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IV. The Recruiters, Their Promises, the Lure

Combatants with the NPFL patrol through the streets of Monrovia in April 1996. Clashes between forces from the NPFL and ULIMO-J during April and May 1996 left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands more wounded. Many Sierra Leonean fighters fought with both the NPFL and ULIMO-J. © 1996 Corinne Dufka

Individuals involved in the recruitment of regional warriors interviewed by Human Rights Watch were typically former commanders from the original armed group of the individual regional warrior.  However, those involved in recruiting for the LURD, MODEL, and several Ivorian rebel groups also approached fighters who had previously fought with their enemies. The recruiters understood that, for most potential recruits, the association with their first armed group was not based on any particular political or ideological commitment. Therefore, the recruiters did not expect the recruits to have any such commitment to a future group. In fact, many combatants described switching allegiances in the conflict in their own country, and did so when fighting abroad as well. 

Promises of Payment and the Opportunity to Loot

Most of the regional warriors interviewed said that they were motivated by the recruiters’ promises of financial compensation, usually in American dollars, and of the opportunity to enrich themselves through looting. Most of those interviewed received some but not all of the money offered. However almost all said that they benefited considerably from the goods they looted and pillaged abroad. Mid-level commanders were often promised cars. Sometimes, combatants were promised drugs, a place in a future disarmament program, food or jobs as civil servants or in the new army, if the ‘mission’ was successful. 

The commander in charge of recruitment in Sierra Leone for the LURD explained how he used the promise of money to convince fighters to join up. He also noted, below, how corruption and problems in the Sierra Leonean disarmament and reintegration exercise served to convince fighters to fight with the LURD. The majority of Sierra Leoneans interviewed for this report and for other Human Rights Watch research into this issue since 2000, named this individual as the one who had recruited them. 28

I had access to thousands of CDF who would go with me in twinkle of an eye…any number I wanted, I could get.  No one was paid, it was voluntary. I told them a few things. First, that if Taylor continued in power, Sierra Leone would be at risk, that war could come to Sierra Leone again. Secondly, many of them had done badly out of DDR – they’d been betrayed and hadn’t gotten any benefit. So I told them if Monrovia falls, whatever you lay hands on is yours. That’s just the way it is – no warlord can pay his army. There are a lot of countries straining to pay their armies and they end up taking services away from the people in order to do it. Even though we looted a lot of cars from Monrovia, we tried to be humane; we sent word that people could come buy them back – so we negotiated and asked the owners to give a goodwill gesture. So in the end, they got their cars back and we got paid.29

Most combatants explicitly identified looting as their objective in going to war, like this twenty-nine-year-old who joined the LURD as it was poised to take the capital Monrovia because, “no rebel would like to lose the opportunity to loot a capital city!”30

The extent to which a combatant benefited from looting and pillaging in a neighboring country was proportional to the position he occupied within the armed group. Commanders had access to bigger items and a bigger share of looted goods than their subordinates. However, commanders also understood that denying their troops the ‘right’ to loot and pillage was tantamount to a potentially lethal breach of contract. A twenty-four-year-old Sierra Leonean ‘general’ and veteran of three wars and five armed groups, described this dynamic, as well as the illicit and cross-border ‘trickle-down” effect of looted booty:

Anywhere you have rebel war you’re entitled to get money. I got so many things during my time as a warrior. For example, after the LURD took Monrovia, we headed straight to the port and anything we wanted, we took. The most important thing was food, which we even shared with civilians. We also got a huge amount of money from the Lebanese to protect their shops from Vai Town to Clara Town. Commander S. was running that operation.  We also looted the houses of the ones who’d moved away. Since there’s war, you have to expect everything will be lost.

In August 2003, I brought back a vehicle I got straight out of the container from the Freeport of Monrovia. I sold it – a brand new Mitsubishi – for $8000 to a Liberian businessman who’d come to the Sierra Leone/Liberia border where we had set up a big market. I brought back so many things from Monrovia – generators, building materials, clothes. However as a commander you have to share it with your junior commanders. Especially if you want to live a long life.  We loaded up the Hi-lux with rice, coke, building materials, cloth bales, diesel and brought it to the border and set up a big market. People were coming from all over Sierra Leone and Liberia to buy stuff from us. I made over US $3000 and shared a lot of it among my fifty men.

