At a glance: Liberia

Liberating Liberia’s war generation

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© UNICEF video
Sunny (right), 20, a former child combatant, greets friends in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

By Sarah Crowe

As a conference on children in armed conflict, co-sponsored by UNICEF and the French Government, gets under way in Paris, UNICEF’s Sarah Crowe reports on the status of former child combatants in Liberia.

MONROVIA, Liberia, 5 February 2007 – Brutal marks of war and neglect are stark in Liberia’s capital, but unseen is the damage to an entire generation.

Not just once but twice, Sunny fought in Liberia’s civil war. First when he was 12, drugged up and fooled into thinking war was fun, he fought for the rebels. Then when he was 17, he fought on the side of government forces.

With the help of a UNICEF-supported project run by the Sustainable Development Promoters in Ganta, near the border with Guinea, Sunny was enrolled in a programme where he learnt a variety of skills but specialized in agriculture. Today, instead of carrying weapons and being ordered around by self-declared ‘generals’, Sunny is planting seeds and hoeing the land.

But his scars and his memories of being exploited will always be with him.

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© UNICEF video
Now learning to be a farmer, Sunny is one of almost 12,000 children who fought during Liberia’s civil war and have since been demobilized.

Living with nightmares

Sunny is one of some 11,780 Liberian youngsters who were directly involved in the conflict, which lasted nearly 15 years. All were disarmed and demobilized between December 2003 and November 2004.

Children were associated with all sides in the war. They served on the front lines, as sex slaves or as labourers and porters, and were forced to kill, facing death and living with nightmares.

Today it’s drama of a different kind. At a resource centre supported by UNICEF and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department in Tappita, Nimba County, a group of young Liberians recently huddled around a video of Marlon Brando in ‘Julius Caesar’ and read Shakespeare in a well-equipped library. Others did group counselling and life skills training under a tree, or played volleyball and table tennis.

Rehab through work and play

The drop-in centre is run by UNICEF’s local partner, SEARCH (Special Emergency Activity to Restore Children’s Hope). It was originally set up for children associated with the fighting forces who returned home before the formal demobilization process began, but now it serves all children in the community.

Daniel Swaray, who runs the non-governmental organization Sustainable Development Promoters (SDP, which helps former combatants learn new skills), has seen how work and play can rehabilitate former combatants. “Most of the trainees we have there were fighting for opposing forces, but now they are playing together and eating out of the same bowl,” he said.

Aggressive young fighters – some as young as 13 – have put their energies into carpentry and brick-laying. Girls who were once subjected to abuse are learning hairdressing skills and doing manicures and pedicures instead of cooking for commanders.

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© UNICEF video
A UNICEF-supported resource centre in Liberia’s Nimba County offers former child combatants and other local youths a library, counselling services and sports facilities.

Progress on child welfare

Due to its shattering recent history, Liberia’s chances now of meeting its Millennium Development Goal targets are very slim. But UNICEF’s Representative in Liberia, Rozanne Chorlton, noted that the skeleton of social protection is being put in place through Children Welfare Committees.

“Liberia is making big progress, where we have 94 per cent of children immunized, 60 per cent of children are in school and government is working on a social policy,” she said. “It’s not so much rebuilding Liberia as building back better, and for that we need to make sure there is absolutely no flagging of resources.”

In the wake of the country’s recent elections, the signs are looking good. Bright-eyed children are back at school, roads are being built, streetlights have been installed and new construction and investment abound.

President stresses education

And Liberia’s new government sees children as its most valuable asset, according to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“The government will protect the children, first of all ensuring that they have the means to have an education, and carrying out of the rule of law,” especially in cases where young people have been subjected to rape, said Ms. Sirleaf.

“We need to ensure that all of our children have an educational opportunity, even in the most remote part of the country, and to ensure they receive the basic social services they’ve been deprived of for so long,” she added.

Skills for the future

These young Liberians are not a lost generation. In Ganta, Sunny and other former combatants have been reintegrated into civilian life with the help of the skills training programme run by SDP with UNICEF support.

“I am very happy with the skills training programme because I want to learn to improve myself and improve my country as well,” said Sunny. “When I finish my training – if I have a choice – I will try to have my own agricultural fields, and I want to practice what I was taught.”

Progress is promising here, but there’s concern that the international community may drop the ball. If it does, the youth of Liberia will lose their fighting chance for a better future.


 

 

Video

5 February 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports from Liberia on the reintegration of children associated with armed conflict. Filmed by Peter Rudden.
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