Innocence lost: The child soldiers of Sierra Leone

Child soldiers
Child soldiers in Sierra Leone (© Eric Beauchemin)

It’s estimated that over 5000 children fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war, but the figure could be as high as 10,000. One rebel group admitted in late 1999 that 30% of its combatants were minors. The children tell horrifying stories about how the war affected them. Many were turned into killing machines through drugs, alcohol and sheer fear. The children often say they didn’t know why Sierra Leoneans were killing their own people. The rebels’ explanations didn’t make sense. For these children, the war became a struggle for individual survival.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 16, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Innocence Lost: the Child Soldiers of Sierra Leone tell their story”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The primary method of recruitment is abduction and most of those who were abducted were children. In many ways, children make very effective combatants. They don’t ask a lot of questions, they follow instructions, they’re easy to please and they often don’t understand and are able to evaluate the risks of going into war. So they made use of thousands of child combatants.

Lahai (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Lahai Givon. EB: And how old are you Lahai? 12 years old. EB: OK. Tell me how you got involved in the fighting. They forced me to join them. And I said I will not join them, and they killed my small brother to join them by force. There I changed up my mind to join them. EB: Because if you didn’t join them, they would kill you too. Yes. EB: How old were you then? By that time I was 7 years when I joined them. EB: 7 years old! Yes, sir. EB: They took you, and then what happened? Well I joined them in the first patrol when we went to attack one village and they killed so many people. I was not so happy about that. EB: What did you have to do in that first battle? Well, I…they forced me to fight in the battle, and I did so. EB: So they gave you a gun? Yes. They gave me an AK47. EB: Did you kill many people in that first battle? I cannot tell because I was just shooting about. I cannot see nothing. They told us to shoot. EB: Were you afraid in that first battle? I was well afraid because that is my first time to do that kind of act.

In the early 1990’s, rebels invaded Sierra Leone, in West Africa. They said they wanted to end corruption and the widespread poverty among Sierra Leone’s 5 million inhabitants. But it soon became clear that the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front were after the same thing as the government: Sierra Leone’s abundant diamond and mineral resources. The RUF rebels began to plunder, kill and maim their own people in the name of freedom and democracy. And they began to abduct children. Ibrahim was on his way to school with some friends when the rebels attacked. His friends escaped, but the rebels caught Ibrahim and took him to their base. He received a week of training, together with 40 other children… some older than him, some younger. Ibrahim was 7 years old.

Ibrahim (© Eric Beauchemin)

They taught him how to fire the rifle and they taught him how to retreat when an enemy is in an advantage position. EB: Were you afraid when you started the training? Yes. When he was first asked to kill, he was afraid. EB: Were you forced to kill during the training or after the training? He was forced to train and also to kill. They told him if he does not train or kill, he will be killed too. So did you kill somebody during the training? The day he completed the training, he was sent out to attack. So during that fight, he killed two people. EB: What did you think, Ibrahim, the first time you killed somebody? He was thinking continuously about the people he killed. EB: Did you think that you had done something bad? Initially he thought it was bad but if he didn’t kill them, they would kill him. So he had to…it was inevitable.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 children were abducted and had to take up arms during Sierra Leone’s 9 year civil war. Most children were forced to watch or take part in the murder, amputation or rape of their parents, family members or neighbours. They were told that if they did not join the rebels, they too would be killed. Most children joined. But not all. When the RUF rebels entered 13-year-old Ibrahim’s village, they destroyed most of the properties, including his house. They took one of his friends in front of the family compound and slit his throat. When Ibrahim’s father went out to protest, the rebels murdered him. Ibrahim, his mother and his brothers and sisters managed to escape. Ibrahim’s story is punctuated by encounters with various rebel groups.

We came here into the second city, Bo. So by then, the rebels started gathering younger mens to join their forces. Most of the time, during the curfew hours, they like to run about our areas, telling me that let me join them because they were the people who were going to save people’s lives and properties. But I kindly see that they are not the people who are saving people’s lives and property, because if they were the people, they would not kill my father in the presence of me and my mother and my brothers and sisters.

As the RUF rebels spread terror throughout Sierra Leone, civilians established militia groups to protect their lives and property. At the age of 14, John decided to join one of these militia groups, after the rebels had attacked his village.