My boys were looting a lot at the port as well. A commander can’t know all their secrets. After all, they’re the ones who made me a commander. You have to let them do it or they could blow you off. People were crossing things over even though the Sierra Leone Army and police were there. The border looked closed during day but after midnight, it was wide open. With the money I made off the Mitsubishi, I’m now supporting three teams of diamond miners in Tongo Field. They’re my boys and I take care of them. I didn’t even disarm –I’m making more money now mining diamonds than I would if I went back to disarm in Liberia. This is why I like going on missions. Anytime anyone calls me on mission I will go there.31

Commanders encouraged looting by rewarding subordinates who ‘shared’ their loot, as explained by a thirty-five-year-old officer with the elite Anti-Terrorist Unit in Liberia, who spent several months in Danane, Côte d’Ivoire:

There was a massive looting of Danane by Liberian soldiers; trucks, videos, cars, beds. People took from Danane whatever they needed in Liberia. There wasn’t an order to loot, but it was understood. In fact, the hierarchy – Yeaten, Dolo, Gilbert Williams – encouraged it because they rewarded those who shared their loot with them.32

Rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council [AFRC] patrol through the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone shortly after a coup in May 1997 which overthrew democratically elected president Tejan Kabbah. Many Liberian fighters joined up with the joint RUF/AFRC forces during their nine months in power. © 1997 Corinne Dufka

Most combatants shared the money with their families and used the funds to set themselves or their family members up in business. A nineteen-year-old former RUF rebel who from 2001-2003 fought with the LURD explains how he assisted his family with his loot from the battle for Monrovia:

I benefited from the LURD war – while there I looted a vehicle and later sold it at the Sierra Leone/Liberia border for US $600. Then two televisions, and lots of money from a safe I’d shot open in Monrovia. After returning to Sierra Leone, I helped out my family – I gave my brother money to do small business, I bought clothes and rice for me and my family. I didn’t save anything because I don’t have any place to hide it. While I wait to see if the DDR program will work out, I’m working my motorcycle taxi which brings in about 5000 leones [US $1.75] a day at least enough to eat. I felt as if I did bad to a Liberian man who I stole a car from. But, you can’t struggle all that time in a war and not come out with something. And he should be happy that I didn’t kill him – I just took his car.33

Others described being deceived into going abroad by the recruiters or of not being fully informed about what they were going to do and the dangers involved. A twenty-one-year-old Sierra Leonean who fought with the CDF and in 2000 joined the LURD, described how his commander lured him to Liberia without telling him he wanted him to fight: 

About four months after getting my DDR money, a Kamajor mate came to chat with me and my friends and suggested we go to Liberia. He didn’t tell us what for, but I was just passing around with friends, not doing anything, so it sounded like a good idea. Besides, he had a lot of money and gave us a little. After the five of us crossed over into Liberia, he told us about the LURD and said we should join. I was surprised but soon overcame it. During our own war, he was one of my commanders and I trusted him.  Once in Liberia, he gave us guns and another commander came to tell us about the operation. But he didn’t really tell us why we were going to fight. One day, some time later, I heard one of the commanders talking about Charles Taylor; that he’s not doing good and that we should fight against him. But aside from that, I didn’t know why we were fighting that war.34

Many of those who were recruited to fight to conflicts in a neighboring country could not articulate the political objectives and, in many cases’ could not even name the organization they were a part of. For example, only one of the fourteen combatants interviewed who had fought in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002-2003 knew the name of any of the three Ivorian rebel groups operating during that internal armed conflict. Only a few of these interviewees knew the name of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo against whom the rebels were collectively fighting. This twenty-one-year-old’s account was typical:   

One day towards the end of 2002, my commander gathered a group of us and said there was a mission to Côte d’Ivoire. He said we’d get US $300 each. We were plenty who went – enough us to fill up two truck loads. We weren’t forced. Only the ones who had courage went. My commander explained that we were going to fight to help the rebels pull the president because he had killed our friend – or Taylor’s close friend – although I didn’t know who this was and what he was talking about. Two days before we left a juju man rubbed chalk on us and gave us special water so our life would be protected from bullets. Before crossing into Côte d’Ivoire we stopped at a village in Nimba and our commander  paid us US $50. After that, he said it was up to us to pay ourselves. I stayed there for one year, two months and was based in Danane and Man. But I benefited from loot – I got a video which I later sold for $230 USD. In fact many of the Liberians were going back and forth to sell their loot.35

A twenty-five-year-old Sierra Leonean who joined the CDF at age fourteen after the death of his father, and who years later went through the Sierra Leonean DDR program, demonstrates that his re-recruitment was linked to DDR. He described how the recruiter exploited his disappointment with the Sierra Leonean DDR program by promising him a second chance:

