Last week I met with the board of directors of Children on the Edge - the non-profit organization that we originally started within The Body Shop Foundation to help children in the war-torn Balkans. Children on the Edge (COTE) is now tackling the issue of child soldiers in Liberia, where a 14-year civil war recently ended leaving hundreds of boys and young men robbed of their childhoods and with no life experiences beyond desperation, violence and loneliness.
COTE showed me these heart-breaking profiles, and they need your help to provide these kids with hope and a chance at new lives. Please visit Children on the Edge's website, email them, or call the UK office at +44 (0) 1243 538530.
COTE sends this dossier:
After a 14 year civil war that ravaged the country, a ceasefire has been signed between Liberia's government and rebel groups. Despite this, outside of the capital Monrovia the raping, killing and looting continue. Whole communities have fled to the bush and are surviving on a diet of bush yam and wild leaves. Many people, particularly pregnant women and children, are dying daily due to severe hunger, cholera, malaria and diarrhea. The capital, which for many years has had no electricity or running water, is currently heaving with people lucky enough to have escaped the fighting.
With ex-president Charles Taylor in exile, the way for humanitarian aid has been opened up by West African peacekeepers. At the moment not much of this aid is reaching beyond the capital where the fighting continues. UN international peacekeepers are starting to arrive and on the 7th December they will begin the process of disarmament across the country, eventually creating the conditions that will enable people to return home.
Troops on both sides of the conflict were often unpaid, drugged or drunk and many of the fighters were children and teenagers who were forcibly recruited. The UN estimates there were as many as 10,000 children used as combatants some as young as 5.
In November 2003 Children on the Edge visited Liberia and interviewed a number of ex-soldiers in a derelict building on the outskirts of Monrovia. The building has been given the name Titanic by the locals because of the way that it looks. It is extremely large and currently houses 1,500 people living in squatter conditions without any electricity, water, toilets, food or medicine. Of the 1,500 inhabitants, approximately 400 are ex-child soldiers. The government forces have used Titanic since 1998 as a barracks to house their troops. The building is just down the road from the home of former president Charles Taylor, who regularly visited and dispatched the troops to fighting around the country.
Following the recent fall of Charles Taylor, the building has continued to house the same soldiers who now are left without any support. It is believed that the soldiers still have weapons in the building and they are considered very vulnerable to recruitment by any force, as they are uneducated or trained and therefore not able to earn money to eat and look after themselves and their families.
Name: John Kollie Age: 14 Age recruited: 7 Fighting for: Government troops Background: Fought in Lofa County. John was recruited when he was living in the bush. The rest of his family had been killed, and at 7 he was living alone in the bush. He was forced to join the Government forces by Commander Tamba. He fought alongside many other children mainly between 7 and 9 years of age. When fighting John and his fellow soldiers slept rough in the bush, surviving on food that they were able to find such as cassava. Last year during a battle his fellow soldiers were forced to retreat, but John didn't know this was happening until he realised he was suddenly alone. John began to retreat through the bush until he reached a road, when he left the cover of the bush to run across the road a rocket was fired at him and hit his leg. When John reached his fellow soldiers he was taken to the hospital in Monrovia where he had his leg amputated. From there John was taken to Titanic to live. John said that he was very unhappy when he was fighting, and when he was asked if he knew what he was fighting for he said, "I was fighting for my country, for Liberia."
15.11.03 Living in Titanic, wants to go to school and then learn a trade that will earn him some money.
Name: Mercy Truahn Age: 19 Age recruited: 13 Fighting for: Government troops Background: Government troops captured Mercy with 10 of her friends in Nimba County when they were walking to school. They were all taken to Lofa County to fight. Most of their time was in the bush fighting, they all fought with guns and four of her friends were killed. When they were in the bush fighting they were given no food and had to scavenge and eat what was growing. Mercy says that their commander was Isaac Nyplah and he was a good man. Mercy and her 6 remaining friends were bought to Titanic by their commander a year ago.
15.11.03: Mercy and her friends want to learn how to sew and then earn enough money to travel back to Nimba county and look for their families.
Name: Love Boy Kollie Age: 13 Age recruited: 10 Background: Love Boy is from Guinea and was captured by Government troops when he and his mother travelled to the Guinea-Liberia border to sell soap and toothpaste in the market. Being Guinean, Love Boy spoke no English and was taken straight to the front line to fight in Lofa County. It is common for child soldiers to be given nicknames that pertain to their fighting prowess - for example one of the girls we met was called "Nasty Killer" - sadly it would seem Love Boy has received his name for a different reason. Unfortunately the level of sexual abuse and rape of both male and female child soldiers is very high, with knock on effect of high levels of STDs including HIV and AIDS.
15.11.03 Love Boy has been living in Titanic for 4 months. He is able to speak pigeon English and is visibly very traumatised by what he has experienced and continues to experience. He wants to find his mother but has no idea how he will ever manage to.