Child soldiers of Sierra Leone retrain as civilians
By Lutz Kleveman in Freetown

Daily Telegraph
(Filed: 29/04/2001)

WHEN Hassan Bagura first met Sister Adriana, he was a child soldier wielding an AK47 assault rifle and she was the nun he forced from her convent in northern Sierra Leone.

That was six years ago. Hassan was 10 years old and a fighter with the Revolutionary United Front rebels. He was so small that he had to sling the strap of his gun over his head just to keep the barrel off the ground. Sister Adriana, a middle-aged Italian, was one of four white nuns that the RUF rebels abducted and held captive in the bush for two months.

A few weeks ago, Sister Adriana and Hassan faced each other again, in a children's home just north of the country's capital, Freetown, where the nun helps reintegrate former child soldiers into normal life. Sister Adriana's former tormentor, now 16, deserted the RUF and fled to government-held territory.

The tales told at this former child combatants' camp, overlooking a sweeping sandy beach, highlight the past horrors and the present hopes of war-torn Sierra Leone. As with Hassan, many of the former combatants are sent to a camp run by Father Joseph Berton, a 69-year-old white-haired Italian priest and long-time resident of Sierra Leone.

He said: "We are trying to demobilise the kids mentally and help them become socially acceptable again, and to accept society." He points at bungalows shaded by giant palm trees where some 120 children live in groups, each headed by an adult. "We simulate family life until we find their real families," he added.

In 10 years of civil strife, hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans have been killed, mutilated or displaced. Hassan lost his mother when the RUF captured him. "She was crying, so one of the fighters shot her dead," he recalls in a matter of fact voice. At the age of eight, he carried ammunition boxes, later a gun, and then became the guard of "Brigadier Issa", a ruthless commander who had his soldiers forcibly injected with cocaine before battle.

During his eight-year-long ordeal in the bush, Hassan was twice captured by the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA), only to be forced to fight for them, too. "In the field, I was called 'Commander Mosquito'," Hassan recalls, rather proudly. When children arrive at rehabilitation camps, they often brag about their military rank, says Fr Berton. "So I tell them, 'No, my boy, you are 16 years old, and you are far behind in school, full stop'. Or I tease them and call them 'Bush Captain' and they laugh."

Fr Berton says that because the child veterans are not used to solving conflicts peacefully, they often use violence. "We intervene but we do not physically discipline them. They have seen enough of that."

Another of the increasing number of deserters from the RUF is Betty, a 13-year-old girl with braided hair. She was seven when RUF fighters captured her. Their commander was her own uncle who forced her to prove her courage by stabbing prisoners to death or cutting off their arms. When she tried to flee she was shot in the leg. In 1999 Betty escaped to Freetown. "I still have nightmares. Then the Devil gets into my head," she whispers, stony-faced.

"The children do not have to talk about what happened. We help them forget. What else can we do?" asks Fr Berton. "Naturally, they are traumatised and some feel guilty but we want them to focus on the here and now."

Hassan says that he has made friends for the first time in the camp. "In the bush, you have no brother, no friend." Yet Hassan still fears his victims' revenge. He says that people point their fingers at him in Freetown which the RUF invaded in January 1999, killing 8,000 people. "I did very bad things then. Many people know that." Then his face brightens up. "One day, I want to be a pilot," he says. In the air force? "No, no, civilian."