During the January rebel incursion children were the victims of serious abuses committed by all parties to the conflict. They were not spared from any class of abuse and were, in some cases, purposefully targeted because of their age.
Some of the atrocities committed by the RUF rebels were unthinkable. Infants and children were thrown into burning houses, the hands of toddlers as young as two were severed with machetes, girls as young as eight were sexually abused, and hundreds of children of all ages were traumatically separated from their communities and forced to walk into the hills with strangers whom they had seen kill their family members.
In some cases children, many of them originally abuductees, participated in the perpetration of these abuses. Child combatants armed with pistols, rifles, and machetes actively participated in killings and massacres, severed the arms of other children, and beat and humiliated men old enough to be their grandfathers. Often under the influence of drugs, they were known and feared for their impetuosity, lack of control, and brutality.
In some cases, ECOMOG and government forces summarily executed rebel child combatants and suspected collaborators they had captured; other children suffered physical abuse while in detention. Some child soldiers were beaten to death after being caught by members of local communities.
As children abducted by the rebels in January have been released or managed to escape, they have described the process of psychological and physical formation used to turn victim into perpetrator. They described a life of physical hardship, forced labor, substance abuse, and military training. In Freetown, parents speak of their frustration and guilt at their inability to protect their children.
For those hundreds of children who witnessed family members murdered in front of them, were forced to watch as a mother or sister was raped, or had to leave a wounded relative behind in a burning house, the events of January 1999 have no doubt produced deep psychological scars they will live with for the rest of their lives.
Two civilians, Adama and Zainab, expressed the ambivalence civilians have about the role of child combatants. On the one hand they are feared and misunderstood, and on the other, pitied as victims themselves.
Adama, a forty-two year old secretary, described the horror and fear adults felt at seeing children carry out terrible atrocities:
We feared them. They were cruel and hard hearted; even more than the adults. They don't know what is sympathy; what is good and bad. If you beg an older one you may convince him to spare you, but the younger ones, they don't know what is sympathy, what is mercy. Those who have been rebels for so long have never learned it.
Once, a rebel, a small boy in full combats, he couldn't have been more than twelve, called everyone out of the house across the street. The papa of the family, Pa Kamara, said, please my son, leave my family, but the boy said, listen, we can do anything we want in Freetown. We don't have mothers, we don't have fathers. We can do anything we wanna do. And that is how Pa Kamara died; the rebel boy shot him, in front of his wife, his children, his grandchildren. They are wicked, those boy soldiers. They spare no human life.128
Zainab, a twenty-four old market vendor, on the other hand, found that she could pity a child exhausted by combat:
Late one evening, a ten-year-old with a pistol came, alone, into our house. He told my husband his commander was hungry and wanted one of our chickens. While my husband was catching the hen, that boy sat down to wait. He was thin and exhausted. I brought him a biscuit and water. He said he was tired and weak and as he left with the chicken turned to me and said, thank you, mam.
Later my neighbors criticized me for giving him that biscuit. I said I didn't care if he was a rebel or not. He's still somebody's child. Maybe he was abducted. God knows what they've done to him. I wanted to hide that boy and take him with us as we fled and just knew he would've come with us if he'd had the chance. I could see he wasn't happy.129
128 Human Rights Watch interview, Freetown, May 20, l999.
129 Human Rights Watch interview, Freetown, April 14, l999.
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