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Killing Children: Reflections on Sierra Leone’s Civil War

“Frosty the Snowman” was playing over the cafe’s sound system when Francis said he was ready to talk about his childhood. “I wasn’t a soldier,” he explained after finishing the last bite of his second breakfast sandwich. “Soldier is the wrong word.”

Francis and I had connected through a friend of a friend, and we spent several mornings in the latter half of December getting to know each other over cheap New Haven coffee and bacon-egg-and-cheeses. He was exceedingly polite in all of our interactions—always insisting on opening doors or pulling out chairs for me. Any mention of Sierra Leone, however, seemed to make him skittish. He didn’t like talking about his life prior to immigrating to the United States, in the mid-2000s. In fact, he only agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity—“Francis” is not his real name. Given the subject matter, I felt this was a reasonable concession.

“How old were you when you got involved with the war?” I asked toward the end of our first meeting.

“Fourteen,” he replied.

***

There’s a popular, somewhat trite dinner-party refrain, alternately attributed to Einstein, Hoover, and Roosevelt, that “old men start wars but young men fight them.” However, in Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, it wasn’t just young men who did the fighting: it was children, too. Some 11,000 boys and girls, in fact, are believed to have participated in the conflict. Those that survived are now in their thirties and forties, and they spend each day reflecting on atrocities that most of the world seems to have forgotten.

When the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed the Liberian border into Sierra Leone in March 1991, its ranks were comprised of little more than 100 guerrillas and a small, poorly armed contingent of mercenaries from Burkina Faso. In theory, the group was a revolutionary force—an insurgency driven by the prospect of toppling Sierra Leone’s relatively weak and unloved head of state, Joseph Saidu Momoh. Years of economic decline had turned a majority of the country against Momoh, and news of a rebellion sweeping across the remote, eastern districts was initially celebrated by many Sierra Leoneans. But their support dissolved once it became clear the RUF had no interest in winning over the local population.

“It was a campaign of terror,” Corinne Dufka explained to me in late December. Dufka was the Human Rights Watch representative in Sierra Leone between 1999 and 2003; she spent most of her time documenting RUF atrocities through photography and hundreds of interviews. We played a spotty game of email-tag for several weeks while she was investigating ethnic clashes in central Mali. Later, once she returned to Washington, we spoke over the phone.

“The RUF used brutality as a way to compensate for the lack of numbers in their ranks, she told me. “They used fear and intimidation to control communities.”

Systematic rape, public executions, and forced amputations were employed in combination to maximize panic among civilians. The 1990s saw a wave of ruthless, indiscriminate violence crash across the African continent, but the tactics of the RUF were exceptionally cold-blooded.

“They used games to terrorize people,” Dufka explained. “They would arrive at a town and bring out the entire community. Then they would give a random person a riddle, and if the person couldn’t answer it, their entire family was killed in front of everyone… as if the limb amputations weren’t enough, they also exercised horrific psychological torture. There were some cases where they forced parents to choose between their children,” she said.  “One would be executed and the other would be spared…and the parent had to decide.”

“That sounds like Sophie’s Choice,” I told Dufka.

“Yes, it was very similar to Sophie’s Choice,” she said grimly. “I documented several cases of that. … Children were afforded no protection.”

It’s fair to say that targeting young people was a trademark of the RUF’s terror regime. In addition to often serving as pawns in the group’s torture games, boys and girls were routinely abducted and turned into military assets. According to Dufka, kidnapping became the rebels’ primary tactic in bolstering their ranks. While the girls were often utilized as “wives” or sex slaves for RUF higher-ups, the boys were pushed onto the battlefield.

***

“I never killed anyone,” Francis asserted toward the end of our first meeting. He gripped my hand to make sure I was listening. “I saw other boys do it, but I never did. … They wanted me to kill people. They gave me drugs and guns and they took everything until I had nothing, but it didn’t work. It didn’t work with me.”

Francis would reiterate these assertions a number of times in later conversations. He’d bring them up at seemingly random moments – perhaps just to remind me. It was clear he took some degree of pride in having endured his RUF conditioning while so many others lost themselves.  

Once conscripted, children were exposed to a wide range of indoctrination methods. “They had to control every part of them to stop them from running away,” Dufka said. “They did that by way of intimidation, they did that by way of strategically breaking the child’s ties with their community. They forced them to perpetrate atrocities against members of their own family. They forced them to kill their own parents so the children had no one to run away to.”

