Casualties of war

October 26, 2003

A DECADE OF civil war in Liberia has bequeathed a generation of ragamuffin soldiers, the youngest ones just 9 years old. They are children who have never experienced the innocence of childhood, only violence, terror and killing. Their combat names - Hitler the Killer, Junior Rambo, Two Tons of Trouble, General Lucifer - convey their misdirected dreams and perverse aspirations.

Some 15,000 such combatants must be weaned from a lifestyle of wanton destruction and arbitrary killing if Liberia is to re-establish peaceful and stable conditions. The poor West African country cannot do it alone. Now that Liberia has installed its postwar government, it will need determined help from international humanitarian organizations and foreign governments.

Rehabilitation of these child soldiers won't be easy. Their lifestyles have been just too bizarre.

Many are heavily into drugs after being taught that sugar cane juice mixed with gunpowder and amphetamines would make them strong and brave. Others smoke marijuana, wear women's wigs on their heads and crosses, teeth and amulets around the neck. "The bullet here around my neck repels all enemy bullets," one underage gunslinger told a visitor.

Yet rehabilitation is possible. Neighboring Sierra Leone has shown success in reintegrating child soldiers into society after its civil war ended last year.

Child combatants are difficult to disarm if they feel unsafe. Many saw their parents killed or don't have families to support them. Others long for the sense of power that carrying guns gave them.

"It is more than taking away guns," says Manuel Fontaine, a United Nations official working on the Sierra Leone program. "Their logic is different. As soon as they are identified, we provide them with opportunities to learn a job or go to some form of school."

A campaign is planned in Liberia next month to bring child soldiers back to school. Considering the historic ties between the two countries, U.S. charitable organizations should give to the campaign generously.

Unfortunately, rehabilitation needs are not limited to Africa. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 300,000 children worldwide have been forced to become soldiers, human shields, sentries and sex slaves to combatants.

"We can't give child soldiers their childhood back, but we can help them to rebuild their lives," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao proclaimed in May, when the United States committed $13 million to help former child soldiers in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Colombia.

Successful rehabilitation is an awesome challenge that deserves stepped-up U.S. support. Because if former youth warriors return to a life of guns and violence, they could become a source of international trouble for years to come.

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