Life | Returning Dreams

What happens to the millions of children caught up in the world’s conflicts? Some are forced to fight and kill, others are used as slaves and ‘wives’. Those that survive are left brutalised and traumatised. How do you rehabilitate children who have gone through these kinds of experiences? To mark the 15th anniversary of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child, Life returns to Sierra Leone and Liberia, to assess the fate of children caught up in the recent civil war. Life goes to the refugee camps, the diamond mines and the border villages and towns to find out what is happening to these children and what the future now holds for them.

To mark the 15th anniversary of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child, Life returns to Sierra Leone and Liberia, to assess the fate of children caught up in the recent Liberian civil war.

West African stateIn this West African state, founded by freed American slaves 157 years ago, a whole generation of children – not just those directly involved in the conflict – face an uncertain and difficult future. Many had not even been born when the fighting began in 1989. Some were on the front line, some in support roles, some were simply used for sex.

Jemoh, who fled from Liberia when she was eleven, has been living in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone for the last three years. Separated from her mother, she looks after her father, her brother and sister. Jemoh is about to join one of the first and biggest UNHCR convoys to return to Liberia for three years. “I am happy to go – to see my mother and grandmother and all of them,” she says.

Liberia instability began during the 1980s as arbitrary rule and economic collapse led to civil war. Dissidents led by Charles Taylor overran much of the country and executed the president, Samuel Doe. But the rebel forces split and were soon fighting each other. The whole region was under threat. A peace treaty was signed in 2003, but the people – especially the children – are still picking up the pieces.

Jemoh recalls: “At that time Taylor was holding small boys. Forcing people to join so that they would fight the war, his war. Some of them were under the age of twelve, boys and children. All fighting. Those boys did things they were not supposed to do. They were forced to do it.”

And one of those boys was Moses (not his real name). He’s lucky to be alive. He tells how he managed to escape: “As soon as the car came to the corner on the hill, they threw grenades at the car. But before they threw them in I saw them and jumped. I got on the ground and as soon as I got in ground the grenade fell in the car. Nobody else managed to jump out. All the people left in the car were blown up. Everybody died. Some of my friends died.”

He introduces us to the rebel commanders who have looked after him – Watanga and Scorpion. Scorpion explains: “There was an orphan crisis during this war and there so many of them and me, I became like a father figure. They loved me and I loved them so they started to hang out with me. I was a commander and they were very small and they decided to follow me on the front line. And that’s how I got to know him.”

rebel commandersAnd another rebel commander describes the situation: “These are children born in the war. He’s not yet fourteen years but he was born in the war. These children, this man lose his parents. Who can we take this man to? We are the commander responsible for them. At the end of the day he also come to my house to find food to eat. I cannot eat rice and leave him out. That is the situation on the ground here.”

The children of Liberia face a difficult future. Moses’s friend Peter says they have all missed out on their education: “There was nobody here to teach because everyone was running away. And I want to learn, I want to learn. I want to be someone in the future to help my family, that’s what I want to go to school for.”

After missing out on over a decade of education, getting all the children back into the classroom is critical to re-building Liberia. As well as schools, there are also centres where children who have been demobilised can learn practical skills. It was even worse for girls, as this girl explains: “They come and get us and force us to be their woman’¦ When we disarmed there was no job. At least I’m learning sewing and people will then pay me to earn a living. My life is different now. I enjoy my life because there’s nobody forcing me to do anything.”

Kardi Julia Juma of Christian Aid says that some girls have suffered terribly: “The whole issue of stigmatisation, of being known to being with the rebels or being gang-raped is not something healthy your family would want to hear. So sometimes you have situations where families even disown their children and it’s been very difficult to have programmes to counsel these families to accept these children back and some of them have ended up as prostitutes still in the streets.”

One girl tells how she was forced to kill a man against her will: “They even used my twin sister. She was bleeding for three days and then she died. Every day they used me, when they used me they gave me weapons. They say you can have all these weapons and any enemy come along you can kill them. So one day they caught this old man and they tell me to kill the old man. I refused – I say this man like my father, so I can’t do it. If you don’t, they say, they will kill me. Because I want to save my life I shoot him, I shoot him. I even kill him.”

When Jemoh gets back to her village she finds her house burnt down and her mother not there. “I came to look for her but she’s not here. I don’t know where she is. My grandma’s also not here. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

For more than a decade Liberia has had no effective leadership. The country’s interim government is aware the world is watching and admits it must do more for the people in the future. Liberian Minister Vabah K. Gayflor says: “It’s about time we delivered the goods, we owe the Liberian people that. And they are looking at us, they are holding us accountable.”

But it is in the interest of the international community to meet their responsibilities too. UN Special Envoy Jacques Klein puts it bluntly: “We need to fix Africa. Africa needs jobs. It needs stability, Africans need a future. If we don’t do that here in Africa they are going to come to Europe. Please understand this – because they will not starve here; they will fill a freighter full of people, they will sail through the Mediterranean… the French police will say you are all under arrest’¦ They will say we don’t care, at least you will feed us, you will give us a modicum of medical care. We are not going to die.”


Read about the Liberia work of Save the Children UK, who collaborated in the making of this programme.

Christian Aid, who also contributed to the making of this programme, has worked in Sierra Leone since the 1980s – before, during and after the decade-long war that officially ended in 2002.

Visit the webpage of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the OCHA Office in Liberia. Read about Liberia in OCHA’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN).

For further information on the UN’s humanitarian work in Liberia, visit UNMIL’s website, with news, photos and Lens on Liberia (illustrated newssheet). There’s more information on the website of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone.

For details of Jacques Klein, click here. Read Jacques Klein’s speech in July on the 157th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Liberia.

The Unicef website contains excellent information and a map on the Liberian post-conflict situation, and more pages of news and analysis. See also Unicef’s pages on displaced children and child soldiers, and download their factsheet on child soldiers.

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers works to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, to secure their demobilisation and to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Read their latest Child Soldiers Global Report 2004.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has a page of news on developments in Liberia.

Read the Christian Children’s Fund page on Liberia.

There’s more information on Liberia on the International Red Cross website. The ICRC also has pages on children in warand women and war.

The Norwegian Refugee Council operates a Global Internally Displaced People (IDP) database. Click here for information on Liberia.

For general information and news on Liberia, visit Liberia Life, and read the BBC’s Liberia country profile.

An earlier programme in this series, Between War and Peace, also dealt with the post-conflict situation in Liberia.


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