It is a wonderful opportunity for me to here with you tonight. I am delighted by the efforts of institutions such as Skidmore College and the World Awareness Children’s Museum for granting you this privilege to participate in constructive conversations about the militarization of boys, a situation affecting thousands of your peers around the world, some of whom are child soldiers in rag-tag militias and vigilante forces. According to Child Soldiers International, tens of thousands of children under the age of eighteen continue to serve in government forces and armed groups around the world. We see them today on the frontlines of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Mali, Chad, Somalia, the trenches of the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc.
You have all read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, a book that details the life of the author as a child soldier during the Sierra Leonean civil war. In the 1990s, that was the tragic fate of thousands of children growing up in Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the beginning of the millennium, Sierra Leone had become synonymous with blood diamonds and child soldiers, children who had killed hundreds people even before they could spell their names, if ever they could. These infant soldiers uncontrollably terrorized a region previously appraised for its peacefulness. It was a decade of violence that left indelible scars on both Liberia and Sierra Leone! I grew up in that madness and as a child I was arrested by rebels in Liberia and sent to jail in a war I wasn’t even old enough to comprehend. It was the first time I came face to face with death, torture, and other forms of extreme violence.
The horrifying memoir of Ishmael Beah may have given you the feeling that nothing could be worse. However, Beah was lucky in a sense, because he was a child soldier on the side of the national army, albeit it a mutinous and disreputable one. There were hardly any distinctions between the military and the rebels they were fighting. All factions in the Sierra Leonean conflict committed horrendous crimes and equally recruited children. However, there was still a desire in the military to garner international support by allowing UNICEF to rescue and demobilize some of their child soldiers. The rebels had no such scruples and children in their camp fought till death or until the end of a decade-long nasty civil war.
So, then, we ask ourselves the same question the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission was mandated to explore: How did a peace-loving country descend into a decade-long violent civil war? The answers to this question are not unique to Sierra Leone; they are issues that affected the entire region in West Africa known as the Mano River Union: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. Many of you will soon turn eighteen, if you already are not. Those of you who are turning eighteen will obtain the right to universal suffrage—a right to vote. A community of people in a democracy elects their government to do, as Abraham Lincoln framed it, “whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” At the end of the 1980s, the governments of the Mano River Union, especially Liberia and Sierra Leone, failed in their responsibilities to fulfill their share of these social contracts with the people.
Consequently, the economies in both Liberia and Sierra Leone crumbled. The people could no longer afford basic necessities of life such as food, shelter, health services, and education for their children. The governments could not pay their workers, and as a result, schools, hospitals and essential government departments closed. Those who protested the status quo were brutalized by state security forces. These governments were also marred by extreme corruption and theft of state resources. Charles Taylor, who would eventually become leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels, escaped from prison in Massachusetts where he had been imprisoned for embezzling millions through the Government Procurement office of Liberia. In Sierra Leone, President Stevens sanctioned corruption by popularizing the krio phrase, usai you tie goat nar dae e dae eat—a goat grazes in its surrounding. This basically meant government officials had presidential authorization to steal from their departments with impunity.
In terms of ethnic components, both Sierra Leone and Liberia have seventeen ethic groups each. Rather unfortunately, the politics of these countries are still organized by tribal affiliations. In Sierra Leone, the All People’s Congress (APC) political party is viewed as the party of the Temne people, and the Sierra Leone People’s Party is populated by Mende people. In Liberia, Americo-Liberians—descendants of free slaves from the United States who settled there in 1822, dominated the politics of that country until they were overthrown in 1985 through a military coup led by Sergeant Samuel Doe. Sergeant Doe presided over the collapse of the country until 1989 when Charles Taylor launched his rebellion, using children as young as seven as his warriors.
In Sierra Leone, President Stevens introduced a single political party system, eliminating the competitive politics that is a foundation of democracy. The lack of opposition created a system of nepotism in which the government rewarded only party loyalists with employment and leadership positions. Instead of leadership by merit, incompetent friends of the party were put in charge of running the country, which ultimately produced state failure. As the country crumbled, ordinary citizens starved, and people died from curable diseases such as malaria, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, etc. A new president, Major Joseph Momoh, came to office in 1985 through a bogus election in which he was the sole candidate. Even when he presided over a civilian government, Momoh was a military man who thought his mandate was to run the country like boot camp rather than adhere to the constitution.
When the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by a former Sierra Leone Army Corporal, Foday Sankoh, launched a rebellion against the government on March 23, 1991, many construed it as a war over diamonds. However, diamonds were not yet a factor in the war. The initial intent was purely political, to overthrow the Government of Major Momoh. While the RUF was struggling to reach Freetown, the military overthrew Momoh in 1992 and Valentine Strasser, a twenty five year old military officer, became head of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) and Head of State. The military junta invited a South African mercenary force, Executive Outcomes, to help execute the war. This is when diamonds became a vital component, a fuel to the conflict.
The NPRC could not afford to pay Executive Outcomes in cash, so they offered a fifteen thousand dollar worth of diamond concession for commandos—a bunch of desperados. The NPRC basically told the mercenaries, if you help us win the war you can mine as much diamonds. At this point, the RUF was also on the run because of lack of arms and ammunition. Charles Taylor, too, told the RUF that they could receive endless supply of weapons if they agreed to barter Sierra Leonean gems for guns. And so it happened that diamonds became a greater factor in the Sierra Leonean civil war. External organizations such as al-Qaeda, Taliban and other foreign entities and governments supplied weapons for us to slaughter each other while they looted our mineral resources. Sierra Leonean diamonds would later be classified as blood diamonds because of the amount of innocent people killed to acquire them.
