The roles and responsibilities of child soldiers within both the opposition and former government ranks were very similar. After completing often arduous training, sometimes for a few days, other times for a month of longer, most children were armed and many served on the front lines. They were often the first to be sent out to fight, occupying dangerous, forward positions. They were also charged with manning road blocks and armed guard duty. Some children interviewed for this report spoke of their fear of death, the killing of other children in fighting, and of those they killed themselves. Others bragged about the killings, proud of their advancement to commander status for their ferocity. Children were also beaten and abused by their superiors and forced to witness abuse and killing.
Robert L. who fought with LURD for one year had two months of training in Bomi County.
Seventeen-year-old Joshua P. from Bomi concurred:
Eric G. from Monrovia described his training with LURD:
Twelve-year-old Patrick F. spent one and a half years fighting in a government, SBU. Promoted to commander of the SBU for his bravery, he told Human Rights Watch researchers:
Similarly, Samson T. described his feelings about the war:
Children described how child soldiers in the SBUs were often the first sent to the front. Charles Q. explained, “There were many boys in the units with government forces, small boys too were fighting with guns. These small ones would be sent to the front first. They were usually around fourteen or fifteen years old but some could be as young as ten.”41 Prince D. also spoke of the widespread use of SBUs. “We were many, plenty small boys, from ten, eleven and twelve. You would be sent to the front first. You go and get killed and then the next one takes your place, it never ended.”42
Punishment for wrongdoings could mean beatings, torture, and death. The children interviewed from LURD and government forces described the internal rules which prohibited abuses against civilians and the punishments that fighters received for harassment. Nevertheless, they themselves were complicit in stealing, looting and abducting civilians. It was unclear whether some acts would be tolerated by some commanders and not others or whether specific ethnic groups could be targeted with impunity. However, widespread abuse against civilians by all warring parties occurred often with the knowledge and encouragement of commanders
In explaining the internal rules for LURD fighters, Robert L. stated:
According to one child soldier in the government, who served with both the Jungle Fire and Navy command militias, his commander in Jungle Fire would not tolerate stealing and some of his friends were killed for looting. But in Navy command, looting was permitted. He further explained that one commander would routinely beat people, including his men, for no apparent reason and was abusive to the boys working in his unit.44
According to sixteen-year-old Luke F.:
Capture by enemy combatants usually meant gruesome death. In a few cases, children would be taken as prisoners or forced to fight for the other side. Children described the killings of suspected enemy fighters or collaborators or what happened to themselves when they were caught.
Eric G. explained:
Jimmy D., sixteen years old, said:
Seventeen-year-old Winston W. told us that he was captured by government forces in July together with three other men. He said the three adults were immediately killed; they had their heads cut off with knives, decapitated in front of him. Perhaps because of his younger age, Winston was spared, but “was tied up and severely beaten with rope, with sticks and was punched and kicked. I still have pains from the abuse. I was dragged off and imprisoned and later forced to fight with the government forces.”48
Prince D. described the killing of enemy combatants: “There is no mercy if the government people catch a LURD person, they cut the head off. The LURD would also kill a government fighter, it was the same on both sides.”49
In addition to their responsibilities as fighters, children were subjected to forced labor which included be used as porters, laborers, cooks, cleaners and as spies to perform reconnaissance and infiltrate enemy lines. Some children were assigned to individual commanders as bodyguards and personal assistants. In general, younger children served as helpers while older ones fought, but there were exceptions—some boys and girls as young as nine and ten years old bore arms. The intensity of combat might also determine what role a child played, carrying goods one day and needed for the fighting the next. Finally, children spent some of their time stealing from civilians in part because they were either never paid or paid infrequently.
One boy who joined the government ATU in June 2003, described his duties. “I was assigned to a commander and provided security for him. I never fought. We would go around to the executive mansion (house of former president Taylor), various police stations, and houses, and collect ammunition to deliver to the troops.”50
Another who served with MODEL was also assigned to a commander. “I stayed with this general the whole time. I had to wash his clothes, clean his home and cook for him. I was not paid, but was given food and some clothes. When we advanced, I carried his goods and marched behind the lines.”51
Mark R. from Bomi County directly served a general as well:
Human Rights Watch researchers collected dozens of testimonies from the internally displaced populations who described the widespread looting of their property by fighters from the LURD, MODEL and government forces. Child soldiers were used to rob civilians who would then be forced to porter their stolen property.
Boys and girls interviewed explained that while some fighters were punished for looting, almost everyone was involved in stealing from civilians. Fighters were generally unpaid or paid irregularly and to survive, lived off the civilian population. Arms became the means to procure goods, food and drugs and child soldiers were complicit in the looting.
