Sierra Leone had a decade-long civil conflict between 1991 and 2002 under the leadership of President Charles Taylor, where the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), state-supported militias and state forces conscripted children for the war. While the use of children in combat has already existed before this period, it became widespread during this event.
During this time, the RUF kidnapped and forced children to fight in the war since it started, with 80% of them aged 7 to 14 who served in what was called the Small Boys Unit. The militia groups and the country’s armed forces recruited children, whose number has reached to an estimate of 10,000 taking part in the conflict. It is said that the RUF used hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol on these children during their training. As stated by a former commander of the rebel army, “We were very much aware of the effects of drugs on children. Drugs and alcohol were prevalent and served as [a] prerequisite for combat activities. Fighting with a gun is not an easy task because it puts so much pressure on the mind. So we needed to free the mind by taking drugs, and it worked.” Aside from this, up to 30% of them were girls, who were subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence.
The RUF were known to be exceptionally brutal, who did maiming, beheadings and mutilation of their victims, and were heavily criticized by human rights organizations for sexually exploiting children, forcing them to become conscripts and take part in combat, and forcing them to work and commit murders and other forms of human rights abuses.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) pronounced that the recruitment of children aged below 15 years was a war crime, implicating individual criminal responsibilities under customary international law. Such a principle was then codified by the country by adopting the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998 and further strengthened with the enforcement of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on January 21, 2000. Under this statute and protocol, the involvement of children less than 18 years of age in armed conflict has been prohibited, ruling that these children must not be deployed by either state or rebel groups and breaching this is classified as a criminal act. The special court has added some necessary clarifications over the use of children in combat and identified particular actions that are considered as illegal with regards to such an action. 2007 marked the first passing by the special court of convictions for war crimes during the Sierra Leone Civil War. This time, 3 members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) were found guilty of various abuses to human rights, which included using children for combat.
The Sierra Leone Civil War has left a deep scar into the country’s society, which would take generations to heal and be forgotten. After the event, about 72,000 former combatants needed to be demobilized and disarmed, with a huge number of them still waiting for reintegration assistance. What’s worse, many of the war children, who were forcefully involved in the fight, were banish or expelled from their communities.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was then established to assess the root causes of the conflict and make recommendations to prevent a relapse. The commission, along with the legal proceedings by the SCSL against several suspected war criminals, became one of the first steps that facilitated authentic reconciliation between the perpetrators and the victims. In 2005, the country’s government issued a white paper as a response to the final report made by the TRC, only accepting some of the commission’s recommendations. Because of this, it has been harshly criticized by members of civil society for not following the report’s advice and for being too vague.
While improvements got under way after the resolutions, most citizens are still facing a daily struggle to survive. In fact, Sierra Leone has been listed by the Human Development Index as 180 out of 187, with an average life expectancy of just 48 years. Many people left their communities to seek shelter the horrors of war, while some remained in Freetown, with the hope to find a better future after the war ended. However, the city was seeing high unemployment rates, which was also seen throughout the country, and sometimes, citizens were left with no other choice but to stay in areas where wealthy people and foreigners frequented in order to earn some money from washing or watching parked cars, or from begging. There were even children seen reaching out to strangers for money or food.
With much of the country having no access to electricity, water and sanitation facilities, people struggled just to survive, with many of them having become desensitized to death and even not having the luxury to dedicate time to remember the past. As for the schools, they do not even teach the facts and root causes of the war, which has led to many of the current problems in the country. Only a few, such as the Okada riders who are mainly ex‐combatants that are now making a living by taking passengers on motorcycles, recall such a bloody past.
Though the mention of Taylor could still stir strong emotions among the people in the country, most citizens today put the war and the trials in the past, being more concerned with other political matters, such as elections. Also, the fact that the president’s trial took place in The Hague, instead of in Freetown, this historical period of war has been distanced from public consciousness.
Nevertheless, there are already child-soldier reintegration programs that are being facilitated by prominent organizations, including the United Nations, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), GOAL, Forum for African Women’s Educationalists (FAWE), and The National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA). Their main focus is to provide psychosocial support and care, skills based training, family reunification solutions, education, health care and vocational training. These organizations aim to establish long-term support networks which can continue to function sustainably without the long-term aid from third-party groups.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.