Byline: Tom Masland
The four boys at St. Francis Primary School don't stand out much. They're just a bit bigger than other fourth and fifth graders crowded onto rough benches in the otherwise bare classrooms. And teachers at St. Francis say the four are doing well--eager to learn, more disciplined than their younger classmates. But look closely, and you see that the four are different from their fellow students in other ways. Their knees are battered from crawling through the West African bush, and they have ugly welts from incisions once stuffed with heroin and cocaine. The letters RUF--for Revolutionary United Front--are carved across the chest of one boy. And the external marks only hint at the scars within--at the horrors the boys suffered, and perpetrated, as forced conscripts in an unimaginably brutal civil war.
The four boys from Makeni, Sierra Leone, won't be among child delegates joining more than 60 heads of state at United Nations headquarters in New York this week. They've barely thought about one of the main issues involved in the U.N. Special Session on Children--how the international community can roll back the growing exploitation of children in war. Experts say soldiers under the age of 15 have fought in more than half of the world's 55 ongoing or just-ended wars. Children are easy to recruit, low cost and malleable. From the "little bees" of Colombia to the "baby brigades" of Sri Lanka, they have become the cannon fodder of choice.
In a world absorbed with the "war on terror," with headlines blaring about terrified Americans and terrorized Israelis or Palestinians, the atrocities committed against some of these children almost demand a new language to encompass a further extreme of horror. The kids of the Mideast get more attention, either as disciples of terror or as victims of occupation. But nobody has been more exploited than the kids of Sierra Leone. They may not come from a strategically important country, or a place that, for now anyway, represents a danger to the world's rich nations. But the growing use of children has changed the dynamics of warfare, and must be treated as a new security threat. The question before the United Nations this week will be how to muster the will to enforce longstanding international conventions and three new resolutions on children and armed conflict. The latest protocols on children's rights took force in February, and condemned the use of child soldiers and their sexual exploitation.
Some may dismiss teenage ex-combatants as war criminals who don't have much to contribute to a debate on human rights. Indeed, these boys say they can now look only to God for forgiveness. Yet they are, in a very intimate way, the world's leading experts on child warfare. And their eyewitness accounts--shocking as they are--convey the unthinkable inhumanity of those who coerced them into combat. To that end, NEWSWEEK recently spent three days debriefing these four young veterans, selected from among 25 ex-combatants who attend the 1,023-student primary school in Makeni, a rundown market town 90 miles northeast of the capital, Freetown. All lost close relatives in the war; two stammer uncontrollably. Abdul Rahman Kamera, 15, still lives with the rebel commander who nicknamed him "Go Easy"; he can find no living relative. Zakaria Turay, 14, whose war name was "Ranger," and Abbas Fofanah, 16, who went by "G-Pox," live with aunts. Only Alieu Bangura, 14, called "Major" by his fellow warriors, has been reunited with his mother. All are destitute, barely getting enough to eat. Their stories:
Before the War Abdul Rahman: I remember that my grandmother used to prepare cooked food to sell. Early in the morning she used to take food to where she was selling it. I would go and collect the dishes. After school I would go to the house, get drinking water, wash my uniform and go to my companions to play football. I liked to play defense. In the …