Joshua P. who served with the LURD last year said:
Morris C., who was fifteen during the fighting, described looting in the capital:
Twelve-year-old Patrick F. complained that sometimes militias would have to buy ammunition from government soldiers in the AFL. To purchase rounds, he would loot houses, sell the goods, and then get the money to buy ammunition to fight.55
Luke F., who fought with LURD for three years, stated that trade between fighting groups was not uncommon and that he would take rice they had removed from the port and trade it with government fighters for clothes and beer. According to him, such trade took place throughout July at the new bridge in Monrovia during lulls in the fighting.56
Children interviewed for this report reported that child soldiers with LURD and MODEL were never paid and relied solely on stealing to survive. Boys who fought in the government militias told us that they were occasionally paid, albeit sporadically, but that by 2003 pay was no longer issued. As explained by boys in the government SBUs, salary was linked to active combat, so they would receive money only when they fought. This served as incentive for boys to continue to go back to the front and fight. Children in the SBUs however, complained that the pay was insufficient and was not enough to cover their basic needs.
One boy in the Marine’s militia told us he received 300 Liberian dollars (approximately U.S. $7) each time he went to the front. Another who served in Force Fire, a government militia, told us he got 200 Liberian dollars (approximately U.S. $5) for fighting and a bit more when sent on mission. He explained that mission duty was spying on the enemy and was extremely dangerous as you risked being caught and killed. For such duty, he would receive additional pay.57
Almost every child interviewed for this report had a fighting name, whether or not they were actual combatants. These names often signified particular characteristics of the children and their actions in the fighting. One counselor who works with children in Monrovia suggested that such a practice helped keep children in control as they would forget about their old lives and families. He gave the example of ‘Mother’s Blessing’, a name given by one commander to a boy soldier. The commander had told the child that his mother was killed in the fighting and that she blessed him to go fight against the government troops. Later this same boy found out his mother was still alive.58
Other names explained to researchers were: ‘Laughing and Killing’ because the boy soldier would laugh as he killed enemy fighters; ‘Disgruntled’ because the child soldier was not satisfied with the fighting; ‘Captain No Mercy’ because the officer would kill if someone disobeyed orders; and ‘Walking Stick’ because this child was made to walk directly behind his commander.
Children also were given names describing their acts of brutality towards other children and adults. Some boys and girls had names which indicated what they would do to captured civilians, including names like ‘Castrator’, ‘Ball Crusher’, ‘Nut Bag Mechanic’, and ‘Bush Lover’. Some girls also had names such as ‘Iron Panty’ describing their genitalia either because they refused to have sex or because they were believed to engage in numerous sexual activities. Finally other names might describe punishment—one child was named ‘Dirty Water’ because he was made to bathe in a hole full of waste for committing an infraction.59
Children were rarely given military uniforms to wear, but were issued T-shirts which named their fighting groups and sometimes their fighting slogan. The exception was MODEL who had some uniforms from the former Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) but not all MODEL fighters were issued fatigues and like LURD and government forces, most child soldiers wore T-shirts. In addition, some children were also involved in units like the ‘Buck Naked Unit,’ where fighters went into combat naked in order to terrorize opponents and civilians. A female commander with LURD also described how her unit would enter combat clad only in undergarments because they believed this appearance would both strengthen their magical protection and intimidate enemies.
Children serving with the government forces were usually issued yellow T-shirts, but other colors used were green, red or black. According to the children, the name of the unit, such as Jungle Lion or Jungle Fire, would be written on the front, and the division on the back. Arms and weapons were often distributed at the same time as T-shirts. Children fought with RPGs, AK-47s, submachine guns and what they described as ‘60’s, automatic weapons where the ammunition belts would be worn wrapped around the torso.60
Boys and girls in LURD described similar weaponry as was used by the government forces but some were also responsible for loading and firing mortars. T-shirts given to children were emblazoned with LURD forces and on the back slogans, such as ‘no dog, no rest’ or ‘no monkey’. According to several of the fighters, these were derogatory statements towards Charles Taylor and his government. Samson T. described the significance:
Hairstyle or lack of hair played a role in unit identification. Some groups had particular hairstyles and would prohibit the cutting of hair. For example, in certain units of Jungle Lion militia, part of the government forces, recruits were not allowed to cut their hair and small braids were fashionable. In some squads of MODEL, hair was colored orange and these children were particularly feared for their atrocities committed against civilians. Some children who served with LURD and government forces told us that when they were taken, their heads were shaved and this formed part of their initiation process.