After disarmament, I used to grumble about how we’d fought the Sierra Leonean war but not seen any benefit from all our efforts. I was working for 2000 leones [US $0.70] a day at a master’s [car repair] garage earning only enough to get a little rice. One day in 2002, a CDF commander heard me complaining and said that he would give me an opportunity to go disarm again – in Liberia. He said there was an operation going on there and that if we went, we’d get a second chance at the DDR program. He asked me, ‘what are you doing working for so little – you have to get enough to open your own shop.’ I thought to myself that this might be a way for me to finally get some tools to work with; to  be someone. I discussed this with my mom but she said that Liberia is not my country and that I shouldn’t go fight another man’s war. But I told her, ‘No. I have to bear that danger and go, that if I don’t do something to get ahead, who will care for us.’36

Recruitment in Refugee Camps  

Several regional warriors described being recruited from within refugee and displaced persons camps in violation of national and international laws and standards that protect these populations. There is a general prohibition on military presence in refugee camps and settlements, which should always maintain their civilian and humanitarian character.37 In the last 15 years, the General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the forced recruitment of refugees into armed forces.38 The recruitment of refugee children into armed forces is strongly prohibited.39 In addition, there is a specific prohibition on recruiting internally displaced children into armed forces, and host states are obliged to protect internally displaced adults from “discriminatory practices of recruitment.”40 All internally displaced people must be protected against enforced disappearances, including abduction,41 and against slavery or any contemporary form of slavery42 – concepts which arguably encompass forced military recruitment.

Most of the refugee camps mentioned by those interviewed were funded and monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For some ex-combatants, their recruitment from the refugee camp led to their first association with an armed group. Others described having sought refuge abroad to ‘get out of the rebel life.’ Some ex-combatants who were, at the time of recruitment, living in camps in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia described going voluntarily after being approached by recruiters. Others described being forcibly recruited, usually after the camp was attacked or looted, as was the case in 2000-2001 when refugee camps in Guinea were attacked by the combined forces of RUF rebels and Liberian government troops.

Human Rights Watch received reports of the recruitment of Liberian refugees, including  children, from a UNHCR-monitored camp in western Côte d’Ivoire as recently as November 2004, around the time when Ivorian government troops briefly renewed their military offensive against the rebel-held north.43 The U.N. Secretary-General in a February 2005 report44 on children and armed conflict claimed that approximately twenty child soldiers with the LIMA force supplétive—a civilian militia which operates alongside the Ivorian army —were recruited from Nicla camp for Liberian refugees in western Côte d’Ivoire. 45

A former child combatant, who joined the NPFL in 1991 and was in 1993 recruited from a refugee camp in Sierra Leone, went on to fight in Côte d’Ivoire:

I joined the revolution in 1991 when I was 12, but I got fed up with the rebel life after being beaten by my commanders and decided to go to Sierra Leone where I ended up in Waterloo refugee camp. But I couldn’t get away from the war life. At Waterloo, when I was about 14, I was recruited to join the ULIMO’s by a Mandingo named S. They promised us money and said we’d be able to take whatever we could manage.  I fought with ULIMO from 1992-1995.46

A former Sierra Leonean Army (SLA) soldier, who fled to Guinea in January 1999 after Freetown was attacked by the combined forces of the RUF and the AFRC, was forcefully recruited with some fifty others when his refugee camp was attacked by the RUF in 2000k. The UNHCR presence in the camp had been greatly diminished due to the high level of insecurity in the region.47 One international UNHCR employee had been killed and another abducted during a similar attack a few months earlier.48 The soldier discussed his experience:

I managed to escape the fighting in Freetown and boarded a small pam-pam [small boat] to Conakry. After arriving, we were put into a refugee camp called Kalia – there were about twenty of us SLA’s there. We knew ourselves, but didn’t tell anyone else of our history. Then, in December 2000, Kalia was attacked by the AFRC /RUF together with some Liberians. They went there on a food finding mission. About fifty of us refugees were abducted. They took the young gallant men and young fine ladies and made us carry the looted refugee supplies all the way back to their base in Makeni. We walked all day and night for two days. After the war was over, I disarmed as an RUF.49

A twenty-six-year-old, who fought for several years with the RUF before seeking refuge in Guinea, was recruited by the Sierra Leonean CDF from within the Kolomba Refugee Camp in Guinea in 2001. During this period, UNHCR noted its concern about the presence of Kamajor militiamen in the camp but had been forced to drastically scale back their operations in the area due to attacks inside Guinea by combined forces of the RUF and Liberian government troops.50 The soldier described being trained within the camp:   

