Liberia’s lost generation comes of age

2014-06-19 00:00

ABDUL Sesay used to carry an AK-47 in jailed Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s notorious Demon Forces militia, which tortured, killed and raped its way through the country’s second civil war.

Now he sleeps rough, with no steady job and little chance of ever finding one, scraping together what money he can to buy the drugs that help him forget.

Sesay was one of thousands of children conscripted as fighters, ammunition carriers, cooks and sex slaves during two ruinous back-to-back civil wars that pulverised the west African state between 1989 and 2003 and killed 250 000 people. Brutalised by conflict, the youngsters were both victims and perpetrators of the most sickening abuses, but as adults they find themselves fighting a new battle, against poverty and drug addiction.

Sesay says he was 15 when Taylor’s men came for him as he was heading for school in the northern county of Nimba. “They abducted me on the street … and later gave me a weapon to start fighting,” he said. He was placed among the ranks of the feared paramilitary anti-terrorist unit, commonly known as the Demon Forces, led by Taylor’s son Chuckie.

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the brigade in 2006 of “torture, including various violent assaults, beating people to death, rape and burning civilians alive”, from about 1997 through 2002.

Sesay, now 33, denies killing anyone, saying his war involved supporting roles behind the front line, but he admits regular drug abuse.

“It used to make me brave to keep carrying my weapon,” he said.

Now Sesay gets his money where he can, doing odd jobs and operating as a “car loader”, one of a legion of young men in central Monrovia who yell out destinations and load bags into the back of taxis. Like many former child soldiers, Sesay feels abandoned by a government he says left him with nothing after he handed in his weapon as part of a demobilisation process that disarmed 103 000 rebels and government militia in 2004.

In the years since the conflict ended, sympathy has been in short supply for ex-child soldiers, many of whom committed the most depraved abuses, and thousands of young people remain traumatised and jobless.

Two charities, Plan and Family Health International, interviewed 98 former child soldiers for a 2009 study which found that 90% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 65% had a major depressive disorder.

Three in five of the girls had suffered sexual violence and a fifth of the girls and boys had attempted suicide.

“The children formerly involved with the fighting forces are more aggressive and more severely affected ... We noticed that they are often blamed and stigmatised by other community members, which makes them become hostile and fight and abuse drugs,” the study said.

One young man described seeing his mother skinned alive when he was 15, while many of the girls described being taken as “bush wives” by rebels when they were as young as nine.

The Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme (DDRR) offered $300 (R3 251,86) and training schemes to child soldiers in exchange for weapons.

But those who could not hand in a gun or ammunition were excluded, so children who had been recruited for domestic or sexual services received no help.

Michael Wilson, a social worker for Don Bosco Homes, a Catholic group which worked with child soldiers in Liberia, says many are now suffering severe trauma which manifests itself in aggression and sometimes drug-fuelled delusion. “If you take a walk around the streets of Monrovia you will see one or two of them still portraying armed conflict, with died hair and a stick, running around,” he said.

Both the government and the main rebel groups denied the existence of child soldiers but various estimates put the total number between 15 000 and 38 000.

Augustine Tregbee fled to neighbouring Sierra Leone aged 15, as anti-Taylor guerillas pounded the coastal town of Robertsport with heavy artillery. When he returned, rebels had overrun the town, moved into local homes, taken villagers as their “wives” and made children carry equipment and weapons.

“I came back and found that my grandfather had been killed. There were no civilians here —  the town was occupied by fighters,” he said.

He was given a PKM machine gun, trained in guerrilla warfare and told he would be executed if he tried to escape. “I saw lots of friends die in battle during an attack on Charles Taylor’s soldiers but I was saved by God,” he said.

Now 29, Tregbee is reticent to talk about how many combatants he killed but recalls vividly the 2003 siege of Monrovia, which resulted in the deaths of some 1 000 civilians in heavy shelling. “I did not look people in the face to kill them while I was fighting. If I killed people, maybe it was through stray bullets. We did not target civilians in our unit,” Tregbee said.

Back in Robertsport he is now a fisherman whose dream of buying a boat looks unlikely to be realised with earnings of as little as $15 (R162) a month. Tregbee, with his wife and two children, rent one squalid room in a building with no windows, running water or electricity.

He says he looks to the future with optimism despite having no money, but his dark past is not far away. “I still reflect on my days as a child fighter. Often I think about the moments of jogging with my friends, moving together,” he said.

 — Sapa-AFP.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.