SIERRA LEONE-CHILDREN: Young, Armed and Dangerous
by Lansana Fofana
FREETOWN -- Since the military coup in May, hundreds of child soldiers have fled from camps for demobilised fighters and are back on the streets armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.
It is a common sight to see the child soldiers patrolling the streets in major cities throughout Sierra Leone, bringing renewed fears that children are being drawn once again into armed conflict.
According to some reports, the children are being armed by the new military junta, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and its allies, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) now known as the People's Army, to fight the local hunters militia, the Kamajors.
The Kamajors, who fought alongside government troops against the RUF during the civil conflict, have vowed to march on Freetown, the capital, to oust the junta and re-instate President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
There have been reports of fighting in the Southern District of Bo between the combined forces of the AFRC/RUF and the Kamajors. Hundreds of child soldiers are reportedly among the AFRC/RUF fighters.
Many of the children had been placed in camps for demobilised soldiers following the November 1996 Peace Accord signed between the ousted government of President Kabbah and the RUF rebels.
According to one weekly newspaper report here, ''more than 60 percent of (a group of) 1000 fighters'' screened by the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Resettlement Committee before the May 25 coup were children.
Thousands of child soldiers had been demobilised and encamped at Jui, about 30 kilometres east of Freetown, where they were receiving technical and vocational training in a programme sponsored by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).
Referring to the flight of the children back into the conflict, Thomas Sesay, a counselling officer at the Jui camp said: ''This is unfortunate because we had succeeded in transforming most of these kids and had reintegrated them into society.''
Sierra Leone has one of the world's worse records for recruiting children as soldiers. Between 1992 and 1996, the period of the worst fighting between the government forces and the RUF, an estimated 4,500 children were forced to fight on both sides.
Children were abducted and forced to commit various atrocities. Some were ordered to torture and murder their own relatives, before being taken to other villages to slaughter others.
UNICEF, an international advocacy organisation for children's rights, has repeatedly called on the Sierra Leonean authorities to stop using children as soldiers. ''UNICEF calls on all warring sides to put an end to the use of children as combattants and to incorporate provisions for their physical and emotional welfare in a future peace settlement,'' Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's Executive Director said at the height of the conflict.
''Children should have no part in war. By making them agents of civil conflict and depriving them of their childhood, the vicious cycle of violence is perpetuated,'' she added. ''Child soldiers are a symptom of the wider problem, the complete neglect of a whole generation...''
Thousands of children have been orphaned by the Sierra Leonean conflict, making them vulnerable for recruitment. According to some estimates, 8000 children were separated from their families or orphaned by the civil unrest.
The chair of the Civil Liberties Congress, lawyer Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie, said this trend must be reversed as a matter of urgency.
''We cannot wait until the situation gets worse. These kids have the temptation of drugs and money and many have lost their parents,'' Tejan-Sie said. ''It is high time someone tells these soldiers and rebels to stop recruiting innocent kids.''
According to sociologist Kama Bangura of the University of Sierra Leone, children are not just affected by being forced to carry a gun. The war, he said, has disrupted their lives in many ways.
''Children will be hardest hit by the gradual collapse of basic services,'' Bangura said. ''Food distribution has been disrupted, immunisation campaigns have been halted, leaving children susceptible to epidemics of measles, typhoid and whooping cough.''