Horrifically, family annihilation was often only the first step in the RUF’s broader “isolation process.” Rebel soldiers would proceed to brand abductees’ chests and arms with hot razors or broken glass, destroying any hope of easy reintegration within society. Then, after the RUF marked the children’s bodies, they moved on to their minds.

“Marijuana was used a lot,” Dufka explained to me. “Many children described having it put in their food after they were abducted. I interviewed a few kids who talked about just how disorienting that was for them.”

Marijuana, along with alcohol, was the primary tool the RUF used to keep new recruits numb and compliant. Early training sessions with firearms—or other efforts to desensitize the children to violence—were preceded by heavy drug use. Later, once the boys were ready to be sent into battle, their commanders would allegedly alter the pharmaceutical load, exchanging marijuana for doses of cocaine that would be administered through small skin incisions.

“The drugs made boys crazy,” Francis confirmed. “They made the boys worse than crazy. I mean they made the boys want to kill people. Your family is dead, you have nothing left, but you have the drugs. So maybe the drugs make the killing easy. Or maybe the drugs are the only thing you have, so you kill for more drugs. Or maybe it’s both.”

There are some who cast doubt on cocaine’s reported role in the conflict, however. Daniel Bergner, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, was on the ground in Sierra Leone between 2000 and 2002. To this day, he believes the stimulant may have been nothing more than a comfortable explanation for the otherwise incomprehensible.

“This was a horrific war, not in numbers but in atrocities, and the West, the reporters, the UN, and NGOs were desperate to explain what was happening,” he said. They would attribute it to the insanity of RUF leaders, and then they would attribute it to the megalomania of Charles Taylor. For a while, they attributed it to Gaddafi. And in the midst of that there was the narrative that what was impelling these child soldiers to commit these atrocities was the drugs. … I feel like there’s way too little evidence for the assertion that drug use allowed for the atrocities, but it crept into the popular narrative.”

“Cocaine is expensive,” Bergner continued. “Sierra Leone was extraordinarily poor. This idea that there was a whole lot of cocaine running around somehow… I have a hard time believing that.”

When I presented Bergner’s argument to Corinne Dufka, she hesitated to take a side on the matter. “I can’t really speak to cocaine,” she said. “Most of the children I spoke to talked about marijuana, but there were some people who did describe having white powder put in their noses. I’m not sure.”

Dufka did acknowledge Bergner’s broader contention that problems exist within the “popular narrative” around Sierra Leone and the RUF. In the rush to document what was happening on the ground and explain why it was taking place, it’s possible some viewed nuances in the conflict as obstacles in the storytelling process.  

“There was no simple divide between good and bad,” Bergner told me. “It’s a big mistake to attribute the atrocities simply to the RUF. There were atrocities committed by RUF, by government soldiers, and by government allies. It was a complete mess.”

Dufka echoed this idea, mentioning how both the Sierra Leone military and pro-government militias exhibited reprehensible behavior throughout the war. She singled out the Kamajors, in particular. Originally a loose collective of tribal hunters, the group came to be seen as a reliable civil-defense force by the government. Cooperation intensified during the latter half of the war, despite the fact the militia made extensive use of child soldiers.

“The Kamajors certainly recruited children,” Dufka told me. “They practiced extrajudicial executions too. Their crimes were not equatable or on the same scale with the RUF, but they absolutely committed atrocities.” By some estimates, approximately five thousand of the eleven thousand children who were conscripted into the war fought for pro-government defense forces.

“No, there were no really good guys,” Francis told me. “It was mostly bad guys and badder guys. The whole thing had a lot of bad.”

***

In many ways, “Operation No Living Thing” served as the climax of Sierra Leone’s civil war. The campaign, launched on January 6, 1999, was a surprise attack on the country’s capital of Freetown, but it ultimately stretched into a three-week occupation.

RUF rebels stormed the eastern edge of the city before dawn, toting machetes, imported RPGs, and Kalashnikov rifles. There’s no way to properly describe what took place over the next several hours. It was a massacre, of course, but words and vague statistics fail to convey the hellscape that unfolded. Eyewitness reports chronicle the insurgents rounding up entire neighborhoods to be tortured, mutilated, and slaughtered.

