Liberia's Charles Taylor and the cult of the child soldiers
Last Updated June 29, 2007
By Laura Lynch at The Hague, the Netherlands
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor in 2006, while making his first appearance at the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. (Rob Keeris/Associated Press)
Some of them were so young, the guns they gripped were bigger than they were. They had nicknames: Babykiller, Castrator, Ballcrusher and many others. They were children and they were soldiers in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. Now their stories of abuse and anguish are helping to make legal history.
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is on trial for his role in a war known around the world as the conflict that created "blood diamonds." Taylor faces a long list of charges stemming from his alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels. He is the first African head of state to be tried for war crimes. And he is the highest-ranking leader ever brought to court accused of recruiting child soldiers.
That's largely because the crime itself is so new. It was drafted into law by the International Criminal Court less than a decade ago. Less than two weeks ago came the first convictions. Three men in Sierra Leone were found guilty of forcing children under the age of 15 to take up arms against their own people in the course of the 11-year civil war.
Now it is Taylor's turn.
Child soldiers recruited in Sierra Leone
It was a particularly vicious conflict: tens of thousands died, many thousands more were raped and enslaved. Many of the victims who survived are missing their hands, arms or legs. In some cases, children perpetrated these horrors.
They were fed cocktails of amphetamines, cocaine and gunpowder by the adults who marched them into battle. The drugs were meant to ensure they would not feel anything when they murdered or maimed during countless massacres; they were meant to turn them into small killing machines.
Chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp calls the conflict an ugly example of "the very worst that human beings are capable of doing to one another."
300,000 child soldiers today
It certainly was not the first time children fought on the front lines. For centuries they have been recruited into the ranks of fighters. At times, some have lied about their ages so they could fight for their country. The youngest Canadian to die during the Normandy campaign in the Second World War was just 16, having signed up for service when he was 15 years old.
Right now, it is estimated there are as many as 300,000 children fighting and killing in conflicts around the world. Most of them are in Africa. The nightmare of Sierra Leone's child armies has not deterred other warlords from exploiting the most vulnerable among them.
That is another reason why the trial of Charles Taylor is seen as so important. Those who campaign to end the practice of enlisting children hope this case — with its high profile and high stakes — will draw attention to the issue. A conviction, some contend, will send a message to others: create legions of child warriors and you risk not only condemnation, but a lengthy jail sentence as well.
A soldier's story
Ishmael Beah has reason to be more interested than most. At 13, he was drugged and dragged into Sierra Leone's war. He lost his childhood the moment a gun was pushed into his hands. He killed and killed again. He watched his friends die beside him.
Eventually, Beah was rescued. He spent months in rehabilitation, withdrawing from the grip of drugs and the horrors of war. He has just released a bestselling memoir.
"The fact that he (Taylor) has even been charged is significant. And if the trial continues that will be even better, because I think it sets a precedent for a lot of other warlords that recruit children that you cannot get away with this," Beah said in an interview in London.
As for Taylor himself, he does not deny what happened in Sierra Leone, but he claims he is not responsible. In fact, Taylor points out, he never even set foot in the country during the war.
Who is responsible?
That may be the biggest legal challenge for the prosecution, though Stephen Rapp has his argument ready, saying Taylor directed the entire vicious campaign from afar.
"It's the person on the top that's calling the shots and you don't have to be the person that's shooting people, you don't have to be chopping off the arms and legs or raping the women to be the one that's really the author of the violence," Rapp said.
In his time as president of Liberia, Charles Taylor surrounded himself with militias largely made up of boys and girls. In Sierra Leone, rebel and government factions followed Taylor's example. Now young adults, some are coming back to bear witness to the horrors of war seen through a child's eyes. And those eyes will now be on Taylor as his trial finally gets underway.
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Previous pages on this topic
- War Crimes trial delayed (July 3, 2007)
- Press advocacy group condemns latest attacks on journalists in Iraq
- CBC's Tony Burman on risks of journalism
- Laura Lynch reports "we're all currency now"
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