The Kamajors gathered the young men and encouraged us to work together to save the nation. The Guinean soldiers had an office inside the camp and sponsored us in this fight. They’d felt it after their country was attacked.  They gave us medicine, guns and rice. About 500 of us joined the society inside the camp. Boys even from the age of 14 were joining. They trained us inside the camp for about three months. The training took place inside one of the school buildings which had been taken over by the Kamos. Before going on operation we got some single barrel guns from the Guinean soldiers. UNHCR must’ve been aware – we even had our military parade inside the camp. But because of the fighting, all the international people had fled the camp.  After we entered Sierra Leone, we opened the road from Guinea all the way to Kenema.51

A UNHCR protection officer working with Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone from 2001-2003 told Human Rights Watch that although numerous allegations of recruitment of refugees within the camps there had been made, UNHCR had found no evidence to substantiate the claims.52

This twenty-six-year-old CDF fighter who joined the LURD shortly before their last push into Monrovia in 2003 described picking up Liberian refugees and their supplies before crossing the border into Liberia: 

Commander R told us our Liberian brothers needed our help to remove Charles Taylor from power. A few hundreds of us, most former Kamajors, left a day or so later in two trucks. We left at around 10:00 pm and drove around picking up people from Bo, the refugee camps at Gondama and Jembe and a few other places. In Jembe refugee camp we took our supplies from the stores.  We crossed the border by foot at 1:00 am.  We were all ages, from twelve years old to old men. We slept at the border where we were given our guns then left the next morning for Sinje, on to Klay and then on to Monrovia. This was a few months before the fall of Monrovia. It seemed a lot of the people dying were the ones who’d never fought before. The LURD were in a rush – it was their last push before chasing Taylor from Liberia.53

The rebel groups involved in recruitment from within refugee camps were usually operating in the country with the support or at least tacit approval of the host government.  Notable examples of this, including several documented by Human Rights Watch, include the recruitment by the LURD of Sierra Leonean refugees from camps in Guinea from 2001-2003,54 the recruitment by Liberian government forces of both Liberian IDPs and Sierra Leonean refugees from camps in Liberia from 2000-2003,55 and the recruitment of Liberian refugees by recruiters from MODEL and Ivorian government backed militias from camps in western Côte d’Ivoire from 2002-2003.56 As one MODEL general explained, “We convinced a lot of people from a refugee camp in Côte d’Ivoire to join us.”57  However, in each of these cases UNHCR failed to publicly identify the host government or rebel faction involved in the recruitment, due to pressures upon the UN agency to avoid upsetting relations with host governments, with the risk that refugee protection would be obstructed or removed if they spoke out. 

[28] Human Rights Watch interviews, Sierra Leone and Liberia, July-August 2004.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 14, 2004.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview, Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 17, 2004.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview, Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 17, 2004.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 12, 2004.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview, Bo, Sierra Leone, July 28, 2004.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview, Bo, Sierra Leone, July 28, 2004.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 10, 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview, Kenema, Sierra Leone, July 31, 2004.

[37] The civilian  and humanitarian character of asylum is affirmed in the Preamble to the 1951 Convention and the relevant provisions of the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Also see The Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa, Report of the Secretary General , 16 April 1998, at para. 54: (“Refugee camps and settlements must be kept free of any military presence or equipment, including arms and ammunition. Where there is a massive influx of people in need of asylum, immediate measures should be taken to separate the civilian population from soldiers and militiamen. The latter should be quartered separately and the neutrality and humanitarian character of the camps and settlements scrupulously maintained.”); Security Council Resolution 1208, Art. 3, S/RES/1208 (1998) (“affirms the primary responsibility of States hosting refugees to ensure the security and civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements in accordance with international refugee, human rights, and humanitarian law”).

[38] See, e.g.,. G.A. Res 45/140 (1990), art. 4 (“Condemns violations of the rights and safety of refugees and asylum-seekers, in particular… forced recruitment into armed forces and other forms of violence”); G.A. Res. 46/106 (1991), art. 5 (“Condemns all violations of the rights and safety of refugees and asylum seekers, in particular… forced recruitment into armed forces.”)

[39] See, e.g., G.A. Res. 51/73 (1993), preamble paragraph 3 (“unaccompanied refugee minors are among the most vulnerable and at risk of neglect, violence, forced military recruitment, sexual assault and other abuses and therefore require special assistance and care”); G.A. Res. 56/136 (2001), Art. 9 (“Condemns all acts of exploitation of unaccompanied refugee minors, including their use as soldiers or human shields in armed conflict and their forced recruitment into military forces”).

