Ghosts of civil war haunt Liberia’s child soldiers




Former fighters are trying to exorcise the killing fields, writes Mark Huband in Monrovia

The Guardian, 13 April 1992

Liberia has buried most of its dead. What remain now are thousands of teenage fighters, who have survived only to be haunted by the memory of those they slaughtered.

There are as many as 30,000 militarily-trained people in Liberia. Most are teenagers, though some are as young as 10. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the main rebel faction which invaded in December 1989 with the intention of overthrowing President Samuel Doe, recruited boys and girls from towns and villages as it advanced on the capital, Monrovia.

Since the war descended into a tortuous political battle after a ceasefire in December 1990 following the death of Doe, young fighters from all sides have been drifting away from .•the•• battlefields, trying to find an identity outside the war.

“Most of’ the rebel fighters were criminals before the war – petty thieves, pickpockets, trouble-makers. At least 80 per cent of them were like that,” says John Nimley of the Liberian interim government’s National Readjustment Commission.

He runs a three-month residential project, based at a sports stadium on the outskirts of Monrovia. There, teenage killers, some of whom admit to having butchered up to 50 people, read the Bible and are encouraged to pray every day as part of a rehabilitation programme. When they leave, they will be given a certificate which recognises that they are “ready to rejoin civilised society”.

“By its very nature, civil war means that the guilty will always have to be facing the people they once harmed, because there is nowhere for them to hide. They will always be close to the scene of their crimes,” says Mr Nimley.

Some of the ex-fighters find themselves visiting streets where they killed people. At night, they are all visited by the dead. “I dream about the people I killed. The ones I saw face to face just before I killed them. I dreamed I saw them all in a room, sitting round a table. There are 43 of them. I am there too. But nobody is talking. Nothing happens, and nobody talks,” says Boima Brown, a former member of Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).

“They are all wearing white gowns, and white hats. I can’t see their faces even, because they are covered in white too. But I know it’s them.”

lsaac Roberts, also from the AFL, deserted the government troops when Doe’s Krahn tribe within the army began systematically killing AFL soldiers from other tribes. He fled and joined the breakaway rebel faction led by Prince Johnson, which eventually captured Doe.

“I can’t remember how many people I killed, because I didn’t write it down. Most of the time I’m fighting in my dream – executing people. Then I had a dream where I was tied up and was being taken to an execution ground and was going to be executed. The person who has tied me and is going to execute me is my own commander. He’s taking me to the same execution ground where I killed people.”

“Crazy Rebel”, as Elijah McCartbey’s fellow combatants called him, was an NPFL fighter who is living at a Catholic mission in Monrovia. He wears the same woman’s hat he wore during the battles he fought. “I have gun-proof. I have knife-proof, because I took seki, the medicine. If you take the medicine then the bullets won’t harm you. But you can’t have sex or eat raw cassava. If you do, the medicine will spoil. Even though I laid down my arms, I kept the medicine in me because everybody knows I was a rebel. One day they may try to shoot me.”

Fear of revenge lingers. Meanwhile, the atrocities committed by fighters have led to some being rejected by their families. At another Catholic mission, an NPFL fighter known as Prince stammers and chuckles maniacally as he describes a woman whose belly he sliced open after singling her out at a checkpoint two years ago. He is now 14, and was 11 when he first killed. He tried to go back to live with his father, who told him to leave the house.

He dreams of her and others he killed. “In my dream I saw the man I killed. I killed him in my dream. I killed him with my knife. And I saw his spirit come out of him. It came out from behind him. And then it chased me.” He goes silent, then says he does not want to talk any more.


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