By: Nina DeVries
FREETOWN— It’s been over a decade since the civil war ended in Sierra Leone. During the war, 50,000 people were killed and millions displaced. Child soldiers played a key role in the conflict, as rebels recruited them to pick up weapons, fight and be used as sex slaves and spies. Now, a non-profit group is looking to help Sierra Leone change its image and become a leader in the campaign against the use child soldiers in Africa.
Twenty-seven-year-old Adama - not her real name - was recruited by rebels in the north of Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war.
“They asked my father to have sex with me, he refused, when he refused, he lost his life… Seeing your dad [killed] in cold blood in front of you, it’s not easy,” she said.
A rebel then raped her at 12 years of age.
Adama says she spent two years with the rebel group The Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
She says normally she would’ve become a permanent sex slave for them but brigadier general’s wife took a liking to her, and she only had to cook and clean for the RUF members.
Or act as a spy.
“So we are the ones they send as intelligence to get info for them, so we go back and say hey, there’s this many police and soldiers around and they get ready to go for the fight,” she said.
She eventually managed to escape to Guinea where she received refugee status before coming back to Sierra Leone when the war ended.
Thousands of other children captured by rebels during the Sierra Leone civil war have similar stories, according to a Canadian-based organization, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.
The organization, created in 2008 by Roméo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general and former force commander of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda, estimates that 10,000 children were victims of military recruitment in Sierra Leone.
Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the organization, says the initiative aims to create training and education programs to prevent the future use of child soldiers.
Whitman says the organization plans to with work the military and police in Sierra Leone as well as youth.
“So teaching kids that if conflict does break out, you need to be aware that you could be taken by an armed group, here is how we suggest how you might prevent yourself from being taken, if you are taken, here are some pointers on how to escape being taken,” she said.
Whitman says the Child Soldiers Initiative has trained troops around the globe on how to deal with child soldiers in combat but this is the first time the organization is working directly with a country for a nationwide project.
“What if we look at this as creating a model for how the rest of world could prevent the use of children in armed conflict and take it and mold it so can be used in DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo] or Somalia or other contacts around the world,” she said.
Kalia Sesay, the officer for police peacekeeping operations in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, says many former child soldiers have now been reintegrated into society but more rehabilitation could still be done. Some former child soldiers have gone on to lead a life of drugs and crime.
“There might be one or two bad eggs that need rehabilitation and it is a police concern which we need to work on,” said Sesay.
Meanwhile, Adama is pleased the initiative is happening. She says it’s been hard to be accepted back into society because of her past.
“When these things have happened, there are stigmas around us. Some are even afraid of coming close to us and interacting with us so I think with this program things will change,” she said.
The project is expected to be fully operating in Sierra Leone by June.