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Our guns arms the children

by Alex Renton in Freetown

an article taken from the Guardian

Thousands of children in Sierra Leone are fighting with rifles supplied by Britain.

Children 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 rifles.

child soldierPart 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.

"We've 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."

It's 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.

child soldierAway 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.

These 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 finished.

In 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.

Children 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.

Colonel 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".
published may 2000