Chet Lowe: An American missionary working with Liberia’s former child soldiers

Chet Lowe
Chet Lowe (© Facebook)

It’s estimated that up to 15,000 children, mostly boys, actively took part in Liberia’s 7-year civil war. That’s about 15% of the total number of fighters. Children were amongst the most brutal fighters. Many killed, raped, tortured and even practiced acts of cannibalism. Since the return of peace to Liberia two years ago, a number of programmes have been set up to assist these former child soldiers with funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. During the worst of the fighting, most of the foreign aid workers left the country, but one remarkable man remained with his family in a country that seemed to have lost its reason. Chet Lowe is an American missionary at Calvary Chapel Liberia and since 1995, he’s been working with some of the most notorious former child soldiers.

Producers: Eric Beauchemin & Dheera Sujan

Original broadcast: February 8, 1998


Siren Song, hosted by Dheera Sujan.

The West African country of Liberia is still slowly picking up the pieces after a devastating 7-year civil war which left 150,000 people dead. Child soldiers played a major role in this war. It’s estimated that up to 9 to 15,000 children, mostly boys, actively took part in Liberia’s civil war. That’s about 15% of the total number of fighters. Many children were forcibly recruited by one or the other of the factions, but many boys joined simply because they were hungry or feared for their own safety. Children were amongst the most brutal fighters. Many killed, raped, tortured and even practiced acts of cannibalism. Many of the children were forced by the commanders to take drugs to enable them to make their first killings before they became used to it. Since the return of peace to Liberia two years ago, a number of programmes have been set up to assist these former child soldiers with funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. During the worst of the fighting, most of the foreign aid workers left the country, but one remarkable man remained with his family in a country that seemed to have lost its reason. Chet Lowe is an American missionary at Calvary Chapel Liberia and since 1995, he’s been working with some of the most notorious former child soldiers. Eric Beauchemin met Chet Lowe the day before he was leaving Liberia to go home after three incredible years.

We get our boys from the bush, boys who are trapped. They don’t belong where they are or are displaced themselves because of the war, bring them into the city and go through a six-week demilitarisation transit home. It’s during this time that we basically try to demilitarise them. It’s an intensely structured six weeks, where it’s a daily routine. 6 do this, 7 do this, 9 do this, to get them out of the military mindset and into an organisational mindset. The danger with structure is that you may create a different type of military environment, but the difference, I believe, is the care that the counsellors do for the kids. You’re not a commander. You’re a big brother. Our ratio is only 1 to 2, so we have two boys to one counsellor, which I believe definitely helps as far as giving help to the child. After the six weeks, we have two options: the first option is if we know where your family is, then we will relocate you to your family. We believe that’s where the real work begins. We have follow-up counsellors and the counsellors themselves go into the home for six months. The parent signs a contract with us for six months where we support them with $10 US a month, not just the financial means but also everything else. We have parents who come here every day. This child did this, this child did this, and it’s almost like a social work kind of atmosphere. Then the other option is foster homes will take in the children. That foster home will then begin the work of reintegration. They actually take the child in, and he becomes their own child. In Liberian culture, it works perfectly because they’re very used to taking in other people’s children, and actually they’re the ones who do the work. We train the parent to take back the child, how to effectively discipline, how to get them to do what they need to do and not bad behaviour. That really is the project. While they are in this six-week home, we kind of approach the home…they’re children. So we don’t want to teach them how to be metal workers or teach them how to be tie dyers because we don’t want them to go to work. We want them to go to school. But what we do is we offer a variety of things, kind of do it like your first two years of college where you learn a little bit of everything to gain a little bit more exposure. So we do things like: we do soap, we do tie dying, we do carpentry. We carry them into the interior. They make a farm. We have what we call community services where they go to the displaced camps, and they go to the hospital and feed the people there or cut grass or paint and these various things that are going on in the rebuilding of Liberia. So no longer do they look at it as I destroyed this. They look at it and say oh, I helped rebuild this. And we work with the community on that. One of the other things we found is that the children really don’t know much about Liberia. All they know is war. They know that whoever is in power is in power. They know how to fight, but they don’t know simple things that children should know. One of the things that children do here is they take an old bicycle rim, and they put a stick on it and run with the stick down the road. They don’t even know that. So what we decided to do was to call for the elders of the city and also outside of the city to come and speak to the boys. So, every Friday night, we have an elder come and speak to the children. They talk to the children about the way Liberia used to be. That has been incredibly effective: one for the community aspect because no longer are these boys rebels but they’re little children with names, and you remember a name and a face. You don’t remember this faction or that faction. That sensitises the community because they then go out and talk and say: oh, they’re really doing a good job. These boys are really trying.  So that has helped immensely. It has even caused some of them to tell their families to take in some of the boys to help, which has been incredible.