Children were also initiated into their units through scarification and were given charms and amulets for protection. The practice of initiation is rooted in Liberian culture as in many parts of Liberia, boys and girls become accepted adults in society by undergoing secret initiations. Some analysts have noted that fighting forces in Liberia have co-opted traditional rituals for their fighters for express purposes. Such initiation provides them with a sense of prestige as adults but also enhances a sense of loyalty to their fighting groups instead of to their society and community.62
Boys who spoke with Human Rights Watch researchers were reticent to speak of the exact practices that made up initiation, but would display the scars on their bodies and the charms they wore, describing the magic involved. One fighter from LURD explained, “These marks on my chest, they were put there to make me safe from bullets. This way, bullets would bounce off me. Once they were put there, I felt fine.”63 Another fighter from government forces described his scars, “For protection, they would put marks, three or four slashes, on your arms and legs. Then they would rub gun powder into the marks or use a special leaf. This was done so that the bullets wouldn’t get you, it really worked.”64
Some children did not display visible scars, but carried rings and charms. Seventeen-year-old Isaac T. explained: “During the fighting, I was given a charm to wear around my neck, this was from a healer. In my dialect it is called a bang, this would protect me from bullets. It really worked, not against the shells but against the bullets.”65 According to the children, charms could not be worn when having sexual relations or in other situations because then the magic would not work and you risked being killed.66
Children were additionally supplied with drugs such as opiates and marijuana, as well as tablets that they were not always able to identify. While many voluntarily smoke and drank and actively sought out liquor, the drugs were often supplied by their commanders.
According to Samson T. from the LURD, “They would give you medicine to eat and drink, the medicine was for protection. If a bullet hit you, it would bounce right off. After I took that medicine, it made me feel bad, it changed my heart. I always took that medicine, every time I went to the front. The commanders would pass it out to us.”67
David V. explained that within the government forces, “They give you ‘ten-ten’ in a cap. These are tablets. Once you’re on the drugs, even if you are wounded, you don’t feel anything.”68
Twelve-year-old Patrick F. explained how they obtained stimulants:
Solomon F. told Human Rights Watch:
Girls served with all three groups in the war as both fighters and helpers although in lesser numbers than boys. Liberian nongovernmental organization employees who work with children believe that more girls were used in the last four years of warfare than in years past but that their exact numbers are unknown. Typically older girls and young women were fighters who served in separate units, while younger girls served as cooks, domestics, porters and cleaners. However, there were cases where young girls fought as well. Some girls were attached to units for short periods and escaped or were released, while others fought for years with the groups.
Ellen S. a commander of the girls, described her time with LURD:
Dorothy M., who first fought with the government, later became a LURD fighter told us:
Boy soldiers who commented on their female colleagues, admired their fighting ability. According to Jimmy D.:
Sexual relations between girl and boy soldiers were permissible, but according to some girls, specific rules dictated these relations. Ellen S. explained that, “No woman can love two soldier men and a woman can’t love to your friends’ boyfriend. If you break these rules, we beat you and discipline you.” She further told us that some older girl fighters could not be forced to have sex but that, “if you want some love, you can get it, but me, I was a strong fighter and stayed alone. The fighters couldn’t force us. When we attack, we usually captured girls for them. We would get plenty children for them. I captured two girls who are now in Bomi hills.”
While some older girls were able to protect themselves, many more were victims of rape and sexual assault. Forced to join the fighting groups and subjected to forced labor, they were sexually enslaved and some are survivors of multiple gang rapes.
Sixteen-year-old Evelyn N. told her story:
Clementine P. was fifteen when abducted by LURD fighters. A survivor of multiple rapes, she was severely injured when forced to abort her unborn child. Emaciated and sick, a portion of her intestine is protruding through her abdomen wall although she has received some medical treatment.
One of the more severe cases, the plight of Clementine is nevertheless shared by the thousands of girls and women who are survivors of brutal rape and sexual assault by the fighting forces. For girls who served with the fighters, medical treatment with screening for sexually transmitted infections and diseases including HIV needs to be included as part of the demobilization process. The programs should also emphasize psychological counseling or other appropriate psychological support for all girls. Continued medical services in their communities will be needed both for themselves, their children where applicable, and for other girls who may not wish to be identified as fighters in the formal demobilization programs.
36 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.
37 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
38 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 23, 2003.
39 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.
40 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
41 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, November 1, 2003.
42 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
43 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.
44 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
46 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 23, 2003.
47 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
48 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, November 1, 2003.
49 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
50 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, August 31 & September 1, 2003.
51 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, November 1, 2003.
52 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, November 8, 2003.
53 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
54 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, September 2, 2003.
55 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.
56 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
57 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26 & 31, 2003.
58 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, November 7, 2003.
59 Human Rights Watch interviews, Liberia, October & November 2003.
60 Human Rights Watch interviews, Monrovia, October 26 & November 8, 2003.
61 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, November 5, 2003.
62 See Ellis, Stephen, Young Soldiers and the Significance of Initiation: Some Notes from Liberia,[online], asc.leidenuniv.nl/pdf/conference24042003-ellis.pdf, (retrieved December 6, 2003).
63 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
64 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 31, 2003.
65 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, November 5, 2003.
66 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
67 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
68 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, September 2, 2003.
69 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.
72 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 31, 2003.
73 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.
74 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, November 11, 2003.
75 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, November 7, 2003.