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Recruitment of Children

The latest round of warfare to engulf Liberia began in July 2000 with the LURD incursion from Guinea into northern Lofa County. Fighting between LURD and government forces, characterized by territory changing hands from one group to the other and then back again, intensified in 2002 with a LURD offensive against the capital, Monrovia. LURD forces forcibly recruited adults and children to join their ranks drawing from Liberians living in refugee camps in Guinea as well as from areas of newly captured territory. Government forces also conducted conscription raids within neighborhoods in Monrovia, remilitarized former combatants and armed adults and children to fight against LURD.7 In early 2003, MODEL split from LURD and began an offensive from its bases in Côte d’Ivoire capturing towns in eastern Liberia.

As LURD and MODEL each pushed towards Monrovia and Buchanan in the first half of 2003, these two groups together with government forces stepped up their recruitment of adults and children. While some children volunteered to join the forces, many others were forcibly recruited during recruitment drives or following the capturing of new territory as front lines switched hands. Some children joined particular forces to avenge violations committed against their family members. Conversely, some children joined those same forces that committed abuses in their communities to offer protection to themselves and their families. With the attacks on Monrovia from June through August 2003, more children became involved with the fighting forces both as combatants and helpers – some driven by the need to help find scarce food and water for their families.

LURD Advance

As the LURD forces advanced on Monrovia in early 2003, they attacked displaced persons camps in Montserrado County, exchanging fire with government soldiers positioned nearby. The attacks prompted many civilians to flee closer to Monrovia while hundreds of others from those camps were forced to retreat with LURD back to bases in the interior. Among the groups of men and women were children targeted in the raids and subsequently trained to fight for LURD. Children now living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps told us of the forced retreat with LURD, the recruitment and how they came to be involved with the forces.

According to one youth leader, who was present the day of the attack on Rick’s Institute (a school outside of Monrovia) IDP camp:

LURD fighters came here and attacked; this was on March 25, 2003. They overran the camp and people tried to hide and flee the advance. There was fighting between the government troops and LURD and some people were killed by stray bullets. Following the exchange, LURD rounded up hundreds of residents and forced them to return to Bomi County. Many of the children involved in our programs were taken, boys and girls, only some have returned. I later heard that some of the girls, they died because of how they were treated, victims of torture and sexual assault.8

Seventeen at the time, Johnny S., was rounded up on the day of the attack at Rick’s IDP camp:

I was captured by LURD together with plenty of others. My thirteen-year-old sister was among them. I haven’t seen her since the war ended. They took us back to Bomi to be trained to fight. I was assigned for training but escaped a few days later when sent out for water. Born in Bomi County, I knew the area well and could escape. Others, like my sister, were not so lucky.9

Another of the unlucky ones, sixteen-year-old Isaac T., spent the next six months fighting for LURD:

We were all taken from here (Rick’s IDP camp), at least fifty boys on that day. The youngest boy fighter was probably fifteen, younger ones were taken but only used for labor. We were taken to Bomi and trained in how to fire, how to take positions during the fighting. How to take cover and to dodge bullets. There were probably one hundred boys who did the training, the others came from neighboring camps. The training lasted about two weeks and right afterwards, I was on the front lines.10

From March through June, LURD forces came closer to Monrovia, attacking and retreating from IDP camps nearer the capital. At Jahtondo displaced persons camp, LURD attacked several weeks after the assault on Rick’s camp, causing civilians, some of whom had fled earlier assaults at outlying camps including Ricks, to flee once again. At Wilson Corner IDP camp, in early May, LURD fighters clashed with government troops, causing panic and flight among the civilian population. According to two child soldiers, both the government forces and the LURD forcibly recruited children from the two camps at that time.11

Children also taken from Plumkor camp in May explained how they were abducted: “I was caught on the road, just outside of camp, when fleeing the LURD attack. I was taken to Bomi with a group of others and taught to fire, take cover and to kill.”12 Ellen S., who later became a female commander, was taken that same day. “When LURD came, they caught a lot of young girls and carried us to Bong County. They can force you, you say no, but they carry you or they can beat you to death. They carried me to train—to learn to fight, how to fire, to dodge bullets and how to kill somebody. The training lasted two weeks.”13

Not all children were forcibly recruited; others joined LURD because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of government soldiers. Children in the camps and greater Monrovia area described the abusive practice of government soldiers—rape and sexual harassment, beatings, stealing, and their obligation to perform labor. Youth leader Roland B., explained that in the months leading up to the LURD attacks, government soldiers were complaining that they were not getting paid. They additionally accused residents of being LURD sympathizers and took their frustrations out on the camp populations—not only stealing, but raping young girls in the camp and beating boys for refusing to perform labor.