EB: Can you tell me something about these boys? How many children are here and what types of boys are they? Most of our boys, like I said, are special case children. We target the most notorious of the fighters from the ages of 4 to – I think our oldest is 22. And the reason why we take in some of the older ones is because they started fighting when they were younger. They were forced to be in this adultified position, where, as children, they became men. We had an incident even in our own house where a rogue, which is a thief, had come in the night. One of the boys who was there was terrified. We realised here’s this child who was in the bush, who’s probably terrified yet he was a fighter, so everyone feared him. I’d run after the rogue, and he started talking to my wife and said well, when is the pape coming back? Terrified. So we realised that they’re really just children. So one of the things we do is we try to give them their childhood back. We let them play with toys. Even if they are 18, we let them play with toys. You can’t walk without crawling, and if they don’t experience childhood they’ll grow in adult as a child, and they’ll think like a child. Their mindset will be limited to what they know. If you don’t play with toys, if you don’t run the little rim, if you don’t do these things, then your experience is so limited. So I can say we overexpose the boys to a variety of ideas, a variety of philosophies, a variety of things so that they can understand what really life is all about and then make decisions on their own.

EB: You were saying that you were trying to get them out of this military structure into another organisational structure. What is this other organisation that you are trying to create for them? What I was saying is that the danger is when you take a child out of a military-type of environment: yes, sir, commander. Do this, do that, and then you put them in a structured environment, the danger is that you become the next commander. So what we do is our structure is normal life basically, and normal Liberian life. They wake up in the morning, and they have what we call devotions, which is a time to thank the Lord for the morning, and then read portions of the scripture and things like that. Then at 6 o’clock, they start doing tasks, chores, haul water, things like that. These are all normal things that most Liberians do. Then they go to school, and each is at a set time, and we’re very strict about the time because we want over emphasise organisation and structure so that when they go into the home they carry that little overemphasis with them because it’s going to go away gradually. They’re going to lose it. EB: I understood that a lot of these kids rebelled against following instructions and doing things that they were being told. Many kids say, well I used to be a commander. I used to do whatever I wanted to do, and I’m not going to follow orders from somebody else. Do you find that here? Yes and no. The kids are tired. They don’t want to fight anymore. The adults who started fighting who are now adults, I think those are going to be the real future problems, but the children…Children are so resilient. They’re like a rubber band. When you put them in a situation, they’ll snap to fit the situation. That has good qualities and bad qualities. For example, during the war here, our children were terrified. They were terrified with the jet bomber going over, dropping these bombs all over the place. But as soon as they went outside and started playing football, they didn’t even know the fighter was going over their head. So children always adapt. So what we find is that these kids, they are really wanting to change. Yes, there is a power struggle. Of course they were fighters. We’ve kind of coined a little term where we call it momentary acts of unkindness. What I refer that to is when you bring a child out of what they call normal and it’s really our abnormal and you bring them into our normal, there’s going to be a clash, a very big clash. They will try within themselves to be normal, your normal, not their normal. They’ll try, but occasionally what will happen is that they’ll snap, and that snap is that they’ll go right back into their let’s say rebel mindset. Or sometimes you’ll watch them stare at the wall, and they’re really watching a video in their own mind of what they’ve done in the past. Or sometimes you’ll be sitting down around a fire or around a lantern doing homework, and all of a sudden, you’ll see one of the kids stand to attention and start commanding the kids, and then he’ll snap out of it. Really what the kids are doing is they’re replaying. They are going through what they knew. Your body is somewhat like that. If you don’t dream it out, you’ll talk it out or you’ll show it out. You’ll do it. So, as I said, we call it momentary acts of unkindness, and it’s a good test for us because when they first come into the home, those clashes, those acts are very long and drawn out. But by the time they leave the home, they’re very short and very erratic. Then, as they go into the family, the hope is that they become shorter and shorter, almost to the point of non-existence. So, yes and no, I can say. I don’t want to say that they’re rebelling against authority. I want to say more that they are clashing against what they know is normal. They’re children. You see, we think as adults because we are adults, and we have an outside experience. But they don’t know that outside experience. I was put to gunpoint by a 4 year old. That was his experience. That’s what he knew. And when I told him I was going to spank him if he didn’t sit down, that was abnormal for him. So when I shocked him because he was used to pointing a gun and someone dropping in fear. But when I looked at him and said, look, I’m going to put you over my knee, he dropped the gun and ran away ‘cause he’s a child. That was a new experience for him.

