Disarming Liberian forces remains a challenge

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

TUBMANBURG, Liberia -- On a rickety porch, in the middle of the day in one of the world's most devastated war zones, a fight over the ownership of a red bicycle exploded between two boys. The childhood argument was as familiar as any on Earth.

Except that one child -- a hard-looking boy who said his fighting name is Dog Eats Man and wouldn't give his age -- had a gun and was waving it.

"You stole my bike!" cried Kuty Hinmie, 15, as his bony chest and shoulders shook. Thick tears tumbled from his almond-shaped brown eyes.

Dog Eats Man is a member of a rebel group that, until last week's peace pact, was fighting government troops and another rebel force for control of Liberia. All sides have armies that look like they are from a junior high school yearbook. Dog Eats Man grabbed the bike. He whacked Kuty's head with his AK-47 and aimed the weapon at Kuty's left foot, laughing and shouting.

Ending bloodshed

Whether Dog Eats Man and the tens of thousands of other child soldiers can be disarmed is at the heart of the agreement aimed at ending 14 years of bloodshed in Liberia. The pact calls for rebel fighters and government soldiers -- both accused of raping and robbing -- to lay down their weapons and form a new national army.

But more than half the combatants are estimated to be 15 or younger. They have grown up in a Liberia where it is easier to get an AK-47 than any kind of book or notepad. Some of their village traditions teach them that they can be made immune to bullets and go unpunished for killing. With almost no opportunity for education or jobs, the task of getting any of the fighters, particularly the young ones, to put down their weapons and go on to another kind of life will be extremely difficult.

Scenes from a day spent in this town, an hour's drive west of the capital, Monrovia, and the headquarters of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy or LURD, showed just how complicated disarming fighters and rebuilding Liberia will be.

'Listen to me'

In Kuty's confrontation with the rebel boy, a neighbor, Fatu Karmra, stepped in. She was furious that her porch was now the front line in a battle over a bike.

"Listen to me!" she shouted as she waved her hands in the air.

Dog Eats Man threw down the gun, but the argument dragged on and moved off the porch as Kuty carried the bike on his shoulders and walked down the street. Dog Eats Man lurked behind him.

Karmra noticed. She screamed: "Someone listen to me!"

Her voice only added to the thick chaos that swallowed this street.

Boys with guns were piled onto pickup trucks that beeped their horns as they screeched through the center of town. Gunfire went off every now and then. People shrugged and said it was just children playing.

At a rebel checkpoint built under a canopy of grass and tree branches, a boy named Lassana Kromah was wearing a girl's braided wig, along with two bead necklaces. His gun hung over his back. His dress allowed him to shake bullets off his body, he explained.

"I look fine," bragged Lassana, who looked about 15 but refused to give his age.

"Let's make business," he said as he asked for a bribe of food or cash from a group of women and men that passed by.

Then he pulled a timid-looking girl to his side. He threw his arm around her waist.

"Take my picture," he yelled to a journalist.

The girl frowned and looked nervous.

Standing nearby was his friend Ishmael Swaray, also known as Bad Pay Bad because "when Taylor did bad to us, we do bad to him." Bad Pay Bad has been fighting most of his life. Sometimes he wears a shower cap and a woman's puffy lemon-colored dress to guard himself against bullets. He's fought for LURD, and said he's now willing to go back to school or go back to fighting.

'I shake bullets'

"Either one, 'cause I shake bullets. They pass over me. They can't touch me," he sang out, following his words with a mouthful of palm wine.

In some tribes in Liberia, fighters wear wedding gowns and other kinds of women's dresses. They also sport choir and graduation gowns. They wear wigs and hold stuffed animals. Some clutch good-luck charms in the form of shells made into a necklace or wear talismans on their necks and carry boiled eggs.

"It's like magic," Bad Pay Bad explained. "I killed people and it doesn't stick to me. I still go to heaven."

The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, is working on a program to disarm children based in part on a successful model used in neighboring Sierra Leone. In that conflict, weapons were taken away from children after international peacekeepers had been deployed and some security had been restored.

"This environment hasn't changed overnight because people signed a document in Accra," said Andy Brooks, regional emergency officer for the agency, referring to the peace deal reached in Ghana's capital. "Many of the teachers here have left. There aren't even social systems in place to start from. A lot of children need to feel secure and need a safe space before any guns get put down."

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