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Roles and Responsibilities of Child Soldiers

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.

There we learned to fire, to take cover and how to kill. We were made to crawl under barbed wire while they were shooting at us, we were forced to advance towards the gun fire. This was to make us brave. . .I was assigned around the Iron Gate area. Sometimes we were made to man checkpoints. Other times we would go out on the front. During the fighting, I was very afraid. I killed many people, I saw friends dying all around me, it was terrible.36

Seventeen-year-old Joshua P. from Bomi concurred:

I used to be afraid during the time of the fighting, because of the weapons that they were using to kill people. But on my face, I could never show that I was afraid. There were many people dying, I had to protect myself.37

Eric G. from Monrovia described his training with LURD:

There were over one hundred of us doing the training. They gave us a gun, we had to learn to fire. We would crawl over and under barbed wire. We were made to lie down and they would see if you were brave by firing near your body. I was afraid during the training, but I didn’t show it on my face.38

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:

As a commander, I was in charge of nine others, four girls and five boys. We were used mostly for guarding checkpoints but also fighting. I shot my gun many times, I was wounded during World War I, shot in the leg. I was not afraid, when I killed LURD soldiers, I would laugh at them, this is how I got my nickname, ‘Laughing and Killing’.39

Similarly, Samson T. described his feelings about the war:

I never feared anything. I would laugh at death, even when my friends were killed. Sometimes I would feel bad afterward, about my brothers killed, but by fighting I could bring food to my parents and relatives.40

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:

For punishments, some fighters were killed, some beaten or given other punishment, it depended on what they did wrong and who made the decision. I was caught looting, and had to hold my arms straight (body in upright, push-up position). Whenever I fell from exhaustion, I was beaten and forced to hold my arms straight again. There were strict rules in LURD, for murder or rape, you could be killed, for looting or harassment there were other punishments.43

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.:

If someone made a mistake they would be beaten, the general would order to have the person tied and they were beaten, sometimes by rope, a stick, a piece of rubber or a belt. They would have their arms first tied behind their back and then beaten. Other times you could be dragged through dirty water or whipped. These punishments were for things like, raping, stealing or killing. But any government soldiers we found, they would be killed immediately.45

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:

I saw government soldiers kill three men, right in front of me. They were made to lie on the ground and shot in the head. They were accused of being rebels, because of the markings on their arms. They were shot on July 9 here in town.46

Jimmy D., sixteen years old, said:

We captured this one boy and he fought with us later. He was ambushed in a car together with other government soldiers, near Bopolu. LURD fighters cut the hands and feet off the government fighters and made them get back in the car; the boy was the only one spared. Their car was full of blood. Other boys weren’t so lucky. One boy from the government side was caught near the Broadville Bridge; he had been wounded in the leg and unable to retreat. LURD caught him and tied him up attached to a stick. They then cut off his toes, fingers, nose and ears. Then they cut off his private parts and left him to bleed to death. They later threw his body in the river.47

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

Enslavement and Forced Labor of Children

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:

I never fought, I was a bodyguard for a general. Armed with an AK-47, I protected the general and his house to prevent other soldiers from looting him. I also had to sweep and clean, cut the brush and carry goods. This general had a wife, she was seventeen and also a fighter, she was very strong.52

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:

I never directly fought, I would work behind the lines. There were many people killed, so I had to do what I could to survive. I would just move with the forces, helping them carry looted items. As we advanced, civilians would flee their homes. We would go into the houses and steal whatever we could, bikes, money, radios, mattresses, and many other things. I would have to tote the goods after a raid.53

Morris C., who was fifteen during the fighting, described looting in the capital:

They didn’t give us money, they didn’t give us anything—no food. Sometimes we harassed people for money. We would open stores and take goods. When people came to buy goods, we would take their money then go to buy food in West Point (Monrovia).[54]

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

Life with the Forces

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:

‘No monkey’ this was the name that we gave to the forces of Taylor, we wanted him out and so this was to say ‘go away’. For us, the LURD, they called us ‘no baboon.’ The reason for this is because some of us wear black like baboons. Also, the baboon is a strong animal and can fight well just like LURD.61

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:

For alcohol, we would go to the stores and take whatever we could find. We would smoke a lot of opium or marijuana, some people would sell the drugs to us, other times the commanders would come and hand it out. As a deputy commander, I was doing a lot of drugs, smoking a lot of marijuana, but now that the war has ended, I decided to stop.69