[40] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, Principle 13 (“(1) In no circumstances shall displaced children be recruited nor be required or permitted to take part in hostilities. (2) Internally displaced persons shall be protected against discriminatory practices of recruitment into any armed forces or groups as a result of their displacement. In particular any cruel, inhuman or degrading practices that compel compliance or punish non-compliance with recruitment are prohibited in all circumstances.”)

[41] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, Principle 10(1)(d) (“Internally displaced persons shall be protected in particular against: enforced disappearances, including abduction”).

[42] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, Principle 11(2)(c) (“Internally displaced persons, whether or not their liberty has been restricted, shall be protected in particular against: slavery or any contemporary form of slavery, such as sale into marriage, sexual exploitation, or forced labour of children”).

[43] Human Rights Watch interviews, New York, January 24, February 7, 15, 17, March 1, 2005.

[44] Fifth report of the U.N. Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, S/2005/72, February 8, 2005, p.5.

[45] There was disagreement among United  Nation organizations regarding when this recruitment took place: Those working within the office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict  indicated to Human Rights Watch that it had occurred in late 2004, while other United Nations officials  suggested it had taken place as early as May 2003, outside of the official reporting period for the Fifth report of the U.N. Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict [from December 2003-December 2004]. Requests through emails from Human Rights Watch to the UNHCR representative in Cote d’Ivoire to clarify this discrepancy were unanswered.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, August 16, 2004.

[47] See Guinea Update: UNHCR deploys more staff in south Guinea, UNHCR Country Updates, 4 Jan 2001 (“UNHCR drastically reduced its presence in Guinea’s border areas last September in the wake of the murder by marauding rebels of the head of UNHCR’s office in Macenta, followed by a string of violent attacks in several areas of southern Guinea.”)

[48] The killing and abduction happened on Sept. 17, 2000. See, e.g., Alexander G. Higgins, UN Says One Staffer Killed, Second Missing in Guinea, AP, Monday, Sept. 18 2000.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview, August 17, 2004.

[50] See Guinea Update: UNHCR Team Reaches Isolated Refugees, UNHCR Country Updates, 6 Jan 2001 (“"The presence of Kamajor militia, who oppose Sierra Leone’s RUF rebels, was especially noticeable in Kolomba, which is just a few kilometers from the border. " and “The UNHCR team was able to travel Wednesday and Thursday to isolated border areas in the so-called ‘bec du perroquet’ (parrot’s beak) west of the southern town of Gueckedou. The thumb of Guinean territory… houses dozens of refugee camps that UNHCR had been unable to reach since a series of rebel attacks in the region in early December…. The UNHCR team, which returned to Conakry on Friday evening, reported they were able to visit several of the larger camps in the area, including Kolomba”).

See Possible Militia Recruitment in Guinea Camps Seen as Threat to Refugees, UNHCR Update, Jan. 25, 2001 (“fresh fighting erupted in Gueckedou on Monday, forcing a UNHCR team to rapidly withdraw from Nyaedou towards UNHCR’s regional base in Kissidougou”).

[51] Human Rights Watch interview, July 29, 2004.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview, Sierra Leone, August 18, 2004.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview, Bo, Sierra Leone, July 28, 2004.

[54] See, “Liberian Refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, Militarization of Camps, and Other Protection Concerns,” Human Rights Watch Report. Vol. 14, no 8 (A), November 2002.

[55] See UNHCR Emergency and Security Service, Liberia: Civil War and Regional Conflict, WRITENET Paper No./17 (May 2003), page 13 (“The persistent fear of IDPs as tools in the war has continued to dominate the security environment, prompting UN Secretary-General Annan to alert the Security Council to abductions, conscriptions and other gross violations against the displaced and refugees.”)

See IRIN, Liberia: IDPs Complain of Harassment, Forced Conscription, April 16, 2003(“Internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been the targets of constant harassment, intimidation and forced conscription by armed government militias at IDP camps in the western suburbs of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.”)

See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003: Liberia: Human Rights Developments (“The intensification of the rebel attacks prompted President Taylor to declare a state of emergency on February 8, 2002, and precipitated a crackdown. Frequent raids occurred in crowded markets, in Krahn and Mandingo neighbourhoods, and in camps for the internally displaced around Monrovia, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of young men and boys, many of Krahn and Mandingo ethnic origin. Many of these were sent to the front.”)

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

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 12, 2004.

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