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Human Rights Watch called on the Sierra Leonean rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to honor their promises to release abducted children and prisoners of war.

The RUF agreed to immediately release all non-combatants in a May 18 cease-fire agreement, and again in the July 7 Peace Agreement. However, only 345 children have officially been released to date, out of thousands who are believed to have been abducted during eight years of civil war. The children are often used as combatants, laborers, and sex slaves.

In the same agreements, the RUF also promised to immediately release all prisoners of war. The RUF is thought to hold approximately 100 prisoners from ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force, and only eighteen have been released so far.

Human Rights Watch expressed hope that United Nations official Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, will pressure RUF leaders to honor their commitments. Otunnu's visit to Sierra Leone begins today, August 30.

"These children have suffered more than enough," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for Africa of Human Rights Watch. "It is imperative that they be released so that they can go back to their families and villages, and enter rehabilitation programs."

In an August 30 letter to the rebel leader Corporal Sankoh, Human Rights Watch urged him to honor the agreements he signed, and reminded him of the July 28 order he gave to his commanders in which he stated, "All commanders are hereby instructed to release immediately all remaining Prisoners of War and non-combatants by this instruction." Over one month later, this still has not been done, the letter noted.

The Human Rights Watch letter also stated that of the 345 children who have been officially released and some 650 who have either been unofficially released or managed to escape, all have come from the western and northern areas of rebel control. The letter questions why there have been no releases from the eastern rebel strongholds of Kono, Magburaka, and Kailahun. Those released represent only a fraction of the many thousands of children abducted by the rebel group during the country's eight year civil war. More than 3,000 children were reported missing during a January 1999 offensive on Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital.

Human Rights Watch has collected extensive testimony from children who have recently been released by the RUF, some as young as seven years old. Excerpts from their testimonies are attached.

Testimonies from Sierra Leonean Children Abducted By Rebels

Many children describe witnessing atrocities against civilians, in some cases against their own parents. Almost all underwent military training. Some describe being coerced into taking drugs including ‘blue boats,' ‘white balls,' and marijuana to make them fearless in combat. One boy described how a ‘doctor' would inject a large group of children with drugs using a single needle for all. They said they were physically abused by rebels charged with ‘caring' for them, and many girls were also sexually abused.

UNICEF has described the children who have been released as "malnourished, haggard, and in tattered clothing." Many have scabies and related skin diseases, sores and cuts, and many of the girls are pregnant.

Children testified that RUF rebels would inscribe "AFRC" on their chests with a razor blade after abducting them, branding them permanently. AFRC refers to the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, the name of the rebel organization which ousted the democratically elected government in Sierra Leone in July 1997 and ruled the country until February 1998.

Brama, an eight-year-old boy who was abducted by the RUF in 1998, told Human Rights Watch of his experience during the January 1999 offensive on Freetown:

I was afraid of the bullets. I could hear them whizzing by my head and I was right next to other people when they fell down, they died right near me...and then when all of us were running away we came to a place where they were burning everything, and I stood outside and watched. The rebels went to a house which was locked. The people were hiding inside, and pulled them out one by one. The people were screaming and the rebels cut their heads off...there were eight of them-even women. My heart was beating just about out of my chest. I felt so bad for these people, there were even children. Sometimes I even dream about it and sometimes I wake up suddenly, my heart beating, I sit up and can't sleep the whole night.

Joseph, a ten-year-old boy abducted during January 1999, also witnessed the killing of many civilians. "I was so scared," he said. "When I saw them killing, I was thinking I would be next."

Children as young as seven told Human Rights Watch they were coerced into killing and committing atrocities. One fourteen year old boy, Dennis, committed many killings and mutilations of civilians, and described removing the heart and liver from his victims to eat. He was originally abducted by the rebels in 1997 but managed to escape. After he found that his pregnant mother had been killed, he thought by an ECOMOG shell, he decided to return to the rebels to seek revenge.

Sahr, an eight-year-old boy, wanted to learn to use a gun so the others wouldn't accuse him of being a civilian. He told Human Rights Watch:

They said they would kill me if I cried... I missed my mother but I never thought of escaping because once, not too long after I'd been captured, a man tried to escape and when the rebels caught him, then brought him to the camp, cut off his head and placed it on a stick. I became so afraid and knew I must never, never try to escape because they'd kill me too.

Sia, a fourteen-year-old girl who was abducted in January and released in July, witnessed scores of atrocities against the civilian population during her seven months with the rebels.

Before January, I'd never seen someone run over by a car. But now the things I've seen - the blood those people have shed is too much. I feel like I've entered another world... I've seen people get their hands cut off, a ten-year-old girl raped and then die, and so many men and women burned alive in rice husks... So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didn't dare cry out loud. I'm so happy to be back with my family. I just want to go back to school and continue my education.

Abduction has long been the primary source of recruitment for the RUF. Some of the children described their captors as people who had themselves been abducted in earlier years of the war. The RUF and Government of Sierra Leone signed a peace agreement on July 7 in Lome, Togo which commits the RUF to lay down its arms in exchange for representation in a new government. It also includes a controversial general amnesty for all crimes committed during the civil war.

*Children's names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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