John (© Eric Beauchemin)

At the time when they were in the village, they had to kill the entire people. His parents and guardians. They used the power saw.. EB: An electric saw? Yeah, the chain saw. The chain saw. So when he went to fetch water, he came back and met the people, they were dead. They have killed them. So from there, he had to run away. Came in Bo Town here and had to join the Kamajor society. EB: Why did you have to join the Kamajor? Because they have killed his people, so he had to go and revenge. So that he was why he joined the Kamajor Society.

The Kamajors were the biggest civilian militia group. They’re traditional hunters who go through secret initiation rights. The Kamajors observe laws which, they believe, make them bullet proof.

He said he had no military training. They were just Kamajors and that wherever they say there is an attack, they go there. Without military training, they go there and fight the people. EB: But were you given an arm? Initially he had a knife. So he fought with the knife and killed a rebel. So he had to use the AK47 which the rebel had to fight with. EB: Did you know how to use the AK47? Yes, sir. EB: How did you know? He knows how to cock and fire. EB: So after that, whenever you had to attack rebels, you used the AK47? Yes, sir. He said yes, for him to kill many.

They don’t hide at all. Broad daylight. They enter into their camps. Wherever they have been found, singing “mabulaleh Sina”, that is “we will cut their throats tomorrow, any time we met them”. That is it. So they go face to face, attack them, and do whatever what thing they want to do. EB: Did you actively go and search for rebels, or it was only in defence, when they were attacking? Because they were attacking their people. So they had to defend themselves and fight for the Sierra Leoneans, the civilians in particular. EB: Did you enjoy the fighting? Well, yes.

John and Sierra Leone’s other child soldiers were seeking the approval of their elders and trying to prove their masculinity at an age when they were still kids. They were too young to understand what the fighting was all about. Desmond was 10 when the RUF rebels entered his village. He’s puzzled when I ask him about the reasons behind the war. He still doesn’t understand why the rebels forced him to watch as they slit his parents’ throat or why they took him along with them.

Well, at that time, I don’t know because I am a small boy. They forced me to join. I don’t know, sir. EB: And do you know now what you were fighting for? Well, when they arrested me, they told us that we are fighting for freedom. The SAPP government: it’s the money, it’s a lot of money. So, they want to form another government so that even all of us will have vehicle for ourself. They said they will build house for us if we succeed. Yes, they told us many things.

But in their brutal conquest for Sierra Leone’s wealth, the rebels never had any intention of sharing the diamonds and other minerals with anyone. The country’s only other natural asset were the children. They abducted thousands of girls, some as young as 10, to satisfy their sexual desire. Some of the boys were also raped, but the vast majority, some as young as 4 years old, were taken to fight. The child soldiers were trained and indoctrinated to become among the cruelest combatants in this very vicious war.

Desmond (© Eric Beauchemin)

I fight with them plenty times. We went and destroyed towns. We burned houses. After the fighting, we arrest some peoples. The commanders told us to kill them. At that time we killed them. My commander, that commander is very wicked. He gives you a knife to kill somebody. If you not, also you will die, yes. When he gave you the knife, he said, “look at this person. Kill this person.” If you deny, he will slaughter you also. So that’s why I do so. So the name that they give me…the fighting name is Blood Never Dry. So my name is that. EB: Besides killing people, did you have to rape people or do atrocities? Well at that time, yes, we rape people when we attack a town. When we see many girl, we are rape them. Even I at that time I was having a woman. EB: How old were you then? At that time, I was 12 years old at that time. EB: And you had a woman? Yes. EB: Was she the same age as you or was she older? Well, yes she’s older than me at that time. She’s 15 years old. Yes. EB: Why did you want to have a woman? When we are with our commanders, they told us everybody should have a woman. So if you don’t have a woman, you should not live with them. That gives us the cause to do so.

Like Desmond and almost all the other child soldiers, 12-year-old Ibrahim was an obedient combatant. But, when Ibrahim was taken at the age of 7, he was too young to be forced to enjoy the “bounty” captured during the rebel raids.