Christopher J., a thirteen-year-old, third grade student, described the abuse by government forces:

Last year before the war came here, government fighters forced me to work for them. I was made to carry things from the surrounding areas to the paved road, where they would be collected. I had to carry pieces of zinc (corrugated iron sheeting) that were very heavy, we were not allowed to rest. The soldiers didn’t ask you to do this, they would force you, there was no pay. Sometimes if you tried to run away, they would catch you and this is when they would beat you. I was beaten on the back and shoulders with the end of their rifles. When LURD came to this area, I decided it was better to join them and escape the abuse.14

Seventeen-year-old, Eric G. stated that he joined the LURD:

After government militias beat and slapped me and held me in dirty water. On July 6, seven militia men came to my house, they tied my elbows behind my back and beat me. They raped my mother and two sisters in front of me. My youngest sister is sixteen years old. The seven of them took turns with them and I was forced to watch. So, I had to go and fight them to revenge my mother and sisters.15

Jimmy D. joined the LURD following abuse at the Duala market on Bushrod Island, on the outskirts of Monrovia:

The reason I joined LURD is because of police abuse. I was selling bread at the market, trying to make some money to have something to eat and survive. A policeman came up to me, threw all my bread in the water and said I should go away. I was later beaten for that. When the fighters came to our area, I joined with them.16

In one case, the abuses by government forces had the opposite effect. James. T. explained:

Why did I join the government forces? To end the abuse against me and my family. Government militia members would beat my uncle and force him to carry cooking oil long distances. Myself, I was made to tote large bags of cassava to distant military positions. Finally, I decided I couldn’t take the abuse and forced labor anymore. Better to join them, so they would not continue to disturb my people. I joined in March 2003. I was fifteen years old.17

In June and July 2003, LURD attacked Monrovia three times before a previously negotiated ceasefire was finally enforced by regional troops sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the three assaults, locally described as World Wars I, II and III, over 2,000 civilians in Monrovia were killed by indiscriminate shelling and gunfire.18 During these offensives, children from Bushrod Island joined LURD both as fighters and helpers, often to secure needed food for their families.

Samson T., a former child soldier of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), joined LURD in July after the second attack on Monrovia, in part due to growing hunger. Because of his past fighting experience, was immediately handed a gun. Through his status as a LURD fighter, he was able to secure food and supplies for himself and his relatives.19

After LURD captured the strategic port at Bushrod Island, it looted food and supplies and distributed them to the civilian population. With access to food supplies, LURD’s treatment of civilians on Bushrod Island was considerably better than in many other areas of Liberia. Sixteen year old Francis R. described himself as a LURD civilian and was charged with delivering food. “I was sympathetic to LURD because they were protecting us, they gave us food and helped us out. So my job during World War III was to carry food that was distributed at the port back to my people here.”20

Matthew T. fled Bushrod Island during the first assault on Monrovia (World War I), but during the next two attacks, stayed behind and like, Francis R., helped run errands and deliver food but did not fight. As he explained:

I never fought, why kill innocent people? Some boys did join LURD, tempted by material things. Others opted to join for revenge, they had been abused by the militias or the police. LURD would promise them cars, money or mattresses. But in the end, they got nothing at all but death. Really, I saw children as young as ten dying on both sides. Some were fighting just to find some daily bread.21

Government Forces

Charles Taylor’s NPFL used child soldiers extensively in groups known as Small Boys Units (SBUs) in the 1990s. Following a demobilization program in 1997, many children left the forces, entering official rehabilitation programs or simply abandoning the groups on their own. After his election as president that same year, Taylor relied heavily on militias and paramilitary forces he created to defend his government. When LURD began its uprising in Lofa County in 2000, paramilitary groups like the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) and the Special Security Service (SSS) and militia groups led by Taylor loyalists began actively recruiting men, women and again children to fight. Initially, these groups drew on former fighters of the NPFL including child soldiers but increasingly sought out new and younger recruits. These militia groups also included numerous child combatants from the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which Taylor had supported since its inception in l991.

