Former Child Soldiers Seek Redemption
The Washington Post
By Mar Roman
April 19, 2007
ALMERIA, Spain -- Edwin Tholley wasn't yet 10 years old - he can't remember exactly - when rebel bosses first injected cocaine into his face, a quick way to get it surging into his brain. They wanted him high - an unthinking, vicious, little warrior for their campaign of terror in Sierra Leone.
Tholley's face still bears scars from the needle-pricks. Now, however, under an innovative rehabilitation program in Spain, Tholley hopes to redeem himself and save lives by studying to be a nurse, and maybe someday a doctor.
"My ambition is to help others," said Tholley, 20, one of four Sierra Leone natives brought here by Todos Son Inocentes (They Are All Innocent), a Spanish aid agency that works with children in war zones.
"All of us are responsible," Tholley said. "We have to make this effort."
The United Nations says at least 250,000 children are used as fighters in about a dozen conflicts in Africa, Asia and South America.
Once their missions are over, they bear scars far deeper than needle marks.
Job training is offered combatants in Sierra Leone and Liberia, another West African country which also used child soldiers. The problem, experts say, is that jobs are scarce for such rehabilitated men.
The Spanish program is different because the training is in advanced skills - two of Tholley's colleagues will study agronomy - giving the men expertise that fills shortfalls in destitute countries like Sierra Leone.
"It's a big opportunity for me to study agriculture here in Spain. I'm sure after my course I will try the best I can to help the people of my country," said another of the students, Victor Young, 23, who smiles big but then, like the others, avoids talking about his days as a child soldier.
"Let the past be the past," Young said, staring at the ground. "It's a difficult process to regain peace again."
"War is the worst. We've recovered and all we want is think about the future," added Gabriel Kamara, 20, who is also studying to become a nurse.
Kamara said he got the cocaine injections too. Rebel commanders would cut a gash into his upper arm and rub it with cocaine to render him high, brutish and fierce.
Before these men set foot in Spain, their only contact with the country came from ammunition and weapons etched with the words "Made in Spain."
The group arrived in early March in Almeria, a southern port city. The rehab program takes four years and is being sponsored jointly by the Todos Son Inocentes, the University of Almeria and the regional government.
In less than a month the men have become celebrities, invited to everything from media interviews on their experiences to concerts and soccer matches. Their home is a youth hostel close to the beach.
"For them being in Spain is like a fairy tale," said Miguel Serrano, head of Todos Son Inocentes, who selected them in Sierra Leone and brought them to Spain after overcoming many hurdles with the country's often-corrupt bureaucracy.
Serrano said he picked these four because they got good marks in high school, had strong family ties and a firm vocation to helping rebuild their country. Six more Sierra Leone natives are to come in 2008, including two women - also former child soldiers - who will study to become midwives.
"They had to be totally convinced that their goal was not to reach Spain, that the goal is to go back and work there, getting involved in improving conditions of the people and children in their home country," Serrano said.
In fact, those who sign up for this program must commit to returning home after completing their studies.
Sierra Leone remains plagued by a poverty and crime, with a per capita income of less than $220 per year, according to the World Bank. Although the country is rich in natural resources and minerals, particularly diamonds, the 1991-2002 war brought mineral extraction and agricultural production almost to a standstill.
It has one of the world's lowest life expectancy rates, just 39 years, and only an estimated one-fifth of adults are literate.
Sierra Leone also has the world's highest rate of child mortality: nearly 300 per 1,000 for children up to age 5, according to the World Health Organization. Spain's is 5 per 1,000.
Experts say child soldiers often grow up to become abusive parents and criminals. They find it difficult to adjust to life in civilian society. But Serrano and others say that with help and lot of tenderness, these war-damaged children can become responsible adults.
"They are aware of all the harm they have caused," said Serrano. "They weren't spared any horror. They got it all," he said.
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