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I. Summary

There are some of us who can’t seem to live without a weapon – anywhere we hear about fighting, we have to go. It’s because of the way we grew up – and now it’s in our blood. A warrior can’t sit down when war is on….
–  Mohammed, 24 year-old Liberian who fought in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire

Since the late 1980’s, the armed conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have  reverberated across each country’s porous borders. Gliding back and forth across these borders is a migrant population of young fighters – regional warriors – who view war as mainly an economic opportunity. Their military ‘careers’ most often began when they were abducted and forcibly recruited  by rebels in Liberia or Sierra Leone, usually as children.1 Thrust into a world of brutality, physical hardship, forced labor and drug abuse, they emerged as perpetrators, willing to rape, abduct, mutilate and even kill. Later, as veteran fighters struggling to support themselves within the war-shattered economy at home, they were lured by recruiters back to the frontlines – this time of a neighbor’s war. There, they took the opportunity to loot and pillage; an all too familiar means of providing for their families or enriching themselves.

The flow of arms and combatants across the fluid borders of West Africa, paired with the willingness of governments in the region to support the actions of insurgent groups and government militias in neighboring countries has had lethal consequences,  particularly for civilians. The armed groups these regional warriors are part of have a well-documented record of committing unspeakable human rights abuses against unarmed civilians and have so far enjoyed impunity for the violations they commit.  Efforts by the international community to disarm and reintegrate these fighters into their home communities –including through training – have so far had limited success. At present, the armed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire and the unstable political situation in Guinea appear to be the current theaters into which these regional warriors are being drawn.

The voices of the regional warriors heard in this report clearly illuminate the link between economic deprivation and the continuing cycle of war crimes throughout the region. The regional warriors unanimously identified crippling poverty and hopelessness as the key factors which motivated them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts. They described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters.  Indeed they were born in and fight in some of the world’s poorest countries. Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival.  Each group with whom these combatants went on to fight with has, to varying degrees, committed serious human rights crimes against civilians, often on a widespread and systematic scale. The brutal armed conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire have resulted in tens of thousands of civilians being killed, raped or maimed.

The findings of this report are based on in-depth interviews with some sixty former combatants who collectively represented fifteen armed forces – including both rebel insurgencies and governments – active at various times since 1989 within Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea.  The groups most frequently represented by those interviewed were the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA), the Sierra Leonean Civil Defense Force militias (CDF), the Ivorian Patriotic Movement of the Far West (MPIGO) and the Ivorian Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP).2

The ex-combatants interviewed ranged in age from seventeen to forty-eight, and were all male. They represented different levels of command and occupied numerous functions within their respective organizations, including operational commanders, the military police, administrators, recruitment officers, training officers, logistics officers, intelligence operatives, artillery commanders, and chaplains.

Most of those interviewed had fought with at least two armed groups in as many countries, and many had fought with three or more groups.  Few – with the exception of those who had fought with the Sierra Leonean Civil Defense Force militias who joined to protect their villages from rebel attack – could articulate the political objective or ideological ‘raison d'être’ of the armed groups with which they fought. 

The majority of these regional warriors began their fighting careers after being forcibly recruited by either the NPFL or the RUF, usually when they were still children.  After fighting in their first war, however, nearly all willingly crossed borders to fight in other wars or ‘missions,’ a term these fighters used for war. At the time of recruitment into these subsequent wars, almost all were unemployed or living a precarious economic existence, and were motivated by the promise of both financial compensation and the opportunity to loot. Most interviewed received at least part of the financial compensation offered by the recruiters, and all participated in the looting and pillage of mostly civilian property, and benefited economically from it. Most used the money to pay rent, school and medical fees for their extended family, and to engage in petty trading.

The ex-combatants spoke openly about the atrocities they had witnessed, and in many cases committed, both with their original group and as combatants abroad. These former combatants were not necessarily more prone to commit abuses against civilians from a neighboring country than they were to abuse their fellow citizens. The degree of effective command and control, and discipline maintained within the various armed groups played a key role in the kind and frequency of violations observed and perpetrated by the interviewees while outside their country. Several described receiving clear orders to perpetrate atrocities against civilians, most notably during the 2000-2001 joint attacks by the RUF and Liberian security forces against Guinea. Numerous regional warriors singled out the LURD for its efforts to instill respect for civilians, and discipline those who committed abuses against them. However the LURD’s efforts were inconsistent and often unsuccessful. Some abuses, like looting and pillage, were not explicitly ordered, but were sanctioned at the highest level.

