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Crisis in Sierra Leone could bring new efforts to recruit children

Wednesday, 10 May 2000: The head of UNICEF in Sierra Leone said today that the current crisis in the country could result in the renewed recruitment of child soldiers, a practice that most military leaders have repeatedly disavowed in the last two years.

"We're very concerned right now about the threat to children," said Joanna Van Gerpen, the head of UNICEF's office in Sierra Leone. "The very high level of instability could lead us back into the vicious cycle where children are used as tools of war. This war is the business of adults -- children shouldn't be forced to pay the price," she said.

Leaders of the Sierra Leone Army, the paramilitary Civil Defence Force, and the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) agreed to disavow the practice of recruiting children as soldiers, Ms. Van Gerpen said. However, although some members of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have expressed support for the ban on child soldiers, Foday Sankoh, the head of the RUF, has not yet gone on record as making this commitment. Ms. Van Gerpen nonetheless called on all military organisations in the country to uphold the ban. She said that in Makeni last week, RUF commanders had re-mobilised at least 40 former child soldiers and had attempted to re-enlist more.

UNICEF estimates that during Sierra Leone's nine-year civil war, some 5,000 children -- mostly boys -- were used as combatants. Thousands of other boys and girls were abducted and forced to become wood gatherers, cooks, sex slaves or porters for the military. Ms. Van Gerpen said that nearly 1,700 former child combatants had been "demobilised" since the signing of the Lome peace accords last July and the commencement of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme.

UNICEF provides almost $2 million each year in financial and technical support to interim care centres where former child combatants are offered counselling, education, recreation, and skills training opportunities while their families are traced. Ms. Van Gerpen emphasised that the ultimate goal is to reunite these children with their families and reintegrate them in their communities. Nearly half of those that have been disarmed have been reunited with their own families or placed with foster families. Once the child rejoins their family, UNICEF and its partners follow-up with psycho-social support and assistance with education and skills training to facilitate reintegration of the child with their family and community.

But Ms. Van Gerpen, who has remained in Freetown throughout the present crisis, expressed concern that ongoing efforts to normalise life for hundreds of thousands of children across Sierra Leone could be unravelling.

"The last thing this country needs is a return to violence," she said. "A whole generation of children has already been emotionally traumatised and physically scarred. When we ask them what they want, they invariably say they want to go to school -- an opportunity that has not been available to more than 50 per cent of the children in Sierra Leone due to displacement and lack of security. They'd been told that peace had finally arrived. Now what are we supposed to tell them? Will these children ever be allowed to be children?"

Ms. Van Gerpen also noted that the third round of a nation-wide immunization campaign against polio has been postponed due to the rapid deterioration in security. The campaign had been scheduled for 21-22 May. She said that at least three rounds of polio immunization, and preferably four, are required in order to reach the entire target population of children with the necessary dosage. The first two rounds succeeded in reaching all areas of the country despite tension. The immunization campaign provided tangible evidence that all sides could work together for a common goal. She said that momentum was now being lost.

"The lives of hundreds of thousands of children have been affected through constant displacement, disruption of their schooling, exposure to traumatic events, loss of family members, abduction and conscription into the fighting forces and continuous violations of their basic human rights. Children in this country have suffered enough," Ms. Van Gerpen said. "It's time that their rights came first, for a change."

Sierra Leone was one of the first countries in the world to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Also see:
Crisis in Sierra Leone

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/2000/39

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