He didn’t rape women. But most times he was sent by his boss to get beautiful women for him. So, capture them under threat and brought them for the commander. But he didn’t actually rape himself. EB: When you say fight, did you go into villages to kill people or did you kill people in the bush? If they are attacking the village, if there are no enemies, then they would not kill civilians. But if there are enemies then during the fight then obviously those civilians would be killed. EB: But how did you know who was an enemy and who wasn’t an enemy? They used to send people on reconnaissance. EB: Were you also one of these spies, Ibrahim? They used to give them things like cigarettes, ground nuts, and other things to sell to the people. So during the process of selling, you gather information and report back to the base. EB: What type of information were you looking for, Ibrahim? While they sell the stuffs, they look around where the enemy installed the weapons, what type of weapons they carry and where their base is so at least they can determine from what angle to attack them. EB: Were you a good spy? They used that information to attack the place and they were most times very successful in their task. So according to his measurements, he was a very good spy.

Many of the child soldiers speak with pride about their accomplishments on the battleground. But they were always aware that a mistake could cost them their life.

There were times when one of them would commit a crime, so the commander would ask them to beat him to death. So there was time when he was asked to beat one of the squad mates, fighters. He was asked to beat him to death, but at least he didn’t have the strength. So when he started beating, he was recalled and some elder person was asked to beat the guy to death. And he was beaten to death. EB: What was the crime that the person had committed? They were in an ambush when he mistakenly fired, so they were. EB: During all this period that you were fighting, were you afraid that you might make a mistake and that you might be punished? He was always scareful and afraid not to commit a crime. Sometimes when they were about to attack a village, he always made sure that he was at the back so that he could not commit a crime, that he would be manhandled. EB: You said that the first time, Ibrahim, the first time you killed somebody, you thought about those people for a long time. Afterwards, when you were killing people, did you continue to think about them or did you simply kill people and forget about it? After the first experience when he actually started killing people, he didn’t worry or think about them too much because they used to dance to music. They used to live in groups so there was no time to think much about the people he killed. EB: And among the other fighters, did you have some good friends? So there was a time when they were in Makbas, that is a village in the north. So they were attacked by Kamajors. He was in a house. So when he came out, he just saw the Kamajors, but one of his friends was very smart to kill the Kamajor who wanted to kill him. Timely, timely intervention. So he shot the Kamajor and the Kamajor dropped. So he dashed in the gutter. So while he was in the gutter, another friend came, launched RPG on the enemy, so while they ran away, so he managed to escape. So without these two friends he would have been dead.

EB: During the 5 years that you were with the rebels, did they treat you well the rebels? They were not treating us well. They just treat us roughly. EB: What did they do? Like in the night, they tell us to go and sleep at the bush to look after them. EB: So they were sleeping and you had to guard. Yes. They were sleeping, and we went into the bush. EB: Did they give you enough to eat? No, they did not give us enough food to eat, because there was not enough food. EB: Did you try to escape at any time? The first time I try to escape and they caught me and put me into the guardroom. And then they flogged me. They gave me 100 cuts. EB: It’s a lot, heh. Yes. EB: Were there many other small boys in the unit like you? Yes, of course. Some boys were there, I was elder than them. Some of them was 4 years with guns. EB: 4 years old with guns! Yes. These small boys they were wicked. EB: Why were they wicked? Because they give them medicine. They change up their mind. One of them got crazy in fact. EB: What happened? I don’t know really what happened. One day, I just see the boy firing gun. The boy was crazy. EB: Did they also give you drugs? Yes, in the first battle, they give us blood to drink. EB: Human blood? Yes. It gives us mind to fight more. It tempts us to kill people. So they gave us those blood and some medicine to drink. And I drink those medicine.

The rebels didn’t only introduce the children to traditional practices such as juju or black magic. They also drugged them, using alcohol, marijuana, barbiturates, amphetamines and cocaine. Their goal was to turn the children into fighting machines. One of the most vicious combatants to emerge out of the 9 years of war is undoubtedly 16-year-old Ibrahim. He has known almost nothing but fighting since the age of 8. He speaks of his years on the front with relish and nostalgia.