The majority of former fighters interviewed who had participated in the 2000-2003 United Nations-sponsored Sierra Leonean Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program (DDR) received only partial benefits, were kept out of the skills training component of the program or failed to receive any benefits at all. They also identified corruption in this process and an inadequate grievance procedure within the DRR program as serious problems.  Many perceived the program’s failure to engage them as having contributed to their decision to take up arms in subsequent conflicts. Similar problems were described by those within the 2003-2005 UN-sponsored Liberian disarmament program, although to a much lesser degree. A severe funding shortage of US $39 million in the Liberian disarmament program not only left some 40,000 combatants at risk of missing out on job training and education, but appeared to make them more vulnerable for re-recruitment to fight in future armed conflicts.

Since April 2004, well over two-thirds of the Liberian ex-combatants interviewed, in addition to several of the Sierra Leoneans, had been asked to join fighting “missions” in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.  Among those approached to fight in Guinea about half had been approached by commanders claiming to represent a fledgling Guinean insurgency, and the other half by those claiming to be supporters of Guinean President Lansana Conté. Aid organizations and United Nations officials working in Liberia say that hundreds of recently demobilized combatants, including children, have since at least November 2004 been re-recruited to fight in Côte d’Ivoire. The majority have, according to their reports, gone to fight alongside militias associated with the Ivorian government.

While Sierra Leone and Liberia’s progress at silencing the guns is encouraging, the developments in the past year in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea highlight the serious potential for the cycle of conflict and suffering to begin anew. All four countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire – remain vulnerable to political instability and conflict as a consequence of their domestic policies, the dire socio-economic conditions endured by their populations, a long legacy of weak rule of law and the instability of their respective neighbors.  Deterioration in the military-political situation in Côte d’Ivoire would likely be accompanied by human rights abuses on a massive scale, given the proliferation of militias and level of ethnic tension.  In Guinea, the unstable political situation and persistent ethnic tension in the south – also known as the Forestière region – coupled with an apparent regional effort to foment an insurgency aimed at unseating the government, give cause for alarm. Liberia is plagued by striking deficiencies within the judicial system, infighting and corruption within the transitional government; serious shortfalls in financing the program to reintegrate and train demobilized combatants and efforts by warlords to control the electoral process. While Sierra Leone has put its devastating civil war behind it, the deep rooted issues that gave rise to the conflict—endemic corruption, weak rule of law, crushing poverty, and the inequitable distribution of the country's vast natural resources—remain largely unaddressed by the government.

Addressing these complex problems requires accountability at all levels including the warriors who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity; the recruiters who abduct children; the arms dealers who flood the region with weapons; state and non-state actors who facilitate arms flows and benefit illicitly from war, and the governments whose corrupt and repressive policies all too often give rise to internal conflict

Governments of the region and the international community must pay strict attention to the importance of the economic sustainability of these fighters’ new lives as well as the importance for parallel development of the communities into which they return. Shortfalls in funding to train and reintegrate tens of thousands of fighters who took part in Liberia’s 1999-2003 armed conflict, as well as for programs to assist civilians whose lives were torn apart by the same, must be redressed. Corrupt practices in the disarmament and rehabilitation process, which has deprived many combatants of their benefits and made them more vulnerable for re-recruitment into other regional armed conflicts, must be addressed through the establishment of a grievance procedure endowed with the power to refer cases for prosecution. 

The regional warriors interviewed for this report clearly point to the inextricable link between the level of economic deprivation and the continuing cycle of war crimes throughout the region. For that reason, improving the severe socio-economic conditions which in large part give rise to armed conflict in the region is vital. Tackling the root causes of this impoverishment is critical to putting an end to the phenomenon of mercenaries in West Africa; however it is a long-term process which necessitates sustained political will and effort on the part of governments and the international community.

[1] 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).

The use of children as soldiers dates to the start of the conflict in 1989. Taylor’s NPFL became infamous for the abduction and use of boys in war; a tactic later adopted by other Liberian fighting factions as well as other fighting groups in West Africa, most notably the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone. Between 6,000 and 15,000 children are estimated to have taken up arms from 1989 to 1997.

[2]All of these armed groups have a well-documented record of committing human rights abuses against unarmed civilians, sometimes on a widespread and systematic basis. For further information:

See, “Sowing Terror: Atrocities against Civilians in Sierra Leone,” Human Rights Watch Report, vol.10, no.3 (A), July 1998.
See, “Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone,” Human Rights Watch Report, Vol.11 No 3(A), July 1999.

See, “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia,” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 16, No. 2 (A), February 2004.

See, “Back to the Brink: War Crimes by Liberian Government and Rebels,” Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 14, No.4 (A), May 2002.

See, “Liberia, A Human Rights Disaster,” Human Rights Watch Report, October 1990.

See, Trapped Between Two Wars: Violence Against Civilians in Western Côte d’Ivoire,” Human Rights Watch Report, August 2003, Vol. 15, No. 14 (A).

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