Sierra Leone goes to the polls on November 17 and is making a recovery ten years after the civil war. But former child soldiers still suffer from trauma and their surviving victims are still waiting for compensation.
With his hands Mahmoud Sesay (not his real name) can accomplish quite a a lot. He is changing the tires of the white van, which stands outside the workshop. He can also change the oil and check the engine.
But he has also used his hands for far less innocuous tasks, such as cutting off a man's head with a machete.
Mahmoud Sesay is one of some ten thousand former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Somehow it is difficult to equate the child soldier with the young man in blue overalls, now in his early 20s, standing next to fellow trainee auto mechanics at the MADAM garage. MADAM, a local NGO in the Makeni township in the north of the country, trains young men and women to become auto mechanics and cooks. The German relief organization Brot für die Welt (Bread for the world ) supports the program. But Mahmoud Sesay does not like to talk about his past in front of his colleagues. We leave the workshop.
Killing their own families
”I was living with my aunt in Tonkolili district, “recalls Mahmoud Sesay. Rebels abducted them from the village, they gave the boys drugs and forced them to join them. Shortly afterwards, he took the rebels back to his village. His uncle and several other relatives were taken prisoner. “My commander ordered me to kill the prisoners. I couldn't do it. So he took a knife, held it to the back my of neck and cut into the skin,” says Mahmoud. “I was sad because my uncle, my brothers and family were among the prisoners. My commander yelled at me and threatened to kill me if I didn't carry out his orders. I shot them with my rifle, while weeping bitterly”
Almost 10,000 children were abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and sent into battle during the 1991-2002 civil war. The RUF had the backing of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor. With RUF assistance, Taylor wanted to take control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines. An international tribunal recently sentenced Taylor o life imprisonment. RUF leader Foday Sankoh, a former army officer, died of a stroke in 1993. But Mahmoud Sesay and thousands of other former child soldiers are still left grappling with the trauma of war.
Former Liberian president Taylor was sentenced to 50 years for helping rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone
No hope of reconciliation
But Mahmoud Sesay is faring better than most. He heard about the MADAM training program and applied for an apprenticeship. “If anyone asks me to join a rebel group now, I would say no. I have now learnt that I can make it in life anywhere,” he says, smiling for the first time.
Many former soldiers have not had any sort of training or further education. They work as taxi drivers or do casual labor. Others go begging for a living.
This marginalization of so many ex-combatants in Sierra Leonean society remains an unresolved problem ten years after the war. In 2004, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for a nationwide dialogue. Taking a cue from the end of apartheid in South Africa, perpetrators and victims were to have entered into dialogue. But this never happened. For ex-combatants like Mahmoud Sesay, it means he has been forced into the role of an outsider. To this day, he does not dare to return to his village - for fear of retribution. His father doesn't want to have anything to do with him. By chance the two met in Makeni after the war. "He had nothing to eat and I brought him food. He refused my gift and told me that I am no longer his son," Sesay said, fighting back tears.
Daily struggle for victims
The former victims of child soldiers live just around the corner, a few hundred meters from the MADAM workshop, at the ‘amputee camp'. Government and aid agencies built such houses throughout the country after the war so that Sierra Leone's 27,000 amputees have somewhere to live. The neighborhood stands out because the one-storey houses are all painted bright yellow. Children play between the huts, the heat has driven the older residents to the porches and under the trees
In a small town like Makeni, you can meet ex-combatants and the wounded every day. “ I know that there are former rebels everywhere in Sierra Leone. But I do not know if they are the ones who did this to me. I leave it to God to defend me,” says Adama Koroma. She runs a small shop in the camp. Not thinking of revenge, even if no former RUF fighters ever stood trial. “One must also forgive.”
Empty promises instead of compensation
For 14 years Adama Koroma has been living without her left forearm. Rebels attacked her village one night and chopped it off. With the bleeding stump she dragged herself three miles to the nearest road. “There I met a patrol of Nigerian soldiers who brought me to Freetown.” Only in the capital, could doctors treat her arm. Nearly 27,000 people lost their hands or limbs during the war. There is lack of sympathy for the victims of the war. In 2004, two years after the war, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended compensation for war veterans. The program would have cost only ten million euros. However, the government authority responsible lacked the money.
Yet during the election campaign the two major parties have focusing on war veterans' issues. The APC ruling party has pledged to pay them monthly pensions if they are returned to power. Adama Koroma does not believe such promises. She runs a small shop where she sells rice, bananas and other vegetables. She has learnt to live without her left forearm. If a customer wants to buy some rice, she holds the empty container with her right hand and skillfully pushes the rice into it with the stump of her left arm.
Education: the best means to prevent war
There is one thought that keeps her going. “I want my children and the young people in this country to get a good education. That's the best way of preventing them from starting another war.”