Faceless warriors – Child soldiers in Liberia

Tom, a former child soldier
Tom, a former child soldier (© Eric Beauchemin)

In 1989, civil war broke out in the West African nation of Liberia. During the seven-year battle for power, it’s estimated that over 150,000 people were killed, and one in two was forced to flee. Over 30,000 people actively participated in the war; 7,000 of them were children.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 8, 1998

Silver medal, New York Radio Festivals, 1999
Bronze medal, United Nations Department of Public Information, 1999


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Faceless Warriors”, produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

They were faceless, and now these children without any souls are the ones walking around the streets, completely dead inside. No feelings for themselves, no feeling for others. These children, I believe, have their souls ripped out of them.

The faceless, soulless creatures are the former child soldiers of Liberia, a country in West Africa, founded a century and a half ago by freed American slaves. In late 1989, Liberia descended into darkness as rival warlords began a 7 year battle for power. Long periods of fighting were followed by brief interludes of peace and then by yet more bloodshed. 150-thousand people were killed, and one in two was forced to flee. Over 30-thousand people actively participated in the war. About 7-thousand of them were children.

Robert and Momo, another former child soldier
Robert and Momo, another former child soldier (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Robert. I’m 14. EB: When did you start fighting in the war? 1991. EB: So when you were 8 years old? Yes. EB: Why did you start fighting? Because I feel that my friends are parents were suffering. I was a bodyguard to one of the chief of staff. I have to guard him, to protect him. EB: Did you have a gun or a rifle? Yes. I was using an AK. EB: An AK 47? Yes. EB: Wasn’t that very heavy for a young person like you? It was not heavy. EB: And did you use your AK47, Robert? I used it very well. I fight but I never kill innocent.

No one knows exactly how many children like Robert were involved in Liberia’s civil war. The United Nations’ Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimates that 20% of the combatants were under the age of 18. Some were as young as 4 years old. About one percent of the child soldiers were girls. Many more girls were wartime women, a term they themselves coined. They became wives or girlfriends in order to survive. Kelly David has spent the past three months preparing a report for UNICEF on Liberia’s child soldiers.

Liberia’s conflict is characterized by an usual amount of young boys who willingly went into fighting, who volunteered. Now when they did so, obviously many of them didn’t understand the consequences of what they were doing. They joined for revenge because the previous regime had targeted their ethnic group during previous conflicts. A lot of them were poor children who were in the rural areas, who had long been isolated from the enclave economy that they had on the coast. This was their first opportunity through the gun to get money, to be able to loot, to give them some sort of status in the community. And others did it just to protect their families. They were there in these villages every day with one faction after another taking the village. And fighters would come up to them and take anything they had: humiliate them in public, take their clothes, take their watch, anything that they coveted. So they did it just to protect themselves and to protect their families. So when you say “willing”, there were a lot of circumstances that just made that one of the only choices they had.

But many children had no choice. They were tortured or forced to witness the beating, rape or killing of family members and neighbors. Mr George was 13 when he suddenly had to take up arms.

I joined by force. I was living with my parents in the village and the faction captured the village, and they said “all the young boys in the town should join them”. I said I didn’t want to join them, but they start to hit me with the gun, so I begin to join them too. Most of them they was very very very bad. EB: Why were they bad? Some when they stand and they see your parents standing up, they would like to fire between them, in the legs. All type of noise and things they were doing there. EB: And what did you have to do? As for me, I was very easy in the faction. I was not a bad fellow in the faction. I was a bodyguard to the general.

In the early parts of 1995, when I was behind the lines, I had begged one of the commanders 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 front line, 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”.

The most fearsome of the faceless warriors, says Kelly David, were the small boy units.

The small boy units were usually kids under 11 and they were trained to be the most brutal, ruthless fighters. The adult fighters – who joined older and understood killing as a moral transgression, did it nonetheless but understood it – were fearful of the small boys, because these were the ones who didn’t even understand the seriousness of what they were doing. They would kill without question. They were so beaten and tortured themselves when they were in these small boy units that they just became trigger-happy, violent. Civilians would say you could beg for your life with an adult soldier who might have some compassion, but if you were stuck with a product of the small boy unit, they would just kill without question, and they weren’t thinking individuals at that time.

Tom didn’t belong to a small boy unit, but he too committed atrocities. At the beginning of the war, when he was 13, rebels attacked his village, and he was separated from his parents and the rest of his “people”…or family.

