June 2, 2007 / 11:46 AM / 12 years ago

War was classroom for Sierra Leone child soldiers

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Abu is not sure exactly how old he was the first time he killed.

He thinks he was 13, but was high on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol at the time and — like many Sierra Leoneans — does not know his exact date of birth.

Kidnapped with around 30 young boys in early 1991 from his home in the village of Kuiva, eastern Sierra Leone, Abu was one of hundreds of children forced to fight with rebels backed by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.

Taylor, who went on to become president of Liberia, stands trial in The Hague on Monday, facing 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for helping to launch and foment Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.

Known as “Pappy” to a generation of child soldiers, he is accused of training, financing and arming the rebels who carried out the initial attacks that began the diamond-fuelled conflict.

“People were fleeing from the fighting. They raided the place, they took all the young men. I was about 13,” Abu told Reuters in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, asking for his family name not to be published.

“First of all they made us carry loads, things that were stolen when they raided. If you did not do it they would kill you. That was the first killing I saw. That made me silent and made me obey orders,” he said.

The boys were taken back over the border to the rebel base in Vaihun, Liberia, where they were locked in cells by night and taught to cock and fire AK-47s by day.

They had a week of shooting practice, during which two or three of them were killed by colleagues too small to control their weapons. Then they returned to Sierra Leone to fight.

“You could not cook in the jungle or smoke or the enemy would see you. If you broke that rule they would execute you immediately, right there,” Abu said.

Given marijuana and rum to overcome their fear, those who proved poor fighters were used as bait, running into villages unarmed so government troops would open fire on them as the rebels slipped in behind, firing at random.

“You didn’t know who the bullets would catch. But I never took someone aside to shoot them,” Abu said.

“At that stage we did not know the rebels’ name. But later on they started writing RUF all over the houses.”

WARRIOR LIFESTYLE

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels became notorious during Sierra Leone’s ensuing decade of war for hacking the limbs off their victims; sometimes ‘long-sleeve’, at the wrist, sometimes ‘short-sleeve’, at the elbow.

After six months fighting with the RUF, Abu was injured and arrested during an attack on a battalion of government troops. He was locked up for a few weeks, then used as a skivvy, washing uniforms and polishing boots.

With his mother, father, brothers and sisters stranded behind the rebel line, Abu volunteered to fight against the RUF alongside the Sierra Leonean army. He was later handed over to the United Nations and briefly went to school.

But, sat in a classroom, he missed the fighter’s life.

“We used to be free, go to the clubs, get money, get women,” he said. “Sometimes if you went to the front line, if you were lucky, you loot tapes, any items that are valuable, so you can sell them and buy palm wine, nice clothes.”

When he was old enough to serve, he officially joined the armed forces in 1995, was trained by South Africa’s Executive Outcomes security company and later fought alongside British troops sent to help bring an end to Sierra Leone’s war.

He was among the luckier of a generation of children drawn into a war they blame Charles Taylor for bringing to Sierra Leone.

Some of the former “West Side Boys”, a breakaway group of fighters who won fame for briefly kidnapping British soldiers in the final stages of the conflict, spend their days sitting on the edge of the road in Freetown begging for money.

Others earn cash at Bottommango junction — “under the mango tree” in the local dialect — selling fuel bought from night watchmen who siphon it off from the power generators used by Freetown’s businesses and wealthy residents.

Perhaps the luckiest are those who have been able to convert fully to civilian life, like Ahmad Kosia, 28, who runs a carpentry business using skills learned during an aid agency reintegration program.

“I was a major in the jungle. I gave the commands but now people are commanding me,” he said with a chuckle.

Like Abu, he will be listening to the radio from Monday as Taylor stands trial.

“He was the commanding officer of the wars in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor was the foundation of this whole thing,” he said, polishing the wood on a newly-made bed.

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