Group Seeks Liberia Child-Soldier Rehab
By TODD PITMAN
The Associated Press
Monday, February 2, 2004; 12:04 AM
DAKAR, Senegal - If Liberia's fragile peace is to hold, international donors must pledge more money to rehabilitate the West African nation's child soldiers to ensure that they - and new generations - don't take up arms again, a leading human rights group said Monday.
Donors will get a chance to do just that Thursday at the U.N. headquarters in New York, where U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will co-chair a two-day conference on reconstructing the war-ravaged nation.
"Much of the Liberian civil war consisted of children shooting and killing other children," said Tony Tate, an Africa researcher in the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "The fragile peace in Liberia today cannot be solidified unless they are disarmed and rehabilitated."
The United Nations estimates 15,000 child soldiers were active in Liberia's most recent three-year conflict, which ended in August with a peace deal that saw former President Charles Taylor exiled to Nigeria and a transitional government inaugurated in October.
Children also fought in an earlier 1989-1996 civil war, but less than one-third turned over their weapons in a disarmament campaign in 1997, the New York-based rights group said.
Many returned home to their native villages with no money and no education, and ended up back on the battlefield when fighting resumed a few years later, according to Human Rights Watch.
The group's 43-page report detailed stories of boys and girls as young as nine who were forcibly recruited - though some volunteered - to serve with government or rebel forces in Liberia's most recent war.
Many were beaten and, often drugged, sent to front lines to fight with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Others manned roadblocks or were used as porters, cooks or cleaners.
Girl soldiers were given the same responsibilities as boys, but also "suffered rape and sexual assault, sometimes over periods of several years," Human Rights Watch said.
The use of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
"Thousands of children have been victims of killings, rape and sexual assault, abduction, torture, forced labor and displacement at the hands of the warring factions," Human Rights Watch said, saying that many would need special counseling.
The report told the story of one young fighter named "John J." who was disarmed in 1997 and resumed second grade the same year.
"Lack of money for schooling and his parents' own worsening financial situation caused him to leave school after less than one year," the report said. "He spent the next few years selling goods on the streets of Monrovia before finally taking up arms again."
When Liberia's most recent war ended in August, thousands of children who had been forced to fight with government or rebel forces were released. Thousands more are still attached to former government units or the country's two rebel groups.
In December, the United Nations began a new disarmament campaign that included rehabilitating child soldiers.
The disarmament process was suspended just a week after it started, however, when disgruntled ex-fighters demanding quick cash rioted in the streets and exchanged fire with peacekeepers struggling to keep calm. Nine people, eight of them former combatants, were killed.
On the Net:
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© 2004 The Associated Press