I was just forced to fight because there was no one there to help me and furthermore my people not around. So I was just forced to fight to secure myself. EB: Did you receive training? Yes, I’m a special forces. EB: How long did the training last? Six months. I want to fight because it was my duty and furthermore I don’t have nobody. So where they put me, there where I will go. To go and save my life. EB: Did you fight on the front lines? Exactly so. EB: Were you afraid the first time? No, I was not afraid because I have been introduced with drugs. EB: What type of gun did you have? Did you have an AK47? No. I was using mortar. EB: Mortar? Did you have to kill people also? As a trained man, you should sit and think. If a fighter tell you he goes on front, and you should know that he performed some act… I’ve been experiencing some terrible things during the war. I’ve been seeing some terrible things, been doing some terrible things. So I’m not…when I’m sitting, my heart all joshing me. EB: You said that you saw terrible things during the war. Can you tell me about some of these things? Yes. I saw some people killing, taking off heart, eating heart, human heart, burning human beings, killing young baby. I’d see a whole lot of things going on. Did you do any of these things? I did. Yes, I did because we got to go by command. Yes. So that’s what made me to involve myself in killing, destroying, doing a whole lot of terrible things.

The barbarity of some of the events is overwhelming. The fact that children could have committed such crimes defies the imagination…but it happened all too easily, says Kelly David.

I think some of them it was because of the drugs. Others were taken at such a young age that they learned to know killing as normal. During the fighting, when everybody scattered, they completely lost track of their family. They may have been 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the fighters would just pick them up. That was their only source of security and protection. I had one kid tell me about a time when one faction had taken over his town. They took him and then before he could even get involved with that faction, another faction came and grabbed him and wanted to do retribution on the first faction. So they gave him a chain saw. The first time they went to take revenge on the other faction, he said he could just watch. He could barely even stand to watch. He was throwing up. He was on the outskirts of the whole thing. The second time, he said he could get a little closer and watch what they were doing. The third time he could stand close enough that the blood was on him and totally face it. And the fourth time he was doing it himself. So I think just through a process of becoming numb and having no other choices, that you just…I don’t know, people can do anything I guess.

The long ordeal came to an end in 1996, after what’s known in Liberia simply as April 6th: a final, few bloody months of terror as the factions fought for power in the capital, Monrovia.

Former ministry in the Liberian capital Monrovia
Former ministry in the Liberian capital Monrovia (© Eric Beauchemin)

After the corpses had been cleared and peace finally re-established, Liberia’s child soldiers and the other combatants were demobilized. For most, demobilization lasted less than 24 hours, says Lois Brutus of the Children’s Assistance Program, CAP, a local group dealing with former child soldiers and other youths affected by the war.

The type of demobilization that we did here was the quick and dirty method. EB: What is demobilisation? I always say it is a legal process because it tends to change the combatant, the status of the combatants, from that of a military posture to a civilian posture. But to actually effect that, you will need time, weeks with these combatants. But what we had was a quick off thing. It was less than 24 hours we had with them. They came in. The personal data, statistical datas were taken, and we had the interviewing and then we put them in the vehicles and took them to their various destinations.

Within days, soldiers – both adults and children – who had known little more than fighting and terror for years suddenly became civilians again. In other countries in the continent which have endured long civil wars – like Mozambique or Angola – both adult and child soldiers were sent to special demobilisation centers for several weeks or months. The long period of encampment was designed to prepare the fighters for civilian life and help them come to terms with the war and the atrocities they themselves had committed. According to Patricia Mawbry, the counseling supervisor of WAYS, a program for war-affected youths, most, if not all the former child soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

Ways project
WAYS project (© Eric Beauchemin)

The trauma that we see most often is flashbacks, reliving the situations. Irritation. They startle easily. And they are very, very aggressive. Sometimes you get a level of nightmare. Some sleeplessness. But mostly they are aggressive. They are nervous. They are jittery, and they tell us that these atrocities that they committed keep haunting them. They looking for a way out but the memories of those events keep coming back to them, and they just jump up, scream in their sleep in the night, yell. Sometimes they just run out and it’s just terrible. It’s just terrible. Sometimes they get into serious fits of anger and violence because some of them do feel that they are being haunted by spirits of people they have killed.

Some of the kids, says Chet Lowe, feel that they’re being haunted, literally.

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 silence. And it destroyed him, really. 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. He believed that that takes out spirits, incense and things like that. Finally I was walking on the road with him one day. He did that jerking and we started talking about it, and then he started to confess. Started getting it out of him. And since that time, he has been progressing more than what he was, but that I think really did him in. That’s all he can think about is that little baby.

Many of Liberia’s former faceless warriors have lost hope in the future, in life itself. For most of them, the monotony of the daily struggle for survival pales in comparison to life as a soldier. Tom, the boy soldier who murdered…who practiced cannibalism during the madness of battle, continues to be haunted by the war years. Not only did he lose the innocence of childhood, but also his ability to feel.