The violence was ruthless and indiscriminate, and as the invasion force pushed further west, from Calaba Town to Kissy, the brutality seemed to escalate into outright sadism; civilians were taunted while they were hacked to death. Dufka’s Human Rights Watch report on the incursion cited several instances of infants being thrown into burning buildings and toddlers being subjected to systematic limb amputations. To some, though, the most horrific aspect of “Operation No Living Thing” was not how many children were victimized—it was how many children perpetrated the violence. In the report, Dufka wrote: “child combatants armed with pistols, rifles, and machetes actively participated in killings and massacres, severed the arms of other children, and beat and humiliated men old enough to be their grandfathers… they were known and feared for their impetuosity, lack of control, and brutality.”

“I witnessed more atrocities during that period than at any other point,” General David Richards said, reflecting on the RUF occupation. The former head of the British armed forces was in Freetown in January 1999, conducting a brief review of Sierra Leone’s military for Prime Minister Tony Blair. I communicated with General Richards—who repeatedly insisted that I call him David—extensively throughout the fall. We emailed back and forth for several days, before I finally coaxed a Skype interview out of him. Approximately a week after I had first made contact, we met face to face, albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

“You have to choose between indignation and horror,” Richards replied when I asked how he preserved his sanity in the midst of so much evil. The general led a second, brief reconnaissance trip in Freetown throughout February 1999 and then a much larger evacuation operation in May 2000 as the conflict worsened. It was during the latter mission that Richards made the possibly career-ending, unilateral decision to go beyond his official mandate and intervene in the war.

“I had a battalion of the Parachute Regiment, 42 commando Royal Marines, some Special Air Service special forces, and a few Naval hands that had come ashore from the support vessels. That was it,” Richards told me. “And if I had more than one or two British casualties, I was finished because my bosses in London would have realized what I was doing.”

Determined to stop the atrocities he had witnessed in 1999, Richards contacted potential partners in the region. “I ultimately had to create what we called the ‘Unholy Alliance,’” he explained. “It ended up being the rump of the Sierra Leone army, some West Side Boys, who were a very unpleasant lot, and the Kamajor militia, who were loyal to the government but were also capable of methods that I abhorred.”

In the weeks that followed, Richards and his British personnel rarely came into direct contact with the RUF. “That was by design,” he told me. “Most of the hand-to-hand and close quarter fighting had to be between Sierra Leoneans.” However, Richards was constantly reminded of the gravity of his situation—he was waging a war against children.   

“When you traveled, you would come across the wounded or the dead and realize that some of them are very young. And when I went through areas where fighting had been, sure enough, there were one or two that would be in their early teens. But you don’t feel disgusted with yourself,” he asserted. “You feel disgusted with the men who put the young people in that position, and it makes you more determined to stop them.”

Despite the topic of our conversation, I only witnessed Richards lose his temper—or express any significant emotion—once. I had asked him what he thought of the RUF leader Foday Sankoh, the one-time army corporal and wedding photographer who first brought the insurgency’s guerillas across the Liberian border. Richards didn’t hold back: “Sankoh was possibly the most monstrous opponent I ever faced. I’m not aware of many warlords that would stoop to using children as weapons. He was deeply calculating, sanctimonious, and almost cheerfully evil. He played on terror in a way I haven’t really seen elsewhere. He was a bully. He was a dog.”

***

General Richards’ actions ultimately saved Sierra Leone. Government forces captured Sankoh less than a month after the start of the intervention and proceeded to push RUF factions back into the eastern recesses of the country. Leaderless and facing mounting pressure from Guinea, Nigeria, and local militias, the rebels did not last long. Sierra Leone President Ahmad Kabbah formally declared an end to the civil war on January 18, 2002.

“But it’s not over just because they say it’s over,” Francis clarified for me. “They stopped the RUF but I didn’t have a home or a family anymore. I didn’t have a place to go.”

Francis claimed he escaped from his unit sometime in December 1999 or January 2000 and made his way to a camp for demobilized RUF child soldiers in Makeni, the largest city in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Assuming his dates are correct, this would have been approximately a year after his abduction during the 1999 occupation of Freetown. He claims to have stayed at the camp for only a few days before joining a group of families headed to Guinea. Francis asked that I not include how he eventually made it to the U.S.

I still have nightmares,” he told me during our last meeting. “I know I am safe here, but they will never go away…and they make sleeping very hard. Imagine if you had dreams of your mother dead in front of you or of dead neighbors and dead friends.”  

“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” I remember saying to Francis before we parted ways for the final time.

Don’t be sorry for me,” Francis replied. “I got out. Other boys did not.

Today, according to Brookings, there are an estimated 300,000 minors serving in armed groups around the world—with an average age of 12 years old.