EB: What do the counsellors actually do with these kids? Is it simply talking a lot with them and trying to get them to talk about their experiences during the war? What our counsellors do is they just spend time with the kids. As a parent myself, time is the best discipline that you ever have for your children. The more they see you, the more they act like you. They mimic you. If you don’t let them see you, if you don’t spend time with them, they’ll mimic everybody else. And those may be behaviours you don’t necessarily want. These children are children in the same way. So the counsellors become a big brother, a parent, a father for this child that is coming in. They spend time with this child. They have counselling sessions, but they’re non-traditional counselling sessions, where it’ll be a walk or they’ll go to the beach or they’ll be doing an activity and they’ll just be talking. There’s never paperwork written down in front of the child, but each child has their own file. What we do is we do art therapy with the kids as well. When they first come from the bush, we will have them draw a picture of what they’re thinking. Usually, the picture is very dark, thinking about guns and blood. You can see it in the picture. Then at the end of the six weeks, we have them do another picture of what they’re thinking that particular day. Usually, the kids will draw a house, a car and children and a bag of rice. That’s a satisfied Liberian. You’ll find that most of them have this difference of pictures, and that’s another test for us where we will see if they’ve progressed or digressed.  But also in this file, each counsellor keeps a journal for the child. They write the journal as if they are thinking as the child. So every day, at the end of the day, they will sit down when they go home or in their office or whatever, they’ll write the date, and it will be as if the child is writing. So they’ll write something that the child did that day or something like that. That has been a help for us because it helps us see in the long run what was affecting the child. The counsellor’s job, I believe, is building a relationship of trust. They don’t know trust. They’re very fake. They’re very phony. They lie. They’re very too themselves, closed, walls all around them. The counsellor’s job is to get close enough to them, to break those walls, to get out what’s in their file cabinet. Not to bust the file cabinet to get in, but to put some grease and whatever it takes, a screwdriver or something to open it up gently so that you don’t destroy the file cabinet, but you get inside and you get out what’s in there that shouldn’t be there anymore. There’s a verse in the Bible that says confess and you will be healed. Confession really is good for the soul. That’s why I believe it was so popular among the Catholic Church for so long because you get rid of this guilt that you carry around with you. We had a child who had taken a baby and swung the baby and threw it in the forest. He heard the child crying until it landed, and then it was silent. It destroyed him really. He just went crazy and he still is crazy in fact. I say he’s crazy, but he definitely has problems, mental problems. We never understood…he would walk and turn his back real quick, like something was following him. He would light matches before he went to bed so that smoke would fill the room, and Liberians believe that that takes out spirits, incense and things like that, at least he believes. I shouldn’t say all Liberians. Finally, I was walking on the road with him one day, and he did that jerking. We started talking about it, and he started to confess, started getting it out of him. Since that time, he has been progressing more than what he was. But I think that really did him in. That’s all he can think about is that little baby. So, those are the type of children, children who did these type of things.

EB: How big a role does religion play in the whole counselling and rehabilitation process? I believe what we do is represent who Christ was and is. I believe the compassion, the tenderness, the gentleness that He showed, healing, feeding the hungry, doing these types of things, that helps the child to understand what true love is all about, what caring is all about because remember, you’re dealing with a child who is either…their parents left them, rejected them, told them to leave because they’ve come back now and the parent is ashamed of them. Or kids that beat or killed… We have a child who killed their mother. Of course, the family rejects the child. So they don’t know anything about love or compassion. Unfortunately, the mindset is well, let the child be destroyed if they killed their mother. Of course, they should die. But they won’t, and then they will grow up to be adults, and they will grow up to be the next future problem of Liberia. So if you just leave them and let them go and don’t show them what it means to have human caring, then you’ve got a very big problem. We let the child make a decision for himself, not forcing any type of religious decision on them. We think it’s important that they make the decision themselves. That way, when they leave us, it’s a decision they made themselves and will stand by on themselves, not something someone said you have to do this. Expressing remorse is a normal behaviour, but it’s abnormal for these kids. So for them to express remorse… first you have to create a normal child. When the child begins to feel remorseful for the things that they have done, that’s when we know that we have produced a child, not just a machine who’s a killing machine. Remorse, I believe, is key to their own healing. When they start feeling these feelings of oh, I can’t believe I did this. We don’t take that feeling and say you’re right. You shouldn’t have done this. We let them just talk it out, get it out of them and confess it to a counsellor, to God, in prayer, whatever it is to get out so that they feel forgiven. Someone can look at them and say well, we forgive you. Once they get to these feelings of remorse…some of them have done such horrible things that they feel that no one can forgive them. And you’ll find that during this period, they’ll actually digress in their behaviours because they can’t handle the remorse. One of the other biggest things is that they can’t see God. So He’s not real for them, to them yet. But they do see the counsellor, and when the counsellor forgives them, they really feel forgiven and they move out of that remorse into a period now where we can help them. We had a child who was caught stealing, and one of the counsellors spanked him. And he never cried. He never even hinted towards crying. He reverted into rebel behaviour. This child is 8 years old. The amount of things he has done would probably surpass what everyone has done in the war. There’s not one thing you can say that you’ve heard that he hasn’t done already. He’s right now with a very good family. They have a lot of problems with him, but he hasn’t even gotten to the point where he is remorseful, and he’s been here for almost a year. So there’s definitely problems that are still being worked out.