Up to now, I don’t have feeling. If you can cut me, I don’t have feeling on that. EB: You don’t feel anything? Yes. EB: Do you think about the war a lot? Yeah, sometimes I think about the war. Yes. EB: Do you talk to counselors or friends about what happened during the war? Sometimes we sit together and discuss. I was not really comfortable to talk with my friends because they all were afraid of me. Yes, up to now, they all afraid of me. I don’t know why. Because my heart is not really clear with people. I don’t really like to go around people because I feel my condition. I don’t have nobody. Nobody taking care of me. I do everything for myself. Yes. EB: So you live out on the street? Nearby store, there where I live. There where I sleep at night. EB: Do you feel remorse now? Do you feel guilty about what you did? Yes. Well, I’m sure that one day God will make way for me to sit down to a better place.

They felt that they didn’t know what they were doing. They were highly drugged. They were not within themselves. They say they just see the human beings or whatever they come in contact with as animals or ants. So they were never in control of themselves. They just committed atrocities and at the end of the day they feel that, you know, “I’m not responsible. I didn’t even remember what I did.” You had to do whatever they told you to do or else you would be killed. And they confessed this to us. A few of them express remorse but the majority of them actually feel that they are not responsible. They had to do what they had to do to survive. It was the survival of the fittest.

Survival, says counselor Patricia Mawbry, was the main concern of many of the faceless warriors in the months after the end of the war in 1996. Since then, programs have been established to help these children rediscover normality.

CAP literacy class in Virginia
CAP literacy class in Virginia, a western suburb of Monrovia (© Eric Beauchemin)

One of the most pressing needs after 7 years of fighting is to provide basic literacy classes to the former child soldiers and other children affected by the war.

This is a literacy pilot project of USAID/UNICEF. We have a little program running for the children, where we bring the children every day. We go into the displaced centers, bringing in the children, the kids that are unfortunate, to help them. We go on the streets too. We find the wayward ones and bring them in. We teach them basic literacy and numeracy. The program actually starts at 8 o’clock, when they arrive here. They have their breakfast. Then they come to the class. They have their lunch break and then we take them back. How many children are there in this class? Today we have 60 children and the age range is from 6 years old to 15. Isn’t that a lot of children in one class? It is a lot of children but because of the limited facility – we don’t have enough classrooms here – and we have separated into groups, into classes. For example, back there we have the K2 class. And this side, we have the first grade, and the second grade, and we have here the 3rd and 4th graders. All the way to the back there.

The literacy project is run by the Children’s Assistance Program. CAP, like most programs in Liberia, works both with former child soldiers and other war-affected youths. Even though most experts agree that the ex-combatants need more attention, it was decided not to create special institutions or programs to avoid stigmatizing them. But the CAP project coordinator, Lois Brutus, still feels that former child soldiers need extra support and counseling. Readjusting to normal life, she says, is not as easy as it sounds for the former faceless warriors.

In the beginning when they come into the center, you give them clothes and they are going to sell the clothes. You give them the spoons and the plates and they are going to destroy in front of you. They will do it. But you continue to give it to them and you say, “this is for you. What are you going to do? Are you going to sell it tomorrow?” That kid will tell you, “yes, I am going to sell it”. “Then I am going to give you another one. And then, gradually, that child is going to come to the realization by himself that “OK, this is a shirt or trousers. I have to use it.” But that child has to discover it by himself.

The Children’s Assistance Program and similar projects not only provide counseling and basic literacy to the children and adolescents, they also offer vocational training to help them find a job.

My name is David Smokey and I am the building instructor. What we normally do in the session here is to teach the children basic training on how to do construction. And in the building trade, automatically we teach them carpentry. EB: The course lasts six months, is that right? Yes. Six months. EB: Do they have enough basic skills after six months? Actually they will work as an apprentice. They will not go out there to be professional from the start. But it will be like you’re a handyman, to a professional. But once you stay on your feet for a while, you get adjusted to it and you learn to be a carpenter.

Pottery class for teenagers affected by the war
Pottery class for teenagers affected by the war (© Eric Beauchemin)

Training programs are taking place throughout Liberia. In the town of Gbargna in the center of the country, over 70 war-affected youths are attending a graduation ceremony. They’ve just completed six months of training in tailoring, graphic arts, carpentry and soap-making. The Sustainable Development Promoters, with support from UNICEF, also provided them literacy classes. George Sabwe is the program’s coordinator.

About 50% of the students being socially reintegrated. By that I mean, most of the students that graduated in our first set of program have gone back to regular school. This is the second graduation we had. During the first graduation, we were successful in having about 10 percent of the students setting up business units. After graduation, we realised that most of the children did not have the requisite business skills to go into business. So we had to do some crash business training. So right now we are negotiating with organizations like Trickle Up and ILO that will be giving us macro-credit. So that once our children have completed the business training, they can be given loans to start a business.

