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Friday, 26 January, 2001, 12:56 GMT
Sierra Leone: The battle for childhood
Children are the worst affected by the war
Children are the worst affected by the war
BBC Newsround's Matthew Price reports on the traumatic exploitation of child soldiers in Sierra Leone's civil war.

It is nine in the morning and it is hot in Sierra Leone. We are in the jungle and have been walking for an hour. I am drenched and uncomfortable.

We are on patrol with British soldiers, marching to the village of Jotown.

War, corruption and greed have destroyed lives here. As so often, it is the children who are the worst affected.

We are safe here, the Army tells us. The nine-year long civil war that has torn this country apart started again last May, but now there is a fragile ceasefire which the British Army is helping to maintain.

Superstition

Commander Snake boasts of his fighting force
Commander Snake boasts of his fighting force
We are all prepared for Commander Snake and he does not disappoint. He is probably about my age - 28 - and is standing in the centre of the village, hand outstretched.

He wears a bright red woollen wig. His patchwork sleeveless top is sewn together with emblems of US flags and interwoven with mirrors. He believes the mirrors save him from being killed in battle as they deflect the bullets.

If that fails he can resort to his favourite trick of repeating his name 25 times. That makes him invisible.

He assures us it has worked a number of times on the battle front, but he does not waste it.

Fighting force

Snake boasts of his fighting force, and beckons them over. Out of the surrounding trees emerge a rag-tag group of about 40 men and women.


He has to be able to fight and defend the ordinary people. And when we win, and when this war is over, he will go to school again, and I will make sure he gets himself a good job

Commander Snake
I'm glad they are friendly. These are troops allied to the government and hence the British. They have all helped keep the rebels at bay, all have fought on the frontline.

They have the dull, emotionless look of people who have seen some hideous things.

Fifteen-year-old Dawda is the youngest fighter in the army. He is pushed to the front, his gaze skidding lazily across the ground, casually holding his machine gun.

Has he fought on the frontline? "Of course", replies Snake. Has he killed? "Of course. He is the bravest. A very brave boy."

A way of life

Is it right that children are fighting? Snake pauses for the first time, and I get that moment of dread when I think I've asked a question that offends.

He stares off into the distance: "Of course it is not right, but he has to defend himself. He has to be able to fight and defend the ordinary people. And when we win, and when this war is over, he will go to school again, and I will make sure he gets himself a good job."

Children have been abducted and forced to fight
Children have been abducted and forced to fight
It is not the answer I expect.

I don't expect it because in this country war and fighting have almost become a way of life. And children have become a way of prolonging that way of life.

All over the world, children fight in wars. Here, their participation has been turned into a powerful and frightening instrument of domination.

Dawda is not the only child soldier we meet. Children as young as 10 have been abducted, and forced to fight.

Techniques

Many of those we speak to watched the rebels rape and kill their parents. Others were forced to do just that to family members.

Captured girls are sometimes raped too. Still children themselves, they now look after their own babies in a small enclosure to the edge of the camp.

Thousands have had their hands and legs cut off
Thousands have had their hands and legs cut off
The government's election slogan had been "Vote with your hands." The rebels, not exactly great believers in democracy, developed their own electioneering strategy and started a programme of amputation. Thousands had their hands and legs cut off.

One boy, 12-year-old Osman, has a scar deep into his forehead. The rebels often use a machete to cut into the skull. They then fill the wound with drugs and tape it over.

High for days, the children are sent to the front and fight, little knowing, understanding or caring what they are doing.

Evil does not get close to describing it.

The interviews we did with children in the camp were the hardest of my life.

There was the usual talk after of "good soundbites", but this time it felt callous.

There are no good soundbites in Sierra Leone. Only terrible, terrible stories.

It took days to get over it.

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Sierra Leone
10 Jan 01 | Africa
Timeline: Sierra Leone
11 Sep 00 | Africa
Captured leader 'regrets' kidnap
31 Aug 00 | Africa
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