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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Voices
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
Extras
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?