Tuesday, 20 November 2001
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Alhaji. I am 14 years old and I come from Sierra Leone.
In 1997 when I was 10 years old, I went on Christmas holiday to my Uncle in my village Madina Loko in northern Sierra Leone. During the second week of my stay we heard that the rebels were 10 miles away from us. We ran into the bush to hide. At night, we came out quietly and cooked whatever we had in an old farm hut. On the second night, my elder brother and I went to look for water to do the cooking when we ran into the rebels. They searched our pockets for money and because nothing was found we were beaten up. We were taken back to our village where we were tied up, beaten again and kept in the hot burning sun. Many houses were burnt down, properties destroyed and people killed. A group of rebels who had gone into the bush in search of food caught my uncle and the rest of the family. My uncle was later killed.
That same night we were ordered by the rebels to go with them to their base behind Kabala Town. It was over 100 miles from my village. We walked for about 10 days in the bush, resting only a few hours in between, most times on empty stomachs. On arrival we were trained for a week to shoot and dismantle AK47 guns. Thereafter I was used to fight when we were attacked. During these attacks we killed people, burnt down houses, destroyed properties and cut limbs. But more often I went on food raids and did domestic work for my Commander's wife. This is because I was so skinny.
In January 2000 two years after my capture, the UN Peacekeepers met with our commander to explain the DDR process. We were told that the discussion included the release of all child soldiers. Our Commander returned to our base the next morning and ordered the other Commanders to release us. He said those who failed to do so would be killed. The information was passed on to all the fighters and within 2 days over 250 children were released to UNAMSIL in Kabala Town. We were taken to a care centre in Lunsar.
In Lunsar I was first registered for demobilisation and then later handed over to Caritas Makeni, for care and protection. I reported at the health centre immediately for treatment because I was completely covered in scabies. I had not seen any family member for about 2 years so when Caritas told us they would assist us in finding our families I was so happy to give the information. Unfortunately it was not safe for them to get to my village so I was put into a community Secondary School. In May that year the RUF leader was detained again after the demonstration in Freetown. The rebels decided to attack again and they attempted to recruit us again. We did not want to fight anymore so we ran away with our social workers into the bush. Over 200 of us were able to get to Freetown and we were picked up by Caritas.
In Lungi, we met other children in the Caritas programme who had escaped from centres in Port Loko and Makeni for fear of re-recruitment as well. There were over 350 children in this new Centre. At first, the Lungi people did not want us in their town and this was demonstrated by their Paramount Chief. UNICEF and Caritas Makeni had a meeting with him and the other local leaders. They explained that we had been demobilised and did not want to fight any more. This changed their minds and we were allowed to stay. Here I was again put in a community school together with other children.
The meeting with the people did not end with the local leaders because the community school children were not friendly to us. They kept calling us 'rebel children'. Thank God we attended the afternoon school so we avoided them as much as possible. So Caritas had several meetings with various community people to forgive and accept us. This worked very well because at the end of the year a woman from the community agreed to foster me. I am still living with her because my family has not been found yet.
Ladies and gentlemen; it is important for you to know that the journey I have made so far has been less difficult because I entered the DDR programme. I did bad things in the bush and I saw very bad things done to both children and adults. Removing the gun from me was a vital step for me. The programme helped me feel natural and normal again. It helped me develop ways to fit into society again.
The road as I have said has not been easy. In school I suffered resentment from other school children. They looked at me differently like an evil person. Maybe they had good reasons. After all, we used to do very horrible things to them, their families, friends and communities. But we suffered just as them because we were forced to do so by our commanders. We have to ask for forgiveness and demonstrate extremely good ways of life.
With family members, I have faced a lot of distrust. Some doubt whether I will ever be a 'normal child' again. I am easily reminded of my past when I make mistakes. 'Do not bring your rebel life here' they say. Community people can be really dangerous. Some want revenge at all cost and in whatever form. With the support of families, friends and agencies working for children, we are overcoming this.
The DDR programme is coming to an end and I am very happy that thousands of children have been given the chance to go through the process. I know there are more children held back especially our sisters. I ask this body on behalf of all the children of Sierra Leone to do all they can to bring our sad story to an end. We want to be able to move about freely in all parts of the country to attend the schools of our choice. We want to be able to visit our friends and families every where in the country without fear of abduction, recruitment and other dangers. Above all, we want our parents to be able to work and to educate us and become useful citizens. This is what peace means for me in Sierra Leone.
I thank you for inviting me to tell my story on behalf of my brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone and in other countries at war. I hope that in all countries the government and the UN will listen to children and take our words into account. We want a better life. We want peace. We are counting on your continued support for this.