Unless we help ex-child soldiers someone will turn them into killers again

Former child soldiers including Kollie, AKA Polio (Author's image)

His real name was Kollie, but everybody called him Polio. He told me his real name after many months of asking, but he never told me his surname or where he came from. He earned the nickname because he derived fun from shooting people on their kneecaps and crippling them.

The Liberian civil war had brought him from the hinterland to Bong Mines, where I worked from 2010 to 2012. He came as one of the rebels loyal to Charles Taylor and chose to remain when the war was over. He told me he dropped out in fifth grade (aged 10 to 11).

An excellent conversationalist and storyteller, he could verbally re-enact battle scenes that he took part in to the point that one could begin to see them. He vividly told me how he smashed his “first cockroach”, a euphemistic term for killing a human being. He also gave me a step-by-step account of how the rebel fighters planned, invaded and raided towns. He recounted some of the war events with glee, while some filled him with shame and regret.

According to him, he was lured into becoming a rebel fighter by promises of wealth, position and prestige. Unfortunately, all he got from child soldiering were shame, lack of self-trust, addiction to drugs and a terrible nightmare.

Polio’s story is the same as the stories of many ex-child soldiers who took part in the Liberian civil war. These children joined to fight for different reasons. While some were forced by the rebel leaders to join their groups, some were lured by promises of wealth and glory. Some took up arms to avenge their families, some to settle personal vendettas. Some of these children were even encouraged by their parents to become child soldiers. Their reasons for taking up arms notwithstanding, these children were generally treated as pawns by their adult commanders.

Since their consciences were not fully formed at the time of the war, they were sent to carry out horrendous acts. Most of them were sent to cut open the wombs of pregnant women to find out whether the foetuses were male or female; many were encouraged to rape old women to death. Polio told me he had a friend who took pleasure in smashing the heads of infants on walls. For every person he killed, a child soldier was given $50 as bonus.

Now that the war is over, most of them cannot live with what they did. Some of them have committed suicide. A great deal of them are mad, some have gone rogue and some are serious drug addicts. As if this were not gruesome enough, some of these former child soldiers are cannibals. A great deal of cannibalism took place during the war. The rebels relished consuming the hearts and livers of their adversaries with the belief that they could gain their strengths as a result. Some of these rebels still yearn for the “delicacy”. There was the case of a young man, an ex-child soldier, who murdered his stepmother while she was having siesta and was in the process of chopping off parts of her body for lunch when he was caught.

Little effort was not put into rehabilitating these young fighters after the war. The United Nations made concerted efforts to rid the country of weapons by encouraging the fighters to turn in their weapons in exchange for money. The UN and other agencies also paid the young fighters to go to school; they were paid for each day they stayed in class. However, there was little or no effort to rehabilitate them psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. It could be that the powers that be believed that if these child soldiers were meant to get a formal education their sordid past would be obliterated and their future would be secured.

This has not been the case. One school in Bong County was burnt down by these former child soldiers because their daily allowance did not come on time, and another group of ex-child soldiers beat up the parish priest of a parish school and threw him over the fence because he dared to discipline one of them.

According to recent statistics taken by a non-governmental organisation focused on Liberian youths, more than 80 per cent of the former child soldiers have dropped out of school after the war. Either they were expelled for violent conduct which often involved beating up a teacher, or they simply stopped going to school.

They have overwhelming traumas which prevent them from making out something good for themselves. Sadly, they are treated as outcasts by their own people who knew what they did in the war. Many of them are treated worse than lepers, and not many people want to hear them out. As a result, they live with their guilt, trauma, pain, addictions and horrors.

Some former child soldiers, however, are doing something about their situation. They are offering themselves as assassins and thugs for politicians. Many of them have become fighting hands for many rebels groups all over Africa. It is on record that many Liberian former child soldiers were actively involved in the recent conflicts in Ivory Coast, Mali and Libya. This goes to show that the existence of unrehabilitated former child soldiers is a regional, if not a global menace. Sending them to school without hearing their stories, without giving them the opportunity for psycho-spiritual healing will be mere window dressing.

The government of Liberia is not making a significant effort towards the recovery of these individuals. The government simply banned them from joining the armed forces and the police and also from joining the national soccer team. Sadly, they have made little effort to reintegrate them into the society. Ironically, the government officials who made these policies were the same people who encouraged these youngsters to fight for the cause they championed.

These former teenage fighters are forming a clandestine counter-culture in Liberian society. All they need is another Charles Taylor, a charismatic organiser who would forge them into a deadly fighting force that they once were. All he needs to do is give them money, pretend to care about them and tell them that the government hates them – and the rest is history.

However, the government and the stakeholders in Liberian society, could be proactive and begin to rehabilitate these young men before they fall into the wrong hands.

Polio may seem harmless and fun to be with at present, but I know that he is a raw material waiting to be refined. Being formed into a healing agent or a killing machine depends on the person who gets to him first.

Fr George Okoro is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul of Nigeria. He currently works in Liberia