of children in Sierra Leone are fighting with rifles supplied
are habitually used by both sides as frontline soldiers,
prized by commanders for their fearlessness and bloodlust.
They are not paid, but given food and alcopop "morale-boosters".
This is the army on which the British Government, as announced
yesterday, is to spend £20 million for retraining, and
to which it will almost certainly supply 10,000 self-loading
of that retraining, British officers here assure us, will
involve screening out the 5,400 under-age soldiers said
to be in combat. But the British military advisers who
help the government army with strategy, organisation and
logistics have not insisted on the removal of the children
from the ranks.
told them they should not be doing it," says Colonel Mike
Dent, who heads the military assistance team in the Sierra
Leone ministry of defence. "We've said the UK does not
like it and it will affect the support." But commanding
officer Lieut Baikum Kamara says: "They should be at school,
it's true. But it's difficult to get them to stop fighting.
Naturally, they appreciate the lifestyle."
hard to imagine schoolboy Abu Kamara or his 14-year-old
checkpoint colleague Momay Conteh in action. Abu's hand
is too small to reach the grip on the breech, so he shoots
from the hip. "It's a good gun," says Momay. "It fires
accurately." He boasts that he has killed more men than
he can count.
from his colleagues Abu tells me he wants to go to school
- though I'm not sure he knows what that is. He was abducted
from his home in Bombaledi in 1996 by a militia group.
Soon he was given an AK-47. Last year, after a peace agreement,
he was absorbed into the official government army, backed
by Britain. Abu says he is not ready to go home. "The
war is not yet over!" The older men clap him on the back:
their mascot. Before we left the boys asked for alcohol.
We gave them chewing gum.
two boy soldiers are nothing out of the ordinary. They
were just the first we met yesterday on the road to the
front - well-travelled by the team of British military
advisers assisting the offensive. On the front line at
Masiaka 10 days ago I met soldiers even younger, some
of them girls, all of them drunk on the "morale boosters"
and buzzing with excitement at the battle they had just
a British-supplied four-ton truck I found a 13-year-old
called Mick, a member of the SLA's third battallion, wearing
British army camouflage fatigues. He also had a rocket-propelled
grenade launcher, which looked too heavy for him. But
he showed me he could do it. He shouted the militia slogan:
"Till we die, before it's over!" In Sierra Leone's eight-year
civil war babies as young as 10 months have been mutilated
by rebel troops with machetes. The Revolutionary United
Front was also the first to press-gang children, but the
pro-government militias, now absorbed into the Sierra
Leone Army, followed.
as young as seven have been taken from their homes into
the rebel ranks - the boys becoming combat troops, most
of the girls are used for sex. In the offensive of January
1998, 20,000 children went missing. The British and the
reformed government army want to remove children from
the conflict. But they have taken no steps to do it. The
commander of the SLA's Second Brigade, Colonel Antony
Mansaray, insisted there are no under-age soldiers in
his command. When I told him about Abu and Momay, he said
he would have them removed from duties immediately.
Dent said that as combat units are rotated out of the battle
front for retraining, the under-age would be screened out.
Their presence, he said "is totally against the instructions
issued by the Sierra Leone government".