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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK

Children - weapons of war

A child soldier in Freetown

By our correspondent, Jeremy Vine

Sometimes you see or hear something or meet a person you know you'll spend years thinking about. It doesn't matter that your attention might only have been captured fleetingly, during a busy day perhaps or on a long journey. You recognise the moment. And everything else shrinks to nothing.

It was that way when we were introduced to Civilian at the Nehemiah home for boys and girls, a small school on the eastern edge of Freetown, run by genial pastor Richard Cole.

He battles against holes in the roof, missing windows, a lack of sanitation and a general absence of money. But there is nothing he would rather do. He's helping Sierra Leone pull clear of its war and Civilian is here because he was part of it.

He's twelve and the reason they've called him Civilian is because when he first came to the school he displayed abject terror if he ever saw a soldier. To calm him, the teachers would shout Civilian, Civilian, you're Civilian. But the young boy was thinking back to his time in uniform, with the rebels.

[ image: Revolutionary United Front rebel soldiers]
Revolutionary United Front rebel soldiers
Taught to kill

It is not yet clear how many children they've taken. What is known is that they're abducted and then forced to kill often while still under ten.

Civilian started killing when he was seven. Children, the rebels have decided, can be a lethal weapon of war because their moral outlook is still fluid and if they're beaten and drugged and forced to get into the habit, they will kill as efficiently as others play video games.

Some Italian reporters recorded the release of a group of child soldiers. Thirty were allowed to leave a base, a few miles past the front line. A bishop watched the procedure and then having gone, apparently decided to return to see whether the rebels wished to extend the contact.

The u-turn his driver made caused alarm in the rebel camp. And one of the Italians said, "As we drew closer to it children popped up in the forest around us, like mushrooms, dozens of them." These were the ones who were not being released.

Some had pimpling on their temples, apparently where they had been injected with drugs. The bishop left at speed. A reporter said later it was the most terrifying experience of his life.

Civilian thinks for only a short time when you ask how many he killed. The first victim he remembers well. The rebels had executed a man in front of him and told him, aged seven, that he would be killed next unless he shot another man in the legs. "They'd given me something in tea to drink," Civilian explains, "and I did it without even blinking."

You look into his eyes and it is very hard to imagine this boy killing. How many? "Fifty," he says. Fifty people in three years, on the rebel side.

Obedience through fear

He talks dispassionately about it. Pulling faces as twelve year olds do. Eyes darting left and right, sounding bored, looking for more interesting things in the room. I'm not sure how to react. Blame him perhaps.

But the terror that bludgeoned these children into obedience is barely imaginable. The rebels instil such fear into adults.

[ image: Thousands had limbs amputed during rebels' regime of terror in Freetown]
Thousands had limbs amputed during rebels' regime of terror in Freetown
In the capital Freetown, stories are now coming out of how residents stood in queues when told to. Even though when they reached the front of the line they would have a hand chopped off.

Certainly, Reverend Cole, the head teacher, believes the key to giving Civilian a normal life is ensuring he feels love and not guilt. He emphatically believes all his stories and says the boy needs to realise the people he killed were not really shot by him but murdered by those who used him as a tool.

But wait, you think, speaking to this young child, isn't the most disturbing part of this story the way the tales of cold-blooded murder fall from the lips of one so innocent.

At twelve, at ten, at eight years old, was there no responsibility? And is there none now? Civilian's account is made all the more horrifying by the way it is delivered as if read from the pages of a children's book, in whose ending he has little interest.

Resurrecting a life

He can't be blamed. But he will blame himself. And the thought of Civilian reaching any kind of normality is in itself unsettling because normality, surely, is a mindset that must be disturbed by memories such as his.

The rebels killed his mother and father in front him. And told Civilian to prove his loyalty by ensuring that no other members of his family remained alive. So the young boy killed his own grandfather. And his grandmother, who was blind.

About to die, the grandfather had said, "Why do you shoot me, my son?" And Civilian, had replied, "I am not your son."

We allowed him to look through the lens of our camera. He is engrossed. But when someone touches his head, he jumps as if, for a minute, he'd been back behind the sights of a gun.

What will become of Civilian? You have to believe there's hope but it will be hard to resurrect a life that began with so much death.

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