Ibrahim (© Eric Beauchemin)

When I’m going to war front, you know, I join a group. Yes, because I was staying with the Zebra Battalion, so our battalion used to do a lot of things, drinking human blood before going to a front, taking drugs. EB: Drinking human blood and taking drugs? Yeah. That I used to do before going to a front. EB: And this would give you courage? Yeah, yeah. It give me the force to do something. EB: How did you get this human blood? There’s a lot of civilians people, we used to capture them. So sometimes, we ask for blood and they give it. Sometimes they kill them from the prison, then they give us. EB: Did you have to drink a lot of blood? Yeah. Sometimes, even sometimes, when I am going to the front, that is my first thing in the morning. That is my coffee I take in the morning…every morning, even not going to war front. EB: It’s like taking coffee? Yeah. So I have to do that.

During the time I was with the drugs, I was not feeling anything bad when I’m at the front. And whenever I am on my base I don’t feel anything bad. EB: You said that you killed a lot of people also, right? Yeah, yes. EB: And besides killing, did you also rape women or do other bad things? I raped women. Yeah I rape women. I kill children. Yeah. EB: But when you say that you killed children, why did you kill children? Naturally, sometimes my head, sometimes my head just blow up. Even my friend who is standing beside me, if I have started going off head, I just pull my pistol and fire him sometimes. Yeah. That’s why they call me Bloodshed. EB: They call you what? General Bloodshed. EB: General Bloodshed. Yeah. EB: So how many children did you kill do you think? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know how many children I killed. I don’t know how many persons I killed. Sometimes for a day I kill more than 5. So I can’t remember how many people I killed, you know. EB: So did all the other fighters fear you? Were they afraid of you? My boys, they are afraid of me because whenever I am with my pistol, sometimes I shot anything. Like we are sitting down talking, you know, and they want to bring something up. I just shoot you and die. Yeah. Maybe sometimes I just see something that is strangeful to me, and I say this, I want to kill this person. I just look at it and say I will kill you. You would not believe – I kill you. Because I was a strong fighter. I can’t fear anything when I am fighting. EB: When you say you didn’t have to fear anything, what does that mean? No, like in the front, the only time I retreat, when my ammunition have finished in my gun, that’s why at time. And I say, anybody retreat, I will kill you, so I always advance. EB: Why were you never afraid? Because I used to it, and I like the way of fighting. You know, when I’m fighting they make me a general, so I have to pull a name.

EB: When you say fight, what did you do exactly? I mean did you go into a village and did you start killing people? What did you do? When we say fight, that is not only killing people. But we are fighting to remove our enemies around us. Yeah. EB: Did you know who the enemy was? Yeah, the enemy was because they always try to attack us and we too try to attack them. That’s why we tell them they are our enemies. EB: But did you think at some point well, I’m just going to put my weapons down and not fight anymore? No. I thought I would even die by the barrel. I don’t want to come to town again. That’s what I was thinking. EB: Why did you think that? Because I love the bush. That’s where I stay. Since 8 years to 16 years. It was home. Yeah, it was my home.

But it wasn’t a way of life for all the children. After one particular battle, that left many of his comrades dead or wounded, 15-year-old Ibrahim sat down and wondered what the war was all about.

I see all those things is not good for our future, that is not going to build up our country. So that’s why we have to come together as one. We are all brothers and sisters because we don’t know if God is black, white, coloured. We don’t need to kill ourselves. We don’t need to destroy people’s properties. We don’t need to destroy our home. This is our home. So I see the war is so senseless to me. Let’s share peace, love and harmony because we are all brothers and sisters.

Ibrahim, like hundreds of other child soldiers, managed to escape from the rebels. Many others, like 12-year-old Lahai, were captured during fighting with West African peacekeepers or the Sierra Leone Army. The children could expect little sympathy from anyone. The rebels regarded them as deserters, pro-government troops saw them as rebels. And many civilians had seen these very same children burning down their houses, amputating and killed their loved ones and neighbours.

When they caught me, they first wanted to kill me. And there was a man which I know. He begged for me, and they leave me. EB: And then what happened? And then, on that time, when they leave me, I come to Kenema. I come to my people, when they take me home. EB: So you are living with your parents now? Yes sir. EB: Did you tell your parents that you were a fighter? Yes, I told them. EB: What did they say, your parents? First of all, when I told them that, they were afraid of me. They may be thinking that I will do the same act. I told them I would not do that again because they forced me to join them. I was not really happy when I joined them. So that is why I told them. EB: Do you feel guilty about what you did? Yes, I have not forgot. EB: But do you feel guilty? Do you feel sorry you did these things? Yes, I’m now feeling sorrowful. I told the people that I will not do it again. EB: Lahai, do you now what you were fighting for? Do you know why you were fighting? I don’t really know because they caught me by force. They did not tell us what we were fighting for. They just told us that we were fighting for the people. EB: But do you know what the war was all about? No I don’t know. I don’t know nothing about that. Because at that time, I was not really old enough to understand these things.

