Former Child Soldiers in Liberia
by Sam Gbaydee Doe, West African Network for Peacebuilding November 1998

[This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 12]

Three months after the Liberian civil war, Commanding Officer “Dirty Ways” one morning begged his neighbours to call him by his real name. “I have come to tell you not to call me “CO Dirty Ways” anymore. Call me by my real name. I am Junior Sawyer.” Since the end of the civil war, a major source of violent conflicts among youths in Liberia is name calling. One specific case that comes to mind took place in a secondary school located in a rural county of Liberia. A former child soldier took a pistol to school in order to “kill a friend who refused to take warning when I told him to stop calling me crazy”. During the seven year civil war, Dorwee proudly moved around his community with the name “General Crazy”. One year after the civil war, he takes a pistol to kill someone for calling him by that name.

In order to recreate children and turn them into monsters, Liberian warlords devised several strategies to destroy the original identities of children whom they conscripted into their fighting forces. In my six years of work with child soldiers in Liberia, I have not come across any child soldier who used his family- or given name in the civil war. Why did warlords take identity recreation as their single most important strategy in their conscription exercises? What are the social consequences of their actions on post-war Liberia?

One of the most devious aspects of the Liberian civilian war has been the creation of enemy images in order to brainwash young people into fighting. One child soldier I spoke with said this, “I know my enemies. They are from the other tribe. I heard them speak in their ethnic language when they rained terror on the people of my village. I hate them”.

From my research in Liberia, I discovered that, many times, guerrilla leaders of the same faction, in order to win the loyalty of children, designed strategies that eventually portrayed them as saviours of victimised community members. A former general disclosed this to me, “When we target a village for recruitment purposes, we divide our team into two groups. The first group is given the mission to kill especially the elderly and babies, rape the girls and burn the village in the guise of another faction.” They were commanded to speak the predominant language spoken by that group as they maim and kill the villagers. “While the massacre is being carried out,” he indicated, “our second team appears and behaves as the saviour of the people. When the first team is driven away, we assure the villagers that we will protect them and that they should join us to destroy the enemy.” Many young people happily joined fighting forces in order to avenge the death of their relatives and friends.

This strategy yielded several results in the interest of the rebel factions. One, it instilled deep and passionate hatred in the victims. Second, young people felt obliged to seek revenge in order to restore the “lost dignity of their people.” Finally, the faction leader is perceived as a saviour. In 1993, during one of our tours to rural Liberia to conduct a peace building workshop, we saw a billboard with a portrait of one of Liberia’s faction leaders.

Below the image were these words, “This is our messiah.” The stimulation of this deep sense of spirituality reinforces the victims belief in, and loyalty to, the “saviour.” Not only is the leader a saviour, he becomes their new creator. By being attacked, the victims are reminded of how vulnerable they are; consequently, they doubt and even abandon their sense of safety and selfhood which defined them and their relationships prior to the onslaught. When the victims abandon their original sense of self and safety, they take on and internalise the new self and safety offered by the “saviour”.

Warlords concluded their training and orientations by giving the converts new names. Like Western Christian missionaries who insisted on the change of name after baptism in Africa, faction leaders insisted on the change of name after savage initiating rituals, with “Buck Naked”, “Human Eater”, “Dirty Ways”, “Rambo”, “Chuck Norris”, “General Crazy” as common replacements. Why did warlords take renaming of children seriously? What is the significance of name in the Liberian society? How does this inform us in understanding the identity crisis that plagues ex-combatants and other post-war Liberian children?

Having a sense of identity means being able to see oneself as an individual with certain characteristics. An individual whose important qualities existed in the past and will continue into the future. One who is able to view himself as having a certain place in society. In the Liberian context, the single most important social mechanism through which one’s individuality is established is the naming ritual. Liberia’s four major ethnic groups (Mel, Mande, Kwa, Americo-Liberians) have different naming rituals but they all have a common traditional, spiritual, and philosophical ground for the ceremonies. Liberians believe that every human being’s behaviours and characteristics are conditioned by his name.

When I was born, for example, my parents named me after my deceased grandfather. I remember vividly as a child growing up in a six-hut village in Southeastern Liberia how the villagers had pre-conceived expectations about how “a Gbaydee” should behave. “You are a Gbaydee. When Gbaydee was here with us he was generous, jovial and wise. Why are you doing the opposite?” This question was drummed in my ears every time by the villagers so much that, in reflection, I realise that my behaviour and self-concept was largely conditioned by them.

Two lessons can be learned out of this experience. Firstly, an individual in Liberia has no authority over how he will be named, and secondly, when the name is given, his/her self-knowledge is influenced by the expectations and preconditions set by his social environment. It was this fundamental social practice that warlords exploited during the civil war. A child who was named “Dirty Ways” was expected to be nasty in dealing with civilians or his ‘enemies’. A “Rambo” was expected to be as brave and adventurous as Hollywood’s Sylvester Stallone.

Warlords in Liberia did not only rename children, they destroyed every earlier relationship which defined the children. Children were sent to their own villages and people to kill, loot and destroy. “We went at night. I knew some of the people. They too knew me, but I was a different person now. Once I take my tablet, I can do anything to anyone. All the big, big people were scared of me. I was the commander in my village,” a former child soldier told me. When rebel leaders complete this ritual, they take away the child’s community friends, and relatives which defined him and provided his view of the world. They replace it with a new community characterised by killing, looting, and vandalising. For seven years, this was the community to which they belonged. For seven years, they were the prominent people in their communities. Their basic human need for recognition was demanded from people of their communities through the use of the gun.

On 19 July 1998, after the general elections which ended the Liberian civil war, military factions were dismantled and children who were not lucky to be absorbed in the new shades of security forces were asked to return to their families, villages, towns and cities, some of which they destroyed during the civil war. Now the identity they held onto for seven years has disappeared and the identities they had before the civil war, it seems, cannot easily be recollected and assumed. Now there are at least 30,000 nameless and faceless children roaming the streets of Monrovia. They are bereft of an identity and are being forced to ask the fundamental question “who am I?”.

One thing that is clear is that this generation of “Dirty Ways”, “Human Eaters”, “No Nonsense” etc. will not just disappear from the scene. They will assert themselves in society through looting, armed robbery, prostitution, and other crimes. They are the reserves of potential armed insurrection. Worst of all, they are the living evidence of the inhumanity of adults against children.

The Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and the Children’s Legal Centre, an independent NGO, has recently set up the ‘Children and Armed Conflict Unit’ as a resource and information centre. It will work closely with Olara Otunnu, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. It welcomes any information on this issue.

The Children’s Legal Centre
University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park
Colchester
C04 3SQ
UK
Fax: +44 (0)1206 874 483
email armedcon@essex.ac.uk

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