Solomon F. told Human Rights Watch:

We give people protection—zeke (the rope). Sometimes the medicine, it is in the food, to make you brave and strong. The Zo (senior religious figure) is in charge of protection. Sometimes we cut you with a razor blade and put medicine inside and then nothing can happen to you. We smoke grass, cigarettes, dugee (tablets), cokis (mashed tablets in a powder). It all makes you brave to go on the front. The commanders give it out. When you take the tablets you can’t sleep, it makes you hot in your body. Anytime you go on the frontline, they give it to you. Just got to do something to be strong because you don’t want the feeling of killing someone. You need the drugs to give you the strength to kill.70

Girls in the Forces

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.

In addition to the many abuses committed against child soldiers, girls were routinely raped and sexually assaulted. Many were raped at the time of recruitment and continued to be sexually abused during their time with the forces. Collectively known as “wives” whether or not they were attached to a soldier, young girls were often assigned to commanders and provided domestic services to them. Older girls and young women were particularly fierce fighters, commanding respect from their male peers. Some of these women were able to eventually protect themselves from sexual assault but would capture other girls to provide sexual services to boys and men.

Ellen S. a commander of the girls, described her time with LURD:

When LURD came here, we were caught, lots of girls, and were carried back to Bomi. After training, I became a commander. There were thirty ‘wives’ in my group; only two died, we were strong fighters. These ‘wives’ were big girls, the youngest ones perhaps fifteen years old. The young girls, they don’t get guns, they were behind us. They tote loads and are security for us.

We would wear t-shirts that were either yellow or brown and said LURD forces. My gun was a ‘60’ that was an automatic weapon and I wore the ammunition around my chest. We would get no payment for fighting, when we attacked somewhere, we busted people’s places and would eat. When we captured an enemy, if my heart was there, I would bring them to the base for training. But if my heart was bad lucky, then I would kill them right there.71

Dorothy M., who first fought with the government, later became a LURD fighter told us:

I started fighting with the government troops when I was fifteen. I was a very good fighter. Last year, I was captured by the LURD forces during battle. They asked me to join them so I accepted. I fought in all three world wars in Monrovia and was never wounded.72

Boy soldiers who commented on their female colleagues, admired their fighting ability. According to Jimmy D.:

Plenty girls were trained at the same time, over 200 boys and girls. For the girls, there was the black diamond group, for the boys, it was copper wire. These girls who fight, they are big, sixteen and older, and they fight just like men. They are strong. When the fighting is rough, they move right in because they are juju (magic). They are special. They don’t move in on the frontline, but they go ahead when there’s a problem, we would retreat and the ‘wives’ would go forward.73

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:

In 2001, I was captured in Lofa County by government forces. The forces beat me, they held me and kept me in the bush. I was tied with my arms kept still and was raped there. I was fourteen years old.

I was taken from home, it was during the day. Plenty of armed men came into the house, government forces, and dragged me out in the bushes. After the rape, I was taken to a military base not far from Voinjama in Lofa County. I was used in the fighting to carry medicine. During the fighting, I would carry medicine on my head and was not allowed to talk. I had to stand very still.

I had to do a lot of work for the soldiers, sweeping, washing, cleaning. During this time, I felt really bad. I was afraid. I wanted to go home, but was made to stay with the soldiers. I spent one year and two months with them before I got sick and was sent away.

The soldiers were terrible, they would kill civilians plenty. They accused them of not supporting them and helping the enemy. We would steal clothes, food, money whatever we could find from civilians. Treatment for women was worse than for men. They would tie up women, beat them and rape them. My auntie, nine soldiers raped her right in front of me, she is very sick now.

For girls in our unit, there were many. Only ten of us would go to the front, the others stayed behind and did chores, collected food and fetched water. These nine others were strong fighters and all had ‘husbands’ among the male fighters, other fighters would take the girls at the base for loving.74

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.

My Ma and Pa are dead, I have no one to help. When the rebels came, I was small, they forced me to go with them. I got pregnant from the fighters. When the time came for birth, the baby died. Four or five of the boys pushed on my stomach to force me to get rid of the baby, my stomach now is broken.75

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.

45 Ibid.

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],, (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.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

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.

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February 2004