At a glance: Liberia

Former child soldiers in Liberia now aim for sports glory

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Liberia/2005/Grossman
Fierce competition for the Day of the African Child boys football championship in Monrovia.

By Patrick Slavin

MONROVIA, 15 June 2005 – “Peace is very, very sweet,” said 13-year-old Stanley Varfley, captain of the winning boys’ football team at the youth sports tournament held to celebrate the Day of the African Child in Monrovia. “In five years, I’d love to see more development in Liberia, both in sport and in the government.”

Five boys’ football teams and five girls’ kickball teams representing several communities here in the Liberian capital played in the daylong tournament, competing for the inaugural UNICEF Day of the African Child Champions trophies. More than 1,000 spectators enjoyed the festivities, cheering on the teams.

“I’m so happy to play this game,” said Vera Wilfan, 13, captain of the winning girls’ kickball team, from Addo-Mills International School. “In the future, I want a scholarship for college.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Liberia/2005/Grossman
The girls’ kickball team champions from Addo-Mills International School.

Demobilization of child soldiers

One of the highlights of the tournament was a spirited exhibition football match between two youth teams from the capital’s slum area of Red Light, which earned the sobriquet because it has one of the first traffic lights rural Liberians see on their way to the capital. More than half of the Red Light players fought as child soldiers in Liberia’s 14-year civil war, which ended in 2003.

“It’s a fine day,” said Winston Flamo, 34, a social worker for the Foundation of International Dignity (FIND), which works with UNICEF to provide trauma counselling and support to former child soldiers here. “I admire these children. They have pride and they’re enjoying the day. Playing in games helps bring back their dignity and events like these show them that people care about them, and that they’re important to society.”

“I fought in government forces, SBU,” said Steven Jaryan, 19, referring to the so-called Small Boys Units, which were recruited by former President Charles Taylor. Jaryan is one of the 11,780 Liberian children associated with fighting forces that UNICEF helped demobilize after the war. All but 36 of these kids were reunited with their families or care givers.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Liberia/2005/Grossman
Many of the competitors in the sports tournament were former child soldiers.

UNICEF is working with its partners to provide thousands of these former combatants with a primary school education or vocational skills training. Steven Jaryan said he is doing very well now that he has left the armed forces. “I’m in the 9th grade at Amos T. Taybor Institute.”

Sports and life skills education

UNICEF Liberia Representative Angela Kearney said the sporting events in Monrovia had special significance, beyond allowing all participating children to fulfil their right to play.

“What’s really special is that children received HIV/AIDS education and prevention messages, both through talking points that we’ve prepared for the coaches and team presidents and through Day of the African Child public service announcements that UNICEF Liberia has produced with our NGO partner, Talking Drum.

“Liberian families across the country are caring for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and welcoming them into their families. We need to work with our partners in building effective community responses to the needs and rights of children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS,” Kearney said.

“During the Day of the African Child, it’s a time to call for more gentleness, love, and caring for kids in Liberia, and across the continent.”


 

 

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UNICEF and child soldiers

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