EB: You said that you started out in 1995, and some of the kids are now in homes or foster homes. Do you find that three years later that some of these kids still need to come back from time to time to speak to a counsellor because they may have remembered something or something may have sparked off something in their minds and they need to talk it over with somebody again. We believe that the work starts in the home. So we have even hired a follow-up counsellor who visits four boys every day, four families every day and three boys every week. He goes into the home. First he finds out from the family, and then he’ll meet with the child. Really the work starts in the home because it’s there when they’re cooking that they’ll have a flashback of cooking and that someone threw palm butter on them. What we do is help the parent help the child. Through our counsellors, we have workshops for the parents. We have support groups every month. When they come to get their support, we have support groups where the parents offer advice. We really don’t talk that much. We start a conversation, and then the parents will start inputting and then they’ll learn from each other. But the real work begins in the home. Yes, the counsellor goes into the home. Yes, the child does have problems. Sometimes they’ll run away. We’ve only had one not come back. In fact, we just had a child come back two days ago after six months. He ran away really far into the forest. He came back begging: please, I’m sorry I did this. The families because they are former fighters, they feel any time they do anything that oh, it’s because you’re a rebel. But really, lying is part of being a child, and you have to learn not to lie. Biting your brother is part of being a child. Stealing it’s a part of being a child because it’s through doing all these things that you learn not to do them, either when a parent reprimands them or puts you in the room or punishes you or even spanks you.

EB: How successful have you been in reintegrating these children into the community? I’ll tell you facts. All of our children are in school except for about 10% of them. Out of that 10%, about half of them have gone back to places that do not have schools, which is another problems as far as taking the children back to their areas. We have problems. I’m not going to say that the kids in the homes don’t have problems. But I can say we are a lot further along than where we were when we first started. Our kids used to get a lot of flak from the community, but now, after they’ve seen how they are changing and how they are trying, the community is very accepting of them. At our graduations they love to see these children change, and we have seen quite a big turnaround as far as their mindset is. Back when we started this in ’95, people hated the fact that we were doing this, but now they are seeing it is benefiting their own future. The church has been one of the biggest ways of reintegration because outside of the church, the people are not as forgiving as those who are in the church. So we have used the church and churches within the area to help these kids, and they really are doing the work. EB: How many children have gone through the programme? I believe it’s 120 now, and with our girls it’s 150. EB: And the girls were also child fighters? Our target is child fighters. But we have taken in women, a few women and girls who were battered and ex-rebel wives where either the husband just left them and said the war is finished, go back to your people or died. We have a variety of girls in the home, but they’re all targeted specifically special cases. We have a girl that was raped 20 times one night. So these are the girls we specifically target. EB: And have you had any failures? Oh yes. Goodness. I don’t know where to begin with that. Of course. As adults, we learn from our mistakes. We’ve made, I can say, a lot of mistakes. There’s not a manual to follow. There’s no book that says this is how you deal with child soldiers, and even if it was, I would never read it because every child is unique. Every child is different. When we first put the boys into the home, the fear was always that one of these boys is going to have to have a relapse and kill one of the person’s children. Fortunately, that has never happened, but we have had a stabbing. It was effectively, of course, dealt with and thankfully the child wasn’t at the home. He was at our home here, and he’d come to visit. Some other failures: I think that we have made one failure with one child. The child I was speaking about who had performed this extrication of the person’s heart. He was attacked, and we supported the child, but we didn’t give the child the support that he needed, I think, because we were so repulsed by what he had done, and he left. He is the one who has not come back. We feel somehow responsible for that, and that was human nature. So whether it was a mistake or a failure, we learned from it. We try to be almost emotion free when it comes to those kinds of circumstances. Not emotionless but emotion free so that we don’t become biased and start siding against the child. EB: Have you ever had children who simply cannot be helped? No. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that there is a child that can’t be helped. We’ve had children who believe they can’t be helped, but I don’t think there’s a child who can’t be helped. I think that’s a fallacy. I think the statement is wrong. Children are too resilient. They’ll carry the memory forever, but you can even use bad memories to make you a stronger person if they’re properly dealt with. If you have something to walk with you through the whole thing, it can make you a strong person. I sound like a religious fanatic. I keep quoting structure but there’s a verse that says that children are a blessing from the Lord, a reward. And when you get a reward, you shine it, you polish it. You let it be shown to everyone, and really that’s what we are doing. We’re shining these rewards. And then we given them back to the people that they really belong to, and then help them keep them shined. I believe that there’s hope for every child.

