Over the last fourteen years, Liberians have known little but warfare. Conflict and civil war have devastated the country and taken an enormous toll on the lives of its citizens, especially children. Thousands of children have been victims of killings, rape and sexual assault, abduction, torture, forced labor and displacement at the hands of the warring factions. Children who fought with the warring parties are among the most affected by the war. Not only did they witness numerous human rights violations, they were additionally forced to commit abuses themselves.
Both of the opposition groups, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), as well as government forces which include militias and paramilitary groups widely used children when civil war resumed in 2000. In some cases, the majority of military units were made up primarily of boys and girls under the age of eighteen. Their use and abuse was a deliberate policy on the part of the highest levels of leadership in all three groups. No precise figures exist as to how many children were used in the last four years of warfare; however, United Nations (U.N.) agencies estimate that approximately 15,000 children were involved in the fighting.1
Although international law prohibits the use of children in armed conflict, thousands of children, some as young as nine and ten years old, were used by the fighting forces in Liberia. The use of child2 soldiers poses a serious threat to the rights of children, including their rights to life, to health, to protection and to education. Many child soldiers have suffered egregious abuses: forced conscription into the armed groups; beatings and other forms of torture; and psychological damage resulting from being forced to kill others. Girl soldiers have suffered the additional humiliation of rape and sexual servitude, sometimes over periods of several years.
Children interviewed for this report spoke of the general hardships of war and of the particular difficulties of their lives as fighters. Many of the children were forcibly recruited into the fighting forces during round-ups conducted by government forces or during raids on refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps by LURD and later by MODEL fighters. Other children volunteered to fight. Reasons some cited for this decision included a desire to avenge abuses against themselves or their families, a need to gain some form of protection, or a perception that this was the only way to survive.
Boy and girl fighters typically received limited training in operating automatic weapons, mortars and rocket propelled grenades. Taught to maneuver in combat, to march, and to take cover, children were often the first sent out to the front lines where they faced heavy combat. Children were also charged with other tasks such as manning roadblocks, acting as bodyguards to commanders, looting from civilians and abducting other children. Although younger children were generally used as porters, cooks, cleaners and as spies, children as young as ten were sometimes armed and active in combat.
In addition to their military duties, girls with the armed groups were raped and sexually enslaved by the fighters. One girl who spoke with Human Rights Watch, fourteen at the time of her abduction, was raped by many fighters and later assigned to a commander as a wife. Girl fighters were collectively known as ‘wives’, whether attached to a particular soldier or not. Some older girls were able to avoid sexual abuse, sometimes by capturing other girls for sexual servitude.
Children described beatings, torture and other punishments inflicted on them by commanders for alleged infractions of rules. Children were tied and beaten for stealing, for failing to follow orders, and for abusing the civilian population. Nevertheless, child soldiers were complicit in abuses against civilians—including murder, rape and widespread looting—often committed with the involvement of their adult superiors. Boy soldiers were often drugged prior to facing combat by commanders handing out pills. Boys described these drugs as making them feel fearless during fighting.
An enforced ceasefire brought an end to much of the fighting in Liberia in August 2003 and the presence of peacekeepers from the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has brought some security to the capital Monrovia and its immediate environs. Many of the children involved with the warring parties have since left their units. However, in areas outside of UNMIL control, children remain actively engaged with the fighters.
An extensive demobilization program, scheduled to recommence in January 2004, includes specific provisions for child soldiers. Their rehabilitation, however, remains an enormous challenge: whole communities have been destroyed; populations have been displaced; and many children have lost one or more family members. Children who spoke with us expressed fear, confusion and concern about their future, underlining the need for psychological and practical support to help them readjust to civilian life. In addition, the widespread rape and sexual assault of girls necessitates urgent medical attention and for some girls, assistance in child support and care for their children. Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to fully fund the demobilization programs for child soldiers and to provide additional assistance to girls and women who are victims of sexual violence and abuse.
The vast majority of child soldiers told us of their desire to return to school, to receive an education and to make something of their lives. Some of the boy soldiers interviewed became fighters after having dropped out of school because they were no longer able to afford the costs. Many are now unsure of their ability to pay for schooling, as school fees and other related expenses make education unaffordable for many Liberians. The national transitional government has recently announced an ambitious program of universal primary education for all Liberians, but its implementation will require a significant investment. To make primary education available to all, the government must first pay teachers salary arrears, train new teachers, purchase school materials and rebuild and construct new schools and classrooms.
Human Rights Watch encourages the government to fulfill its international obligations to guarantee the right of primary education to all Liberians as a means of long-term rehabilitation. We call on the international community to assist the government in its endeavor, with appropriate financial and technical support so that all children affected by the conflict may receive an education. As one child right’s worker in Monrovia suggested, a literate population with educational opportunities for all children could help prevent future conflict and children from taking up arms again.
This report is based on research conducted in Liberia from August through November 2003. We conducted interviews with former and current child soldiers in the capital and surrounding displaced persons camps in Montserrado, and in Bomi and Grand Bassa counties. Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with over forty-five children and young adults who were members of the LURD, MODEL and militias and paramilitary groups of the government forces. Children ranged in age from ten to seventeen years old; some had been with the fighting forces for a few months, while others had been involved for several years.
We also conducted numerous interviews with members of the national transitional government of Liberia, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, church and civic leaders, members of the diplomatic community and representatives of the warring factions. The names of all children interviewed for this report have been changed to protect their privacy.
1 United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Up to 15,000 Child Soldiers in Liberia, UN says,” September 24, 2003 [online], http://www.irinnews.org (retrieved September 26, 2003).
2 In this report, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child states: "For the purposes of the present Convention, a child is every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 1, adopted November 20, 1989 (entered into force September 2, 1990).