When the war intensified, Sankoh issued a memorandum instructing his commanders to conscript any child who was old enough to carry a riffle. In 1994, the RUF wrote in its manifesto that it had “trained a large number of men and women including the elderly, youth, children and the disabled from all corners of Sierra Leone and given them arms...” The initial invasion of Sierra Leone had been led by child soldiers on loan from Charles Taylor’s notorious Small Boys Unit (SBU), a unit of child combatants. All sides in the Sierra Leonean conflict realized that they could easily corrupt the minds of children to fight their wretched wars. Most of the conscripted children had already been damaged by their own victimization at the hands of rebels or government soldiers. They had witnessed the slaughter of their families and the rape of their sisters. Their victimization was often exploited to induce them to even nastier violence against other civilians. As Beah put it, commanders constantly told them to visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed their parents, and those responsible for everything that happened to them. This is all the indoctrination children needed to become perpetrators of some of the most shocking crimes in Sierra Leone.
But it wasn’t always so easy. Soon the innocence of childhood kicked in and the children became terrified of fighting on the frontline. The commanders figured a certain amount of drugs could help the children overcome their fears of the dreadful activities they were forced to carryout. This is when brown-brown, a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder, a unique brand of drug was introduced in the Sierra Leonean conflict, in addition to other commonly available drugs. As Beah wrote, a “combination of these drugs gave us a lot of energy and made us fierce. The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all and killing had become as easy as drinking water.” Killing had become as easy as drinking water! This is what became of thousands of Sierra Leonean children between 1991 and 2002 when the conflict ended. The motto of these child soldiers was: brave, strong, and intelligent. They were given orders such as “duty before complaint;” i.e., when told to kill, they killed before asking why, if ever they asked. Child Soldiers with morbid names such as, Cut hand, Rambo, Skull breaker, Raw killer, CO rapist, Commander blood, etc., raided villages and towns to conduct operations with equally macabre codenames such as, Rape All Women, Burn House, Take No Prisoner, and No Living Thing, which meant they killed everything from humans to goats, cats and dogs. This was the lunacy of the Sierra Leonean civil war—a revolt of all against all in the struggle for nothing.
At the end of the Sierra Leonean civil war in 2002, the entire country was devastated; 500,000 people displaced, more than 50, 000 dead, and approximately 27, 000 people were amputated. It has been estimated that 35, 000 children were used as combatants throughout the conflict. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) disarmed 75, 490 combatants; among them were 8, 645 children, including 506 girls and 4, 651 women. Almost all of the children had spent their entire lives as combatants and never saw the inside of a classroom. Again, Beah was one of the lucky ones who received some therapy. Many former child soldiers in Sierra Leone never received any form of rehabilitation. They have endured life as embodiments of both victims and perpetrators, living with the full horrors of their past.
The government induced the rebels to disarm by offering them some cash or skill training for their weapons, but their victims received nothing. The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established at the end of the war with a mandate to provide a complete historical record of the conflict recommended reparation for certain categories of survivors, including rape victims, child soldiers, and certain war wounded. These victims have never received the full measure of reparation recommended by the commission. This is why we launched the Sierra Leone Memory Project in 2011 to highlight the plight of survivors and to continue the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We have collected hours of audio/video testimonies. Our aim is to make these testimonies available to Sierra Leoneans and other interested parties. We have heard the tragic stories of many survivors of the conflict and we are working on a platform to cater to some of their needs. The Memory Project together with the Jeneba Project is thinking of establishing a scholarship fund to assist some of the war victims educate their children, which was a common desire among those interviewed. The Jeneba Project is also fundraising to complete the construction of a high school that will provide free education to both boys and girls. We are a small organization that relies on the efforts of students in high schools and colleges across America.
Finally, I began this discussion by expressing my delight in speaking to you as next generation leaders and trustees of the future of your country. In the face of unending human tragedies, you are not as powerless as you may have thought. You are about to become voting citizens endowed with all the benefits and responsibilities of democratic citizenship in one of the most privileged nations on earth. The social imbalances of the world now require you to scream for those who cannot at the moment speak for themselves. Your country carries considerable weight in the world and what choices you make here will produce significant ripple in the world. I implore you to become responsible citizens who exercise their rights in balance with their duties to others, both locally and globally.
Some light years ago, a friend of mine at Skidmore complained that she felt inadequate just donating a bunch of clothes to a project I was running to collect clothing for Sierra Leonean and Liberian children. She wished she could do more. I responded that I bet she would have felt differently if she had seen my celebratory moves, when I was a refugee in Guinea, every time I received hand-me-downs from the Red Cross or Catholic Relief Service. My point is that we should leave it to those in need to determine the real value of our acts of kindness, no matter how small. By so doing, perhaps like the man who kept throwing an endless body of starfish brought to shore back into the sea, one at a time, we could give someone another shot at life.
In final analysis, then, the militarization of children remains a global phenomenon and we must continue to do everything in our power to ensure that children are never used in any capacity in furtherance of war or acts of violence. When I was a student letter writing coordinator for Amnesty International at the Red Cross Nordic United World College in Norway, writing letters on behalf prisoners of conscience around the world, I used to sometimes wonder whether anyone ever wrote on my behalf when I was a child prisoner in Liberia. I urge you to return to your campuses as leaders and voices for the voiceless. But remember, the road on the advocacy for social change will be rugged and the task will sometimes be difficult, but you will be in this together!
I thank you for your attention.
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Tags: "joseph kaifala" "sierra leone" "child soldiers" "sierra leone memory project" "jeneba project"
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