Many children who fought with the government from 2000 to 2003 were picked up in round-ups on the streets, traveling to and from schools and at their homes. They were trained and transported to Lofa and other counties to fight the initial LURD uprising. A counselor who works with children explained that as the war intensified in 2002, parents in and around Monrovia stopped sending their children to school. While this was in part due to lack of money to pay school fees, parents additionally kept their children at home as children would be picked up on their way to and from school. According to this counselor, by 2003 government forces would come and physically take children from barely functioning schools and place them in the SBUs. In June and July 2003, with the LURD assaults on Monrovia, more children took up arms and became affiliated with the forces to protect themselves and their families and to loot. For some families, children became the only source of income, using their guns to steal food and other household goods.22

John J., a former child soldier who fought in the mid-90’s, fought again beginning in 2000 with Jungle Lion, a government militia, for three years in Lofa and Bomi counties:

I was living in Monrovia, doing small jobs when I could. One day near the Duala market, I was standing on the side of the road selling goods. Government forces came by in pickup trucks. There was no way you could run away. They picked up six boys and myself there on the road side. We were transported to Bomi and then Lofa County. We were some of the first forces sent to Lofa.23

Seventeen-year-old, Charles Q., described his involvement:

Last year, I was still in school and on my way home to Congo town (Monrovia). There were government forces in my neighborhood. They had come in pickup trucks and forced us to go with them to Lofa. That day, I had just left school, put down my books and was outside. They told us, ‘we are looking for people to fight’, not really asking you, just picking you up. There was no choice.24

Taken earlier this year, Morris C. was picked up in a similar raid:

I am from Bomi but my family fled to Bushrod Island a few years ago. I was fifteen when I was caught and made to fight. I was on my way to school around 8:30 in the morning, when I was caught at Point 4 junction. Other children wearing yellow t-shirts with Jungle Fighter written on the back forced us at gunpoint into the trucks. They said I had to join them and fight to protect Monrovia.25

Children were also regularly recruited in government raids on the displaced camps near Monrovia in 2002 and 2003. Parents soon learned to keep their children inside when the government forces visited the camp, since they regularly rounded up adults and boys to fight. As one mother told Human Rights Watch, “one of my sons was taken away from the camp by government militias before World War II. He was sixteen years old. At that time they used to run behind the children and carry them away, so if you had children, you’d keep them inside.”26

Some children fighting with the government militias were tasked with recruiting other children to fight. Often forcibly recruited themselves, they in turn forced other children to join with them. A bodyguard to a commander of the Army Division militia, Allen R. was in an SBU for several years fighting in Lofa and around Monrovia. Forced to fight with the Army division, he received his training at Camp Shefflin along with other boys and young men. During his time in Monrovia “we would go around town in pickup trucks, looking for children to fight. Each militia has their own SBU, which includes boys and girls. SBUs are taught to fight and serve, we carry weapons, go on reconnaissance and do odd jobs. The girls in the SBUs are there to wash clothes, bring water and cook. Older girls are the fighters.”27

Solomon F., a former child soldier from the 1990’s, detailed their recruitment tactics:

How did I get involved in the fighting? I was going to school myself, but after school on my way home, the child soldiers caught me and took me away. I was placed in a SBU and became a deputy commander. SBUs can fight, but their main job is to draw water, clean arms, carry out duties. SBUs are young ones, who don’t know about the war, but we catch them and teach them.

I recruited some boys from villages, towns and camps. During raids, I would command the other boys in my unit, ‘Catch that one there’. We would pass from house to house until we had over one hundred. We would force them even if they didn’t want to come. We would line them up in formation, cut their hair, take off their shirts and slippers (sandals).

We taught them how to stand at attention, salute their commanders, load weapons and clean them. We would take them to the creek, put them underwater, show them how to move through the bush, to lie down, how to fire. The length of training depended on how bad the fighting was at the time, if they were needed right away it could be a week, other times the training could last a month.28

Not all children with the government forces were forced to join. Some volunteered to fight, seeing no other alternative to war. Twelve-year-old Patrick F. told Human Rights Watch that when fighting came to Bomi County, he joined because his school was no longer functioning, he had nothing to do and other boys his age bragged about their exploits. Similarly, Frederic J. started with the squad four, marines militia when he was fifteen to make some money for himself. Friends of his, flush from looting, convinced him to take up arms.29

In the final months of the war, with LURD attacking Monrovia, more children became affiliated with the fighting forces. Moses P., who had fled with his family three times before arriving in Monrovia saw no other way to survive:

We arrived in the Sinkor area, during World War II; there was no food to eat. The family we stayed with had nothing, we were on our own. I decided to help a general who lived near the Catholic junction. I would draw water and do other jobs to help his staff. I was shown how to use an AK-47 and we would drive around town, stealing goods to bring back to his house. We would also force people into the car, those suspected of supporting LURD, and bring them back to the yard. They were beaten and a few were killed.30

Children with MODEL

In early 2003, MODEL split from the LURD and began capturing towns in eastern Liberia, initially operating from bases in western Côte d’Ivoire. MODEL continued the practice initiated by LURD, recruiting children from refugee camps and areas that they had recently captured. As with the LURD and government forces, MODEL forcibly recruited some children, while others volunteered to fight, sometimes in response to previous abuse by government forces.

