July 27, 2003

Liberia ’s child fighters await endgame

ALTHOUGH he is only 14 years old, Ernest Kollie has been fighting in Liberia ’s civil war for three years. His determination to kill his enemies has won him promotion and he now has six other fighters under his command.

“The rebels killed my father. Maybe they killed my mother too,” said Kollie last week, as he ordered one of his bodyguards, aged 13, to fetch his machinegun from a vehicle parked at a petrol station in Monrovia, the capital. “So, when the government soldiers came, I had to be with them.

“I am only fighting because I want revenge. I know I am still small and I want to go to school. All we really want is for peacekeepers to come here to end this war.”

Known by his nom de guerre of Sugar Water, Kollie was wearing a woman’s wig. Such wigs are commonplace among fighters of all ages on both sides of the war. They are meant to conceal identities and are sometimes used to cover up magic charms on the head, which are believed to make the wearer bulletproof or even invisible.

Kollie is not the only soldier in Liberia who is desperate to see outsiders step in to end fighting in which more than 1,000 people have died in recent weeks as the rebels have tried to topple President Charles Taylor’s regime.

Annie Toagbey, 16, one of many teenage girls who are fighting, is also eager to greet the peacekeepers. “Look at this mess,” she said as she stood guard at a checkpoint. “We are just here every day fighting. I have not seen my son for three months now.”

The arrival of peacekeepers appeared to come closer this weekend.

After dithering for weeks over whether to send troops, representatives of west African states are due to meet in Ghana tomorrow to finalise details of an operation involving two battalions of Nigerian soldiers.

President George W Bush has ordered American troops to take up positions off the coast, but no date for their arrival has been set and officials said the warships carrying them were still seven to 10 days’ sailing time away.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, has said he hopes the American troops will play a leading role in a multinational peacekeeping force. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, has nevertheless been vague about Washington ’s intentions. “We will continue to assess what the US role is in supporting (west African peacekeepers),” he said.

Such reticence has provoked growing anti-Americanism among Liberians who claim Bush has a duty to help a country founded in the name of liberty by freed US slaves more than 150 years ago.

“If America says this war will stop, it will stop,” said Joseph Toe, who was among an angry crowd gathering last week outside the US embassy. “We are dying every day. We want them to come to help us.”

The carnage continued unabated yesterday despite a fresh truce called by rebel commanders who said they had told their men to fight only to defend themselves and their positions.

A church crowded with refugees near Monrovia ’s port was hit, killing at least seven civilians and wounding over 30.

Witnesses said five shells slammed into the ground around the Greater Refuge Temple, perched on a hill overlooking the rebel-held port.

A sixth hit the church directly, exploding at 4am among refugees who had bedded down for the night.

Rebels have so far striven in vain to take Monrovia and drive out Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of near- continuous conflict. Fighting has focused on the port and three bridges leading to the centre of town, one of Taylor ’s last strongholds.

The two sides have accused each other of repeated shelling into densely populated civilian neighbourhoods. Last Friday shells pounded an area around the American embassy, hitting homes and a school filled with refugees. That attack killed at least 26 and wounded more than 200.