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At a glance: Sierra Leone

Coping with a legacy of violence in Sierra Leone

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006/Crowe
Hearing-impaired children at a convent in Kono, Sierra Leone. Their convent was overrun by rebels during the war.

By Sarah Crowe

MAKENI, Sierra Leone, 15 June 2006 – The decade-long war in Sierra Leone, which left 50,000 dead, was one of Africa’s most brutal. Atrocities against women and children were commonplace. The war turned children into drugged killing machines, giving them power beyond their age.

“These children were given high positions. They were called colonel and general, and this made them feel like they had power,” said UNICEF Child Protection Officer Michael Charley.

As countries around the world mark the Day of the African Child tomorrow, this year’s theme – ‘Stop Violence against Children’ – will have a special resonance for the children of Sierra Leone.
Ghosts of war

The Day of the African Child honours the memory and courage of the South African children killed and injured during the 1976 Soweto uprising, when thousands of students took to the streets to protest against the inferior quality of their education and to demand the right to be taught in their own language.

Thirty years later, the annual celebration is an opportunity to reflect on progress towards health, education, equality and protection for all the continent’s children.

During the war in Sierra Leone, 10,000 children were forcibly conscripted as porters, fighters or sexually abused ‘bush wives’. Soon after the war ended in 2002, the full scale of the terrible legacy was revealed at Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), modelled loosely on South Africa’s panel on apartheid crimes.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006/Crowe
The civil war may be over in Sierra Leone, but violence continues to pervade the society.

Although the bulk of crimes against children and women in Sierra Leone were at the hands of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, militia fighters committed their fair share.

Everywhere, the ghosts of war haunt the living.

Children coming to grips

Forgiveness in exchange for the truth is central to the work of Sierra Leone’s TRC. The struggle for justice is ongoing, as former Liberian President Charles Taylor languishes in a UN special court in Freetown, awaiting trial for war crimes at The Hague.

The TRC does seem to have healed some of the wounds, but the real scars left on children cannot be seen.

“The rebels came to every village, because they wanted to multiply their war instruments. They abducted those children, they trained them to become rebels and gave them drugs,” said Bishop Joseph Humper, head of the TRC.

“Now those children are coming back to society and coming to grips with their childhood state,” added Bishop Humper. “They lost education. They lost a crucial stage of general psychological development that they were supposed to go through to become responsible persons.”

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006/Crowe
Adama Kamara was abducted as a ‘bush wife’ during the war in Sierra Leone. She now is learning a trade in this UNICEF-supported Caritas centre.

Violence in the shadows

Meanwhile, at the Makeni convent for the hearing-impaired, a 17-year-old boy stands up in front of his classmates and draws a picture of an AK-47. He cannot speak or hear but still conveys what happened to him during the war. He points to his head, indicating that he was drugged, and gesticulates as if he is shooting a gun.

All the children here experienced lost years of unspeakable fear; some were killers, too.

Today in Sierra Leone, peace signs boldly declare a new era – ‘War don-don. We love peace’. But violence against children still lurks in the shadows. Roadside cinemas showing extreme violence and rape scenes proliferate in the busy alleys of Freetown and other cities. Admittance costs just a few cents, so the shacks are full of small children.

For the first time in Sierra Leone’s history, however, some help is at hand for these children. Hidden discreetly in hospitals, new centres have been set up to help young victims of sexual abuse – though funding for the centres is fragile.

Most rapes go unreported here, but for those brave enough to seek redress under the law, there are newly trained plainclothes police men and women who will take up their cases at family support units attached to police stations.

Although few such cases make it as far as the courts, Sierra Leone is starting to take the abuse of its children seriously. But real justice is still a long way off.

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.




15 June 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on the legacy of violence affecting the lives of children in post-war Sierra Leone.

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