EB: Having worked with former child soldiers for three years now, can you say something perhaps on a more philosophical level or ethical level about the whole phenomenon of child soldiers? Ethically, there is a perverted sense of morals: what is right and what is wrong now because of the war. Coming from the States, watching not myself but seeing how the States moved from the 1910’s to the 1990’s of Puritanism and this deeply religious nation. Everyone goes to church on Sunday. Everything is closed to 1998 when who has the time for any of that stuff? It still took 88 years to do that. Liberia has gone through that in seven years where a complete culture has almost changed in the 7 year period, which is culture shock to everybody who lives in Liberia. To regain those morals that they used to live by and have really excellent standards of life, it’s going to take a lot of work because right now their morals are so different. For example, with our girls, they are known as war-time women. Here are these 13-year-old girls that have children. Babies having babies. Of course, that happened before the war. I’m not doubting the fact that that happened. But it was never as exposed as it is today. Now it’s right. There are things that you can try to create in the children is true ethics, putting inside of them what it really means to be good. One of the things that you will find now after the war is deceitfulness, and that’s all part of this hidden stuff that’s inside of them. The kids, as long as you don’t catch them stealing, then they never stole. Even to  themselves, they never stole. You actually have to catch them in doing it. They’ll lie straight to your face because you never caught them. So therefore they never did it. So, it’s getting all of that out to put real ethics inside of them, things that are true and right. And truth is the standard. Children are very vulnerable. One of the things about children, I believe is, that they will go to where they are accepted. And that’s why they were such good fighters. They are only fearful of things that they have learned fear from. As parents, we teach our children fear. But these children never learned it. I’ll never forget in the early parts of ’95, when I was behind the lines, I had begged one of the commander to please give me these children, let them go to school. I said these children are a burden for you. You have to feed them, take care of them, and he laughed at me, and said these children are the best fighters that we have. I’ll kill somebody. They’ll go on the frontline, get the gun from the person I killed and bring it right back. They don’t care. They’re not scared, and literally he said to me, if they get shot, we’ll find another one. They were faceless, and now these children without any souls are the ones walking around the streets, completely dead inside. No feeling for themselves, no feelings for others. These children have their souls ripped out of them. They didn’t know any better. Like Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan. Children’s natural desire is to lead. They want to be in control. Give me what I want. So when the war came and you were able to get advantage, quote unquote, of course as a child you are going to join to get advantage. We used to do clinics behind the lines. I had a 7 and 8 year old come to me, and one had their hand shot off and the other had their foot shot off. They had played a game which involved shooting each other, and they both left with their arms around each other, the best of friends. That was their idea of life. Now, the problem is, we as adults on the other side now, we don’t like to deal with the pain of the past. So we’d rather forget these children and tell them to be quiet and say don’t talk about that. We don’t want to hear it because it reminds us of our own pain. Out of the three main wars here, I’ve been through two of them, and even I have memories. Dealing with those things in my own self before I can help these children, but we as adults, we don’t want to do that. We’d rather put the memory back behind us and go on with our life now because half of our life is already finished. But these children can’t do that. If they keep it inside of them, eventually it is going to come out like a volcano, and who it erupts on may be the problem. So I believe we as adults need to put behind our fears to help our future. Teaching that to people here, I believe, is one of the key things as far as change for the country.

American missionary Chet Lowe talking about his experiences working with the former child soldiers of Liberia. That’s the end of Siren Song for today. My thanks to Eric Beauchemin. From technician Mark Eylers and from myself, it’s goodbye.