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A question of conscience. Who is now recruiting child soldiers and ex-combatants in Liberia and West Africa to fight in Iraq?
I am the Senior Advisor to a small NGO, everyday gandhis, based in Santa Barbara, documenting and supporting grass roots peacebuilding efforts in West Africa, particularly Liberia. The organization was established by Cynthia Travis who co-directs it with her Liberian partner William Saa, an internationally known trauma expert.
Three years ago, everyday gandhis saw the need to extend their efforts to ex-combatants, particularly ex-child soldiers. We have developed a peacebuilding team that includes ex-child soldiers and ex-generals who are committed to their own transformation from fighters to guardians of the earth and of the peace.
Several of our team members in Liberia, including an ex-general, the former General Leopard, (in charge of our youth programs who has brought several of the young people whom he once, to his great regret and shame, coerced into fighting, as well as other former child-soldiers to live in the everyday gandhis house as the core of our peacebuilding team,) have informed us in the last weeks that ex-combatants are being recruited, probably by Blackwater gone underground, to fight in Iraq through offerings of US $10,000 a month. [An offer – not the first – was made to the former general in the last few days.]
Several on our staff, including one of the women who was a coerced commander during the war, were approached to fight in Iraq. This young woman declared she would rather die than return to a life of violence.
In a country where one can survive on a few hundred dollars a month, this is more than a king’s ransom.
Other sources confirm it is Blackwater, but the greater problem is that the people assume it is the United States government. Because Liberia was established by ex-slaves from the US, such recruitment carries greater weight than it might anywhere else.
The implications of a private Blackwater army fighting in Iraq, maybe in Afghanistan, and also for hire in Africa and other countries are more than alarming. The threat to the US war effort from such ‘soldiers’ not under the direct control of US military discipline is clear.
The US is itself challenged by the necessity of meeting the numbers of returning veterans suffering from serious and costly physical wounds as well as unprecedented numbers of veterans suffering head injuries and suffering PTSD. These future veterans, many of whom will also be wounded and possibly dangerous and dysfunctional due to PTSD, will have to return somewhere. The danger to the world from a cadre of untreated and untreatable war wounded arising from those recruited to fight in such wars under the control of unsupervised organizations like Blackwater then returning to economically stressed countries who cannot assume responsibility for them, is unimaginably dire
This is not secret knowledge in Liberia though it is not fully known in the US or may be obscured in its activities and implications. An article in the American Conservative March 8th. 2009 speaks of it: Blackwater (Xe) Scours War Torn Africa For New Hires –
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is doing what she can to stop the recruitment which is public, scandalous, and promulgated on the radio. Blackwater has been banned from Liberia – as announced in January 2009. We understand that it went underground and shifted to Sierra Leone but recruitment continues. Wherever it takes place, it is criminal activity that is dangerous to world peace.
We met the former General Leopard in 2006 when he was a desperate man on his way to Guinea to fight as a mercenary — a desperate man, in a desperately poor country, without work or the means to support his family; there are thousands like him still. He overheard one of our conversations as we were all stuck in the mud on the road to Voinjama in the north and asked to tell us his story. He turned away from lucrative incentives in order to work for everyday gandhis. The small salary we offered eventually could not begin to be comparable.
One of his first acts for peace in 2006 was to follow up on the rumors of recruiters looking for soldiers to foment disturbances in other areas, including Sierra Leone and Guinea. As soon as he joined everyday gandhis, he revealed the activities to the UN peacekeeping forces and then he went into the forest to speak to the young people to dissuade them from becoming mercenaries; he and our small team, including other former generals and commanders are doing the same now.
Recruiting for on-going wars in West Africa, though tragic, is not unusual. Recruitment by the US to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan is.
When did we authorize a private army to affect and implement foreign policy and global events by its actions in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan?
Background to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in Liberia.
The Republic of Liberia underwent 14 years of a violent civil war that ended with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACPA) in 2003. This agreement was signed between the Government of Liberia (GoL) and the two other belligerent forces, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and Political Parties. The deployment of the joint ECOWAS and UN Peacekeeping Mission, UNMIL, has sustained the resultant peace and security in Liberia to-date.
