Seven years ago, I won a Fulbright grant to conduct research about former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
One day, a boy no older than 12 lifted his shirt to show me the letters, R-U-F, etched into his chest. The Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group in the civil war, carved them into his skin during their initiation ceremony for child soldiers. He begged me to help remove them. A medical agency had come to remove the scars on abducted children like him, but they’d missed this one. Now there was nothing I could do.
He was just one of the nearly 7,000 children who were forcibly conscripted in the Sierra Leonean civil war between 1998 and 2002. Children were an uncomplicated target for the rebel groups. They did as they were told, their innate obedience heightened by the drugs the rebels administered through injections or by cutting a child’s skin and rubbing the chemicals directly into the wound.
In order to extinguish any family ties, rebels forced children to kill or rape their relatives. This was torture, and a kind of insurance policy: Now, even if they wanted to escape, the children would have no home to return to.
Girls as young as seven were taken as bush wives. Some of the older ones became pregnant, and some of the younger ones bled to death after sex. Often, girls needed surgery to repair the damage to their bodies caused by rape and early pregnancy. Those who gave birth had their children labeled rebel pikin -- rebel children -- and were rejected back home.
After the war, for those who endured the physical damage, it was the psychological scars that lingered. My research missions took me to former Interim Care Centers (ICCs), where demobilized children received assistance from local social workers while waiting to be reunified with their families.
One of them, Francis, sat with me on a wooden school bench outside a classroom and recounted children’s temperament after they left the army.
“They were so stubborn. Troublesome. They picked fights,” he recalled, shaking his head. He looked ahead as he remembered more. “They were boastful about their exploits. One boy, he came up to me and said, ‘Do you know how many arms I’ve cut off? Two boxes of arms and I will soon be a second lieutenant.’ They didn’t think they had even done anything wrong.”
Coincidentally, I arrived in Sierra Leone in 2006 on the same day that Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was brought there to stand trial at the Special Court (SCSL), an international criminal tribunal. During the first few months I was in Sierra Leone, the Taylor case had been moving along at a slow crawl. The prosecution was trying to track down someone who could testify about the use of children as soldiers during the war.
They had children who could testify, just as they had other victims -- amputees, rape victims, people who had watched their relatives be murdered -- but they needed more evidence and research to establish that child abduction was a widespread, systematic activity. Since I was in the midst of carrying out my own research on this group, they asked me to verify that the abduction of children during this conflict was a widespread occurrence, and that these kids were legitimate.
My first task was to find a way to prove that the ages of children who were considered child soldiers were under the age of 15 -– the cut-off age according to the court to be considered a child. But without birth certificates or any sort of written record of their ages, how could we be sure? Any ambiguities in our report would permit the prosecution to assert that the people whose stories were recorded in the files were, in fact, adults at the time of recruitment.
I interviewed social workers who had received children and asked the same questions that I anticipated being posed by the defense. In Kailahun, a district in the East, I sat down with Fatima, a social worker who now dealt with child protection issues -- cases of abuse or neglect, labor violations, the trafficking of children as domestic workers -- for the local Ministry of Social Welfare.
We met at her office, which was a small room with some papers scattered on a large desk. No computer, no electricity. It was no wonder that so little got done in these places, which lacked even the most basic resources. Fatima barely had enough credit on her phone to schedule our appointment.
The efforts Sierra Leoneans made in the face of these obstacles and the victories they managed to achieve impressed me time and again. A solid, motherly woman with a stern voice, Fatima had been in charge of the reunification process after the war for this province and she explained the system to me: “Usually the child didn’t know how old he was. We asked them to try to remember what grade he was in when he was abducted. What major milestones of the country he could remember. Like who was the paramount chief at the time you were born? How old were you when this city council building was built? We asked whether he had younger siblings and how many. Did he care for these siblings before they were abducted?”
They took note of physical signs as well.
“We looked at their teeth,” Fatima said. “Did they have molars? Did they have their front teeth in?”
She pointed to her incisors and grinned widely, so I could see her back teeth. “You listen to their voice. You can tell if they’ve been through puberty yet. For boys we measured the size of their calves, looked to see if they had an Adam’s apple or underarm hair. For girls we looked if they had breasts.”
It may not have been the most scientific approach, but it was the best they could do, and it sounded pretty reasonable.
“You can tell a ripe corn by its looks,” she said.
The mean age of the 2,300 children entered on the Ministry forms -- each one filled out by someone like Fatima, who’d carefully estimated the child’s age as nearly as possible -- was still only 11 years old. Eleven was four years away from 15, the court’s designated cutoff age. So even if the approximations were off by a year or two in either direction, it wouldn’t make a difference. These were children.
On the first day of the trial in April of 2006, Taylor remained expressionless as the judges read aloud the crimes for which he had been indicted: rape, murder, maiming, looting, theft and abduction of children. Taylor stood up and defiantly refuted the charges. “Most definitely, Your Honour, I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone... Most definitely I’m not guilty.”
The court thought differently. In September 2013, Charles Taylor was put behind bars for the next 50 years, which means he will certainly die in prison. During the months that I spent in Sierra Leone, my research on child soldiers was submitted as testimony to help reach this outcome. Contributing to his conviction, even in the most marginal of ways, has been about the most exciting opportunity of my career.
While I was doing my interviews, I had asked a few children what they thought of the Special Court, if the ones living far from Freetown even knew of it. One boy, not even 13 at the time I met him, put it best: “For some of us, our lives were miserable, they trained us to come up in a bad way. By trying them, it shows people that if you do bad, there will be consequences.”
Adapted from Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid by Jessica Alexander. Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Alexander. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.