Fearless Liberian child soldier © CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES.

My work helping child soldiers return to their families
When it comes to human rights violations, few are as egregious as those committed against children
1 Jun 2023

The tragic case of Liberian child soldiers

When it comes to human rights violations witnessed by UN staff members, few are as blatant as those committed against children. The Liberian Civil War, which began in 1989, was a particularly horrific example of this, as children were exposed to violence, hunger, and hopelessness, and were robbed of their childhood. Separated from their families, many became easy prey for the various armed factions who either forcibly conscripted them or encouraged them to join voluntarily. Once recruited, they were used for various tasks, including killing, and they obeyed without question or hesitation, as children do.

During my almost five years working for UNICEF in Liberia, I witnessed incomprehensible violations of children’s basic human rights. Traveling within the relative security of a UN convoy, we often encountered checkpoints manned by threatening rebels, with at least one or two child soldiers present, armed with guns bigger and heavier than they were. When West African troops from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) battled Liberian rebels, they captured these children, but had no detention facilities for them. As a result, they turned them over to the Red Cross, which had no detention facilities either. To address this critical issue, the Red Cross signed an agreement with UNICEF, which provided a secure rehabilitation center, a team of caregivers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, and supplies.

The distressing and harsh reality

The reality was far worse than our apprehensions when the first group of child soldiers arrived at the UNICEF rehabilitation center, accompanied by ECOMOG troops. The youngest was eight years old and a self-declared killer, and the oldest was fifteen. In the months that followed, counselors and psychologists heard harrowing stories of life in fear and terror, including atrocities, abuse, torture, and rape. Some children were forced to ingest gunpowder, which they were told would make them invincible. Others were forced to kill and maim.

One particularly poignant memory I have is of a young boy who kept stripping naked and throwing the clothes we gave him into the well. He did not speak. Finally, after three months of care, there was a breakthrough. I came one day to the center and was told to stand by one of the classrooms. He was there. Singing. Two weeks later, he began to talk.

By 1994, less than 100 children were brought by ECOMOG to the center, but the total number of child soldiers in Liberia who were under fifteen was estimated by UNICEF to be at least 6,000, with the total number of those below 18 estimated at 20,000. It was almost a year before we were able to trace and reunify approximately half of the center’s children with their families. Not all families wanted their children back, though, and some of the children had no families to return to and had to remain in care centers run by local NGOs, some of which operated until at least 2000. Unfortunately, many of these vulnerable children returned to fighting with the armed groups once released from the centers.

“Some justice being done” provides a small consolation

While there are several international legal instruments intended to safeguard children, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Children, the Geneva Conventions and its 1977 additional protocols, which provide for the special protection and treatment of children in armed conflicts and forbids the use of child soldiers, very few Liberian war criminals have been brought to justice for their crimes. However, in June 2021, Alieu Kosiah was found guilty by the Federal Criminal Court in Switzerland of violating the laws of war, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although he appealed in January 2023, the knowledge that at least one of those who committed devastating atrocities against children in Liberia finally pays the price is some small consolation. 

* Esther Guluma is a Former UNICEF Regional Director and Member of GREYCELLS.
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