Since the signing of a peace agreement in July 1999, the rebels have been releasing growing numbers of child soldiers, but many are still believed to be in the bush. After being demobilised, the children are sent to centres like this one run by the group Children Associated with the War. 12-year-old Ibrahim arrived here several weeks ago. He had spent nearly five years in the bush, and at first, he says, it wasn’t easy.

When he came to town, he could not get jamba or gunpowder but he used to smoke cigarettes. But when he came across Father Momoh, he’s the programme manager for this programme, he asked him and encouraged him to be going to mass. So during that time, he was advised not to smoke, and he yielded to that advice. And he’s the reverend’s very best. EB: Are there some things that you miss about the days that you were in the bush? He’s missing very hard…he had a big tape. EB: He had a big what? He had a big tape, a tape recorder. EB: Ah, a tape recorder. Yes. EB: And a bicycle. A bicycle, and he’s not having this now here, and he’s missing these things.

Many of the former child soldiers speak with a certain wistfulness about their war years. They enjoy the games the social workers make them play, but peace is foreign to them, and many are having trouble adjusting. As they get off drugs, the former child soldiers begin to remember what they did. Many suffer from nightmares and they say demons are pursuing them. They admit that they have committed horrific acts, but they had no choice, they repeat time and time again. One child soldier in five cannot go back home. The crimes were so horrendous that their families and communities refuse to accept them. General Bloodshed was one of the rebels’ best fighters, but he knows that he’ll never be able to return to his village.

I don’t want to go there because I burned all the houses in the village. EB: So your mother doesn’t want to see you. My mother want to see me but the people in the village doesn’t want to see me. EB: They don’t want to see you. Yeah. EB: Do you think that they would do something to you? Yes. EB: What do you think that they would do? Because I don’t know what they would do, but they would do something harmful to me. Yeah. EB: So how long have you been here? I’m now going into my two months. EB: And do you feel better now? I’m not feeling better because I have a problem. My problem is with my head. EB: Ibrahim, tell me what the problem is with your head. Because sometimes I just sit and start shouting. I don’t know what is happening. EB; Why were you shouting? I don’t know. I think because I’m not taking it, that’s why. You’re not what? I’m not drinking human blood, that’s why. EB: So when you didn’t drink blood you didn’t feel well. Yeah. EB: Do you hit some of the other boys here also? Yeah, even this morning, I fight. EB: And what were you fighting about? I don’t know. I don’t know what I was fighting about. EB: And now Ibrahim, what do you want to do? I want to go to school back. EB: Why do you want to go to school? Because I think if I am not going to school, I won’t do anything better. EB: What would you like to do later on? I want to become a reverend. EB: A reverend. Why? Because I want to do God’s work.

Thank you very much and welcome. We have taken the test, and the papers are not encouraging, in any way. I really don’t know what is responsible. I want to believe I did my best as a teacher to teach. But I want you to tell me what is responsible. Agusta can you tell me…

Almost all the former child soldiers say they want to go back to school. When they speak of their plans for the future, they talk about professions that will serve their people and community: reverend, doctor, lawyer, any job that will help repay their debt to society. There are thousands of these former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Reviled by their families and communities, deeply traumatised by the atrocities they themselves committed, many of these children say they’re hungry. They know they have to fend for themselves – they’re used to it – but they wonder what did they do to deserve this?

Now, I really want to be educated. My people do not have enough, enough money to sponsor me. But I really want to be educated. That is why I’m working for people, so the people pay me, and I come to pay my school fees. because I don’t have any people who can really assist me, even my school fees is not yet paid. And I want to be educated. EB: And if you are educated, what would you like to do later on? Well, I would like to be a medical doctor. EB: And why do you want to be a doctor? I want to cure my people from the sickness.

“Innocence Lost” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.