In recognition of the perverse violence that characterised the Liberian civil war, the ACPA made significant focus on issues of human rights and promoting a culture against impunity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia was established as an outcome of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACPA) to address transitional justice issues emerging out of the conflict. It is part of a package of measures recommended by the ACPA in Part VI, Section Article XIII, to promote respect for human rights, good governance, the rule of law sustainable peace, unity and national reconciliation.
EGP Youth workshop Report Voinjama, Lofa County By: William Jacobs
The youth mentoring program of Everyday Gandhis in Voinjama, northeastern Liberia, is making enormous positive impact on the lives of many enthusiastic youth in the post war community. We have so far reached out to four schools where we engaged over 150 youth including girls affected by over 14 years of gruesome civil crisis to join the discussions. Personal life story telling has been pivotal to these lectures as the idea is to help young people reconfirm their dignity, identity and national pride. Two topics, “Healthy Relationships” and “International Human Rights” are the main areas of discussions. These are essential subject matters at this time when Liberia is just recovering from a war that has caused many young people to become withdrawn and without trust for anyone else except their peers found mostly at street corners and the “ghettos” of the country. For these young people, trust and relationships that are free of drugs and violence are crucial in the current process of peace, reconciliation and re-integration in Liberia.
At the end of the forum, the participants were invited to converge at EGP Guest House for the climax of the program. The gathering was a fantastic evening of interactions, storytelling, riddles and singing. The Movie, “Akeela and the Bee” was shown to encourage the participants to focus more on their education. There were tears shed, particularly when the facilitator bursts out crying after listening to the sad stories told by some of the youth who confessed to their involvement in the Liberian war
Through no fault of their own, many children actively participated in Liberia’s prolonged civil war that caused the deaths of tens of thousands. The horrendous effects of that war are still visible and fresh in the minds of most of those that were forcibly conscripted, drugged and turned into killing machines. As they recollect, their daily lives were marked with disconnect from their families and the communities as well as with impertinent abuse of human rights. As one participant states: “We need this type of forum because many of us are still traumatized”.
The scars of the war for some remain. Experiencing trauma, being traumatized, is extremely unhealthy; one cannot think properly in order to be positive and productive. In their stories, we get to hear the reality of life and the day to day struggle to survive.
In this report, we have deliberately selected stories told by some of our workshop participants who are now living exemplary lives in their communities. Through these stories it is hoped that healing at the community, national and international levels can be possible. It is also hoped that with these stories of peace and reconciliation can be final in our quest for a better and safer world.
In 2002, former Liberian rebel leader turned President Charles Taylor’s government forces attacked Kolahun, a provincial town in Lofa County; Northeastern Liberia. Benka Moima (not his real name) was just an innocent child when the army entered the town to try to repel the dreaded rebel faction, Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).
As he told his story to participants of the fourth of our workshops held under the theme: “International Human Rights,” the soldiers forced their way into the house where he lived. Benka hid himself behind the door. While there, he saw two of his friends killed by the soldiers. They then arrested him and took him outside for execution. But one of the soldiers happened to be an old friend of Benka. He recognized him and tried to save his life. The boy gave Benka one of the yellow T-shirts that they were wearing with inscription “The Navy Jungle Lion”. But that did not help as another boy thought he was an outsider and suspected him to be an enemy among them. He insisted that they kill Benka. An argument ensued and went on for a long while. In the end, Benka was forced to join the government forces to fight against the LURD rebels. For months Benka was used to carry arms and ammunitions to the frontline supplying the fighters as they battled with the rebels. “I was forced to hold a gun”, he now says. In response to a question that arose from the discussion, “Where in your life have you seen your rights taken away from you?” Benka said that when the government troops attacked their area on Christmas Day in 2002, his rights to protection as a child in war situations were taken away from him. Today Benka lives quietly in Voinjama struggling to complete his junior high education even though he is clearly over aged.
[It is important to note that some, but not all, of the youth associated with everyday gandhis sponsoring this workshop fought with LURD. Peacebuilding depends on these ex-combatant and child soldier ‘enemies’ coming to healing and restoration together.]
DEENA METZGER works with the Everyday Gandhis. She can be reached through her website.
Comprehensive Peace Agreement Between the Government of Liberia and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and Political Parties, Accra 18th August, 2003. http://www.usip.org/library/pa/liberia/liberia_08182003_toc.html