Sierra Leonean children tell their side of the story
Children were at the core of the brutal civil war that gripped Sierra Leone. They witnessed horrible violence, were subjected to systematic abuse and, in many cases, were forced to become combatants themselves. Rape, mutilation, forced prostitution and senseless killings were part of these children’s daily experiences. The war deprived them of an education and, worse, confronted them with the most brutal expressions of human cruelty at an early age, shattering their childhood.
“I used to stay in the centre of Freetown at Soldier Street, which is located very close to the then Office of the President known as State House as well as the Parliament Building,” says 17-year-old Albert*. “This was a ‘hot spot’ during the rebel invasion of January 6, 1999.”
Albert remembers how the rebels used civilians as human shields, forcing them to call upon their neighbours to come out of their houses. Those who did were immediately killed. Others were captured and taken as load carriers. He also recalls how the rebels told people to step out of their homes and demonstrate for peace only to be killed by rocket-propelled grenades and bombs.
Many houses, Albert’s among them, were burnt down. “We went to the church behind our house for shelter,” he says. “The rebels thought that we were in the house and set it on fire so that we would be burnt with it.”
The importance of accountability
Following the signing of the 1999 Lome Peace Accord, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone was established to create an impartial record of human rights violations and to make recommendations to the government to prevent future conflicts. Truth and Reconicilation Commissions have become a common mechanism for countries seeking to come to terms with the legacies of war and repression. Twenty-five such commissions helped heal the wounds in countries like Argentina, El Salvador, South Africa, Serbia and Montenegro and Sri Lanka. And yet, the Commission in Sierra Leone was different, because it was the first that devoted special attention to the experiences of children affected by the conflict.
Recognizing that children were among the primary victims of the civil war and that their involvement was essential in promoting reconciliation, members of the Commission developed child-friendly measures to ensure that children felt safe when recounting their experiences. As a result, the children of Sierra Leone were able to participate in the process through special hearings, closed sessions, in a safe environment for interviews and where they received psychological support.
Empowered by this experience, the children requested a child-friendly version of the Commission’s report. The report was jointly prepared by the Commission, UNICEF and the United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone. Children contributed throughout the process, helping to give shape to a report that would bring about positive action for and by children.
Albert became deeply involved in the process. “One of my friends who is the founding president of the Children’s Forum Network invited me to join the organization, which advocates for children in Sierra Leone,” he says. “I am currently the outgoing Secretary-General. We hold two meetings every week. One in which representatives of children from all over the country come together to discuss what the issues are, and one weekly meeting at the Ministry for Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs. In the ministry they listen to us but things move very slowly. But in the end that doesn’t matter. As long as things are done it doesn’t matter if they are slow.”
During the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings, Albert heard the testimonies of children describing what happened to them during the war. “It was a great experience because children say everything exactly the way they remember things; adults are not always like that,” he says. “The official report has a lot of big words that children cannot understand. The child-friendly report is different. It is meant for children and it is meant to tell about the impact of the war on the lives of children so that it does not happen again.”
These days, life is mostly back to normal for Albert and his family. He is studying history at the University of Sierra Leone and planning for the future.
* Names have been changed.