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  Canada Conference To Help War Kids

By David Foster
Associated Press Writer
Monday, Sept. 11, 2000; 3:52 p.m. EDT

WINNIPEG, Manitoba –– Last year, at age 17, Rosamond was abducted by rebels in her native Sierra Leone, then raped, beaten and forced to labor in a rebel camp where she witnessed murders and mutilations.

This week, she is sleeping in a fine hotel in this peaceful city on the Canadian prairie, hobnobbing with youths from other war-torn nations. They go bowling. They take riverboat tours. And they recount chilling tales of the worst of human nature, as seen through the eyes of children.

The conference on helping youth traumatized by war – sponsored by the Canadian government and drawing 800 youth and adults from more than 130 countries – has the usual experts in tweeds, bureaucrats in suits and stacks of background papers filled with grim statistics: 2 million children killed worldwide by war in the past decade; 5 million injured; 300,000 forced to serve as child soldiers.

But with their often gruesome first-person accounts and their earnest beliefs that future atrocities can be prevented, the young people inject a raw blend of horror and hope to the proceedings.

"How do you build peace when the next generation has slaughtered the previous generation, and many in the next generation are missing a limb because a colleague has chopped it off?" asked Steven Morris, spokesman for the Canadian International Development Agency, a co-sponsor of the conference. "These are problems that may never be solved."

Don't tell that to the teen-agers who have come here from troubled spots around the globe: Sri Lanka, Uganda, Colombia, Angola, Sudan.

Diana Ibrahim, 18, says her family fled to Canada from Sudan after enduring government persecution. Her father, a businessman, would disappear for days at a time, taken for questioning. He would return with scarred fingers, refusing to talk about those marks of torture.

Grace Acayo, 18, says she was abducted at age 13 by rebels with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. For three years, she was forced to fight for the rebels' cause, laying land mines and serving as one of 11 "wives" to a rebel commander. She says she was forced to kill her cousin, explaining: "If you don't kill, they will kill you."

Rosamond asks that her last name not be used to reduce her chances of being killed when she returns to Sierra Leone, where civil war has driven half the nation's 5 million people from their homes and forced nearly 3,000 children into duty as soldiers, laborers or sex slaves – mostly for the Revolutionary United Front rebel army.

Tall and handsome, Rosamond wears her hair in cornrow braids that sweep back neatly from her face. She has a wide, gushing smile that erupts frequently, especially as she describes a week of firsts: her first airplane ride, her first foray out of steamy West Africa.

"I love this place!" she exults about Winnipeg, sitting in a hotel restaurant. "I love the people. I love everything. Very different from home. The buildings, the weather. We don't have so much cold. We have all our warm clothes on here."

She speaks cheerfully of her work in Sierra Leone, helping a humanitarian group provide education and counseling to children suffering from the war.

When she begins her own story, however, the gleaming smile vanishes. She shifts in her seat, her back stiffening.

"My day came Jan. 8, 1999," she says. "The rebels came in, looting, beating. It was an ordeal to see my neighbors pulled out and executed. I was living with my uncle. We left our home for security. We were hiding.

"After two days, I returned home in search of food and clothing, because we were out of all those things. At my house, they hit me. There were five of them. They blindfolded me, tied me, dragged me into a vehicle and took me to the bush. I was there for about three weeks. During that time, I was forced to witness ..."

She stops, catches her breath, then plunges in again.

"I was forced to witness pregnant women being cut open, mutilation of male genitals with machetes. I was forced to witness many things that were terrible. I was ..."

She stops, and sobs bubble out. Her head sinks to the table, tears dripping onto the table top. Diners at nearby tables look over quizzically. Rosamond's chaperone, Grace Harman, puts her hand on the girl's shoulder and speaks quietly for a while, remarking that some of the worst horrors are committed by rebels who are children themselves.

For five minutes, Rosamond weeps. Perhaps it is time to stop the interview, Harman suggests.

"No. I want to continue," Rosamond whimpers, lifting her head. "I want other governments to see what is really happening in my country. What happened to me has happened to many others. Many, many.

"After three weeks, I managed to plan my escape. There were six of us. One day, we went out until we were far away. We were quiet, because if they saw us, they would kill us. When I came out, I saw my house was burned down. Four months later, I realized I was pregnant."

She begins to sob again, and Harman hands her a tissue.

Rosamond wants to talk more – about her abortion, about her nightmares and her inability to concentrate in school. But it is 7:15 p.m. – time for dinner with the other youth delegates. Her schedule this week in Winnipeg is chock full: forums in the daytime; disco-bowling, a paddleboat ride and a barbecue with the mayor in the evenings.

Next week, Rosamond will return to Sierra Leone.

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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