The United Nations estimates that more than three hundred thousand children fight in armed government forces and opposition in more than thirty countries around the world including Columbia, Mozambique and Kosovo. This happens more in African countries. Liberia has used children as soldiers especially in the civil war that lasted from 1989 to 2003. The war destroyed the economy, cultural and social structure in Liberia, in a devastating way. This paper looks at child soldiers in Liberia, particularly the way it started, the reasons for their target and their operations in Liberia.
The use of children as soldiers subjected the children to widespread death, starvation, terror of war, lack of schooling, displacement and other, many devastating conditions. Children in Liberia have known nothing but the effects of war in their lives. Parents have lost children, siblings have lost their brothers and sisters and the country lost most of children who could contribute to the betterment of the Liberian society in the future. Out of one and half million children in Liberia, about twenty thousand have worked as child soldiers in the Liberian civil war. Sixty nine percent of the child soldiers served under the age of seventeen, twenty-seven percent served under the age of fourteen, four percent served under the age of ten, and one percent served under the age of nine years (Human Rights Watch & Human Rights Watch, 2004).
The start of the civil war and its effects on children traces back to the founding of the country. Freed American slaves founded Liberia in 1847. By the year 1970, Liberians and indigenous technocrats joined forces to oppose the power structure practiced by their colonists. Since the 1979 rice riots that was followed by the military coup in 1980, Liberia has known war for a long time, since then. From 1989 to 1997, efforts made to bring peace in Liberia failed. However, the negotiation of a ceasefire became successful in 1997, when Charles Taylor, the former leader of NPLF became the president.
The use of children as soldiers began in the 1989 conflict. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia led by Taylor abducted young boys and used them to strengthen the size of its force. Other fighting groups, such as AFL, ULIMO and INFL, followed suit. The fighting groups favored boys because of their immaturity that made them take risks without questioning authority. Most of the boys had no education; therefore, they did not understand the war. This made it easy for the fighting groups to indoctrinate them easily. The boys fought with loyalty as long as the fighting forces rewarded them with incentives, such as promotion and enough food (Honwana, 2007).
In addition, the fighting forces had lightweight firearms that made it easy for the boys to fight as effective as adult soldiers did. They did not need strength and power to carry firearms. Boys also felt at power when they possessed AK 47 firearms.
The use of girl soldiers also started at around the same time. The fighting forces abducted girl soldiers, as well. The fighting forces used them as servants and sexual slaves to male soldiers, no matter their age. Later on, the forces supplied teen girls with arms, which made them fight alongside male soldiers. Children soldiers entered the forces by force. The fighting forces carried out recruitment drives and recruited children after they captured more territories. The NPFL used the child soldiers in groups called small boy units (SBUs). The ceasefire period from 1997 to 2000 allowed many child soldiers leave the fighting forces. Some went back to their old lives while others opted for rehabilitation centers. However, most of them did not stay for long before LURD incursion rounded them up again. Both the government and the opposing factions recruited children from IDP camps and refugee camps, exchanging firearms with government forces near the camps.
The children soldiers carried out several operations. They underwent stringent and tough training that pushed child soldiers to the threshold of their mental and physical capabilities. Their training made them remain in cold water for hours, sleeping for few hours, disarming explosives. They received training to accomplish any task in any circumstance, without a consideration of age. After recruitment, the child soldiers could not escape. If caught escaping, one could receive ruthless beating that lead to death. Therefore, many children followed orders to avoid the consequences of escaping. Most child soldiers started as porters, cooks, messengers, spies, spies and servants. They carried guns and ammunition and performed cleaning and washing activities for other soldiers.
They only fought in emergency cases. After training, boys and girls who appeared fearless and brave got promotions, to fight. At this point, they received training on how to attack and kill. They got guns and ammunition and joined the other soldiers. The training they underwent dissociated them from the lives they led before joining the forces. The child soldiers received new battle names. They wore bullets and wigs in their heads. They also put on special clothing including clothes for women. Their forces made them believe that the special clothing would help them from harm (Human Rights Watch & Human Rights Watch, 2004).
Commanders from all the fighting forces, in the civil war, exploited traditions to help them detach children from their families and make them loyal to the forces. They carried out secret initiations on the child soldiers. The secret initiation had cultural values that made the children loyal to their forces and could not talk of what happened in the initiation ceremonies. Child soldiers received training to eliminate fear. They underwent brutal training common to military training all over the world, for instance, climbing barbed wire. Their trainers made them not to feel pain and not to show it. In fact, those caught crying got punished heavily. The fighting forces subjected children to drug abuse to help them cope with the training and effects of joining the forces. For that reason, many of them became drug addicts. Sometimes the child soldiers made cues for cocaine injection and other drugs.
For fourteen years, children helped fight the civil war in Liberia. They witnessed and engaged in violence beyond the imagination of people expecting children to fight in such conditions. They grew accustomed to using violence, threats and looting. Girl soldiers passed through a rough time. They experienced torture, rape, sexual violence, pregnancy, forced abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. The child soldiers engaged in fights against other fighting groups and the government forces. The government forces and the opposing sides had child soldiers in their armies. Children soldiers performed almost everything in those forces. Apart from fighting, they performed other duties that older soldiers did not perform. They performed all the simple chores in their forces. They participated in fighting, sometimes partially. Child soldiers formed the bedrock of fighting forces in Liberia. Without them, the forces could not have achieved more (Gates & Reich, 2009).
The child soldiers suffered a lot from the experience they got from the forces. The experience denied them the chance to go to school and have an education. They spent their childhood years serving their forces instead of going to school. This made Liberia have high illiteracy rates. They suffered physical, psychological and mental torture. The forceful separation from their parents and families with uncertainty of getting back together affected them, in a devastating way. The training that they went through made them suffer a lot. The training included torturous activities that the child soldiers had to pass through. They received beatings, harassment, often training under frivolous, cold and filthy conditions. Many of the child soldiers died in the training process while others got permanent injuries. The training tortured the bodies because the body of children cannot take adverse training practices because of their immaturity.
The effects of the use of child soldiers in Liberia cannot be ignored. The children passed through psychological devastation and images of rape, abuse, killing and mutilation. The experiences that the children passed through threatening their lives often seeing their counterparts die and being abused made them become violent. They no longer cared for their lives for they knew no way of getting out of the situation they experience except through death. Some child soldiers decided to commit suicide because they could no longer persevere the humiliation they passed through. They had no freedom. They acted according to orders and the rules that the forces had prescribed on them. No one could act according to his own will, even in a personal issue. When Charles Taylor stepped down from power in august 2003, the use of child soldiers in fighting forces, especially the government forces decreased. However, fighting still continues in certain parts of the country where soldiers under the age of eighteen years form part of the forces (Honwana, 2007).
Child soldiers came into public light in 1989, despite the fact that it had taken root earlier. Both the government forces and other fighting groups made use of child soldiers. The reign of Charles Taylor marked the period when the use child soldiers of child soldiers became prevalent. This practice caused a lot of suffering for the child soldiers and their family. This had a devastating effect for Liberia as a nation.