In the northern town of Ganta, an orthopedics workshop is being completed, to treat the 2 to 3 thousand Liberians who need artificial limbs – former soldiers and civilians, adults and children. Donald Flemo is one of the child soldiers who was injured during the war. In 1993, a bullet destroyed his ankle. He’s in frequent pain and can barely walk. Donald’s family wants nothing more to do with him because of his disability. The government too seems to want to wash its hands of Donald and the hundreds of other child soldiers and adults who were disabled during the war.

We wholeheartedly wishing for the government to help us: medical health, food assistance, educational assistance, vocational training and some other areas so as to enable us to live too. EB: What is the government giving you now? The government can sometimes give us food. EB: Are you frustrated by the fact that the government is not helping you more? Well, we know the present situation on the ground. So we only have the hope that they will cater to our needs. EB: But I mean you have been waiting for months. How much longer can you wait? We will continue to pray to God to hold our peace until things improve properly.

Hundreds or even thousands of faceless warriors, like Donald, have disappeared in the streets of Monrovia and in villages up country. (No one knows how many.) They’re waiting impatiently for their former faction leaders to fulfill some of the promises they made during the war. Most of the former warlords haven’t kept a single promise, says J.B. Mafigono, who runs the Don Bosco home for former child soldiers and other war-affected children in Kakata, a few hours north of Monrovia. The bitterness is growing.

They are very, very frustrated. Promises upon promises were made by their commanders at the time that “look, you will fight, put us in power, and we will in turn give you some money but to their utter surprise, nothing has happened. A lot of the kids who fought and took part in this war are left in limbo, in social limbo and so definitely if nothing is done, you gonna have a very serious problem in this country. So something must be done by the government. It is these kids in fact helped to put this particular government into power. But not even a year and they’ve forgotten these kids, and they go in the streets expressing their frustration. And so, if nothing is done, we may have some serious problems. They may be looking at any stick to hold so that they can get dry. In other words, if someone come and say “look, I’m going to make war”, most of them would say “yes, I can support you because these were made promises to us and nothing happened.

Don Bosco Homes
Don Bosco Homes (© Eric Beauchemin)

These former child combatants can be found throughout Liberia. It would take little for them to pick up the gun again, say humanitarian aid workers. In fact some child soldiers are still following orders for their former commanders. According to Elke Wisch of UNICEF, it’s difficult to encourage these youths to return to normal life.

When you go to a place and you find out that OK well maybe there’s still about 500 fighters in this area. And then they tell you well half of us are not from here, and you ask them, “why haven’t you gone back to your original counties?” and they tell you they don’t have the money, that’s not really the right reason. They will voice a lot of frustration and that’s right, something should be done for them. But for a lot of them, programs would actually be accessible and available, and they’re not taking advantage of it.

Peace and reconciliation are the mantras of the government, local and foreign charities, and the churches you find on every block in Monrovia, and even in the remotest villages. Peace and reconciliation are also the dream of most Liberians. Foreigners say they’ve never seen as forgiving a people as the Liberians. But the wounds run deep, says missionary Chet Lowe, particularly among the former child soldiers – who were both victims and aggressors.

You’re dealing with a child whose either parents left them, rejected them, told them to leave because they have come back now, and the parent is ashamed of them. Or kids that beat or killed…we have a child who killed their mother… And of course the family rejects the child. So they don’t know anything about love or compassion. Unfortunately the mind set 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.

It is a time bomb that will go out any minute, if they are left unattended. Because there are so many and they are so little. Their needs are not being met out there. We need something like a national program that will get these children out of the streets, put them in a home, whereby counselors would be in house to do what is necessary.

Even children who are receiving counseling and assistance have a rough road ahead. Most of the former child soldiers who are receiving an education or job training are likely to graduate to unemployment. After 7 years of chaos and destruction, Liberia’s economy is only very slowly beginning to recover. There’s only so much can be done for former child soldiers like Tom.

I’m very happy to see myself doing something now. My problem now is that I really need someone to really help me to start helping myself. Q: And you want to be a carpenter, right? Exactly so. And I have so many step to take. I have to advance myself in academic school level. I would like to tell you whenever you people go, you should not forget about us because we are really suffering. Anyway, I’m 9th grade student speaking, Tom Alison.

Chet Lowe
Chet Lowe (© Facebook)

It’s a plea made by many of the 7-thousand former child soldiers in Liberia: not to be forgotten. They got sucked up in a brutal civil war which they did not and could not understand. They became warriors at an age when they should’ve been going to school and playing with toys. Tom will never be able to fully recover his lost childhood. His is a fate shared by 200-thousand child soldiers in over 25 countries around the world. These faceless warriors, believes Chet Lowe, cannot simply be ignored nor forgotten.

I believe that there’s hope for every child. 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 somebody that’s willing to walk with you through the whole thing, it can make you a strong person. The problem is that we as adults, we don’t like to deal with the pain of the past. So we would 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. We would 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 them, eventually it is going to come out like a volcano and who it erupts on may be the problem.

Faceless Warriors was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.