Former Child Soldiers Seek Redemption

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 8:11 PM

ALMERIA, Spain -- Edwin Tholley wasn't yet 10 years old _ he can't remember exactly _ when rebel bosses first injected cocaine into his face, a quick way to get it surging into his brain. They wanted him high _ an unthinking, vicious, little warrior for their campaign of terror in Sierra Leone.

Tholley's face still bears scars from the needle-pricks. Now, however, under an innovative rehabilitation program in Spain, Tholley hopes to redeem himself and save lives by studying to be a nurse, and maybe someday a doctor.

"My ambition is to help others," said Tholley, 20, one of four Sierra Leone natives brought here by Todos Son Inocentes (They Are All Innocent), a Spanish aid agency that works with children in war zones.

"All of us are responsible," Tholley said. "We have to make this effort."

The United Nations says at least 250,000 children are used as fighters in about a dozen conflicts in Africa, Asia and South America.

Once their missions are over, they bear scars far deeper than needle marks.

Job training is offered combatants in Sierra Leone and Liberia, another West African country which also used child soldiers. The problem, experts say, is that jobs are scarce for such rehabilitated men.

The Spanish program is different because the training is in advanced skills _ two of Tholley's colleagues will study agronomy _ giving the men expertise that fills shortfalls in destitute countries like Sierra Leone.

"It's a big opportunity for me to study agriculture here in Spain. I'm sure after my course I will try the best I can to help the people of my country," said another of the students, Victor Young, 23, who smiles big but then, like the others, avoids talking about his days as a child soldier.

"Let the past be the past," Young said, staring at the ground. "It's a difficult process to regain peace again."

"War is the worst. We've recovered and all we want is think about the future," added Gabriel Kamara, 20, who is also studying to become a nurse.

Kamara said he got the cocaine injections too. Rebel commanders would cut a gash into his upper arm and rub it with cocaine to render him high, brutish and fierce.

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© 2007 The Associated Press