Fourteen-year-old Thomas N. was a Liberian refugee living in the Côte d’Ivoire. He first fought in that country and later in Liberia in Grand Gedeh and Sinoe counties. After MODEL captured the town of Buchanan in July 2003, he was posted in town as a guard. He told Human Rights Watch that his job was to fire with an AK-47 and to protect his unit.31 Thomas was only one of dozens of refugee children recruited from the refugee camps and Ivorian border towns by MODEL, which operated with the support of the Ivorian government.

Paul F. left school in 2000 because his family could no longer afford the school fees. Originally from Harper in Maryland County, government fighters forced him to tote loads and cook food for them. He explained that he joined MODEL when they took over the area:

Government troops continually harassed us. They would beat us, they raped my sister, they forced her for loving, and they killed my father—so I joined MODEL to fight back. There were over one hundred boys in the units, some were fighting, but I wasn’t chosen for that. I was assigned to a big general, I stayed in his house. I washed his clothes, cleaned, and cooked for him. I was taught to take apart a weapon and put it back together again.32

A religious sister active with women’s groups in Liberia, interviewed a fifteen year old ‘wife’ of a MODEL general. According to this sister, the girl became his wife for survival reasons when MODEL took over the territory. Given a full uniform, she is both a fighter in the forces and a wife to the general. As the sister explained, many older girls play such dual roles in the forces, not only in MODEL, but with LURD and the government as well.33

On July 26, 2003, MODEL captured the port city of Buchanan from government forces. According to local activists, in the weeks leading up to the attack on Buchanan, children were forcibly recruited from the countryside as MODEL moved into Grand Bassa County. In Buchanan town, civilians fled onto the grounds of a Catholic compound during the fighting for protection. In the following days, MODEL fighters came to the campus on the Catholic compound and forcibly removed boys and young men, pressing them into service.34 A Human Rights Watch researcher who visited Buchanan in late-August saw several armed children, including girls, guarding a high-level MODEL commander at his base and participating in checkpoint duties on the main road to Monrovia.

In other cases, school age children in and around Buchanan willingly joined MODEL. Some children were former government militia members, others ordinary school kids. Some of the children were ex-fighters and seeing their former comrades in arms again convinced them to join as well.

Buchanan residents explained that MODEL fighters were abusive in the first days of occupation but that subsequently relations with townspeople improved. Particularly feared were the young boy fighters, with orange tinted hair, who would harass civilians, steal, loot, and rape. Many of these young fighters were reported to be Ivorians recruited from across the border and abuses diminished as their numbers later decreased in Buchanan. Local residents also claimed that perhaps as many as 200 girls and young women served with MODEL in Buchanan and that men and boys numbered many more. During a meeting between MODEL commander General Farley and his troops observed by Human Rights Watch researchers in early November, there were several dozen underage boys and girls making up the rank and file.35

7 Human Rights Watch, “Back to the Brink, p. 2, See Also, Human Rights Watch, “Liberian Refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, Militarization of Camps, and Other Protection Concerns,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 8(A), November 2002.

8 Human Rights Watch interviews, Montserrado County, November 5, 2003.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Human Rights Watch interviews, Montserrado County, November 5 & 8, 2003.

12 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 23, 2003.

16 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.

17 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 31, 2003.

18 See Human Rights Watch, “Weapons Sanctions, Military Supplies, and Human Suffering: Illegal Arms Flows to Liberia and the June-July 2003 Shelling of Monrovia,” A Human Rights Watch Report, November 2003, pp. 7-14.

19 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 25, 2003.

20 Ibid.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, October 23, 2003.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, November 7, 2003.

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, August 31 & September 1, 2003.

24 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, November 1, 2003.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, September 2, 2003.

26 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, September 6, 2003.

27 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, September 5, 2003.

28 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.

29 Human Rights Watch interviews, Montserrado County, October 26, 2003.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrado County, November 8, 2003.

31 Human Rights Watch interview, Buchanan, November 3, 2003.

32 Human Rights Watch interview, Bushrod Island, November 1, 2003.

33 Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, October 22, 2003.

34 Human Rights Watch interviews, Buchanan, November 3 & 4, 2003.

35 Observation by Human Rights Watch, Buchanan, November 3, 2003.

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February 2004