover life as civilians
Wood shavings fall to the ground at a makeshift workshop behind the Catholic Pastoral Centre as Foday Mustapha pushes a plane along a board in his daily struggle to build a new life.

Foday is 17. Shirtless and wearing cut-off shorts, he looks like a normal apprentice carpenter until he unveils the scars on his legs from the shrapnel wounds he suffered during his former life as a soldier on the front line of Sierra Leone's four-year civil war.

"One time we were at Mobai and were ordered to attack a rebel base near Baiima," he said, speaking of towns in the far eastern part of the country.

"We went there, and then the rebels counter-attacked. Most of us children were at the front, and many of us were killed. It was very bad."

Foday volunteered for the army at the age of 13 in August 1991, four months after the Revolutionary United Front rebels launched the civil war and forced his family to flee the eastern town of Pendembu.

"They killed my younger brother, my stepmother and my uncle," he says. "The rebels infiltrated the region, burnt people's houses, and I don't agree with that." He became one of an estimated 2,000 children fighting for Captain Valentine Strasser's military government. As many children fight with the rebels. It is a story repeated across Africa, from Liberia to Mozambique, where tens of thousands of youngsters have become child soldiers.

"They are ideal soldiers. They have no responsibilities and they obey orders," said Dr Edward Nahim, a psychiatrist and chairman of the board of Children Affected by War (CAW), a project started by Irish Catholic priests and financed by the EU to reintegrate child soldiers into society.

"On the government side, most of the children join voluntarily, to revenge the death of their relatives or simply because having a gun gives them prestige and they can be like Rambo. It's a game they enjoy."

The army is to blame, said Emmanuel Foyoh, a CAW field worker who monitors the children in the southern city of Bo. "They are used as hunting dogs, and whenever there is a battle, the older soldiers who have wives and children retreat to the back and leave the children at the front."

Drugs were a major part of Foday's life, as they are for most soldiers in Sierra Leone, government or rebel. "Our superiors put gunpowder in our food and gave us brown pills which they called cocaine to take with our drink," Foday recalled. "The drugs make your heart strong, make you feel that you are not afraid of anything."

Drug use in the army is now "out of control," Dr Nahim said. "It is usually a combination of marijuana, alcohol, and gunpowder. Over time the soldiers become delirious. They don't know what they are doing any more." The use of drugs may account for the soldiers' often barbaric behaviour, such as mutilations and the severing of heads, carried out by both the rebel government armies, Dr Nahim added.

When Foday and several hundred other child soldiers were demobilised in June 1993, they were difficult to handle.

"They were very aggressive, hyper-alert, often fighting, and they did not sleep properly for the first several months," said Fr Mick Hickey, who administers the CAW programme. "They would not take any orders unless from military officers. They had a disdain for civilian life."

Some like Foday made the transition. Others were unable to cope. "Many children have returned to the war because they cannot adjust to this type of civilian life," Mr Foyoh said. "Society is training these children to become bandits."

Sayo Kamara, who enlisted three years ago, at the age of 14, has made the break. He is now top of his class at the Bo commercial secondary school and recently went on the radio to urge children at the front to quit the army. He hopes to work one day for the United Nations.

"Most of my friends are deformed or have been killed," he said at his home behind the Bo military hospital. "One of my friends, Ibrahim Kaikai, came to the hospital last month because he had been shot in the foot. I told him about my new life, but he said he would never leave the army until the war is finished. All of his family has been displaced, and he has no place except the army."

That sense of place is what Mr Foyoh and his fellow field workers, Ignatius Samuels and Ismael Ibrahim, are attempting to create for the 18 former child soldiers in Bo, by enlisting the support of relatives and neighbours in development projects. Residents of one neighbourhood have donated a piece of land to start a rice-growing scheme. But they lack the estimated pounds 300 in start-up costs.

The future of the country may depend on their ability to obtain the funds for the rice project and others like it, Mr Samuels said.

"What is going to happen to these children after the war if they have nothing to do? There are few jobs, and all they know what to do is fight. We must bring them into society".