Sierra Leone's Former Child Soldiers Struggle To Adjust
15 July 2002

Kicking a soccer ball in a bustling street, 12-year-old Moses is indistinguishable from the other ragged children in this bullet-scarred capital.

Just over a year ago, the shy boy with an easy smile was part of the rebel movement that terrorised this West African nation for a decade, its fighters raping, maiming and killing adults and children even younger than Moses.

Now, like thousands of others, he is back with his family, trying to reclaim a childhood torn apart by bloodshed and fear.

Some 7,000 children left the battlefields when combatants in Sierra Leone's savage civil war started turning in their guns last year -- the youngest just 6 years old.

Released into the care of aid agencies, most spent months at centres designed to ease their way back into civilian life and are now reunited with relatives.

For many like Moses, whose mother, brother and two sisters were shot to death in front of him when he was kidnapped two years ago, the struggle to adjust into the families and communities from which they were ripped away is only just starting.

The UNICEF says many child soldiers find it difficult to stay with their families. Many are in regions that were destroyed by the war, with no schools, job opportunities or enough food to go around.

Some are rejected by their communities -- including members of their own families -- because of the atrocities they were forced to commit, says UNICEF representative Joanna Van Gerpen.

Even when friends and neighbours don't know what the children did, the stigma of having been associated with the rebels -- even as captives -- can make it difficult to fit in.

As child fighters they just took what ever they needed. But now they have to think about finding a job to get something they want.

But jobs are scarce, and Sierra Leone's economy is in ruins.

In neighbouring Liberia, which was destroyed by a 1989-96 civil war, pressures like these pushed many ex-child fighters onto the streets of the capital, Monrovia. From there, some were drawn into crime -- or back into fighting.

Hoping to avoid a repeat in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and other agencies strive to keep in touch with former child soldiers. Social workers meet regularly with the children, their families, teachers and other community members to provide counselling and mediation.

But with tens of thousands of Sierra Leone citizens on the move, returning to areas from which they were displaced by the war, UNICEF concedes it is difficult to keep track of the children.

It can also be hard to break the youngsters' links with former commanders.

(c) Child Labour News Service