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Child soldiers in Sierra Leone

Ginny Mooy
A Mind To Kill
Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

Ginny Mooy

Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements

for the degree of master in
Cultural Anthropology and Non-Western Sociology

University of Amsterdam
Department of Cultural Anthropology

Title: A Mind to Kill: Child soldiers in Sierra Leone
Author: Ginny Mooy
Supervisor: Dr. R.R. Aya
Cover: Amadu Tarawallie
List of Abbreviations I
List of Events II
Acknowledgements IV
Introduction 1

Part I – There is nothing sweet in war 5

A Narrative Perspective on Child Soldiering
1.1 General Shed Blood 5
1.1.1 Fighting Is Not Part of Me 8
1.1.2 Liberian Rebel! 9
1.2 CO. Cut Neck 10
1.2.1 Little Big Boy 11
1.2.2 A Mind To Kill 12
1.3 Rebel, Soja, Hero 14
1.3.1 Bush Character 16
1.3.2 Rebel Without a Cause 18
1.4 Rascal 19
1.4.1 NGO 20
1.4.2 Jonki Boy 22
1.5 Nasty Killer 23
1.5.1 Bomba 23
1.5.2 Father 26
1.5.3 Good Boy 28
1.5.4 Palava 30
1.6 Borbor Pain (Sufferer) 32
1.6.1 Trauma 34
1.6.2 Di Sistem, Di Sistem 35
1.6.3 Assistance 37
1.6.4 Money Lover 38

Part II – Di Kiti Kiti 39

The context of war
2 Introduction 39
2.1 RUF 41
2.1.1 Ruffians 46
2.2 Kamajors 47
2.2.1 Recruitment 50
2.2.2 Choice or Force? 52
2.3 RUF versus Kamajors 54
2.3.1 Rats & Ants 55
2.3.2 Bush Monkeys 56
2.3.3 Commanders & Soldiers 56
2.4 Child Soldiers 57
2.4.1 Childhood 58
2.4.2 Ordinary Boys 60
2.4.3 Drugs 61
2.4.4 Cooks & Clerks 62
2.4.5 Combatants 62
2.4.6 Civilians Again 63

Conclusions 65
Appendices 70
Bibliography 80
Literature 85
List of Abbreviations
AFRC Armed Forces Revolutionary Council
APC All People‟s Congress
CDF Civil Defence Force
CDU Civil Defence Units
ECOMOG Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group
ECOWAS Economic Community of West African States
EO Executive Outcomes
GSG Gurkha Security Guards
NPFL National Patriotic Front of Liberia
NPRC National Provisional Ruling Council
RUF Revolutionary United Front
SBU Small Boy‟s Unit to the Revolutionary United Front
SLA Sierra Leonean Army
SLPP Sierra Leone People‟s Party
ULIMO United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy
ULIMO-K United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy – Kromah faction

I | A Mind To Kill
List of Events
1991 23 March Beginning of the Civil War. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed
the Liberian border and unleashed its first attack on Bomaru, a town in
the diamond rich Kailahun District in the eastern part of the country, to
pressure the then ruling All People‟s Congress (APC) out of office.
1992 29 April A group of junior officers from the SLA Tiger Unit, led by Valentine
Strasser (a 25 year old army captain), staged a successful coup and
formed a junta, which they called the National Provisional Ruling Council
(NPRC). President Momoh fled to Guinea and Valentine Strasser was
appointed the new head of state. The NPRC suspended the constitution
and abolished the planned (first multiparty elections since 1973)
1992 At the end of 1992 two important civil defence groups emerged: the
Tamaboros in the north and the Kamajoisia in the east.
1993 The NPRC formally announced that vigilante groups were to be formed
in every locality. Next to the Tamaboros and the Kamajoisia, other
regional groupings arose; the Gbethis and Kapras in Temne areas in the
North, and the Donsos in the Kono District. The vigilante groups came to
be referred to as the Civil Defense Units (CDU).
1995 April The international community pressed Strasser to establish democracy. In
order to meet international demands, Strasser rearranged his cabinet in
April 1995 to prepare for democratic elections. To concentrate on
settling the war, Strasser reduced the military presence in the
1996 January NPRC Deputy Chairman, Julius Maada Bio, overthrew Strasser.
Immediately after he came to power, Bio started peace negotiations with
the RUF.
26 February The first democratic presidential and parliamentary elections were held
and won by the Sierra Leone People‟s Party with 36.1 per cent. Headman
Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was elected as president at run-off elections on 15
April the civil militias were united under a central coordination system, the
Civil Defence Force (CDF). The Kamajor leader, Samuel Hinga Norman,
was appointed national coordinator of the CDF and Deputy Minister of

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | II

30 November Signing of the (first) Abidjan Peace Accord between the Sierra Leonean
government and the RUF and a grant of amnesty to RUF combatants.
1997 25 May A group of soldiers blasted open Pademba Road Prison in Freetown with
grenades, releasing more than 600 detainees, among whom was Johnny
Paul Koroma, a former army major, awaiting trial for a planned coup
attempt. This group of disbanded soldiers and freed prisoners succeeded
in taking over the statehouse, forcing the Kabbah government into exile
in neighboring country Guinea. The constitution was disbanded and
military rule was established. Johnny Paul Koroma became the leader of
a new junta, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) and formed an
alliance with the RUF.
1997 23 October Signing of the Conakry Peace Accord, in which the AFRC agreed with the
reinstatement of the Kabbah government. The AFRC, however, aborted
the implementation of the demobilization process.
1998 10 March Reinstatement of the Kabbah government.
late 1998 A new group entered the conflict, the West Side Boys, comprising ex-SLA
members, freed criminals from Pademba Road Prison and a splinter
group from the RUF/AFRC alliance. Their motive for joining the conflict
seemed to have been their inability to reintegrate into civil society or
reinstitution into the national army.
1999 6 January The invasion of Freetown with „Operation No Living Thing‟, the most
brutal episode of the war.
24 May Signing of the Lomé Peace Accord between the Sierra Leonean
government and the AFRC/RUF alliance. The RUF was transformed into a
political party (the RUFP) and brought into the national government.
2001 Following the abduction of UN personnel, the British led a peace mission
that restored the peace in Sierra Leone in the course of 2001.
2002 14 May Official ending of the war with national elections. The elections were
won by the SLPP. With only 2 per cent of the votes, the RUFP (the
political party of the RUF) had to give up its position in government.
Disarmament and reintegration of combatants, which had officially
started in 1999, could now be completed. A total of 72,490 combatants
were demobilized, among whom a total of 6,845 child combatants. The
institution of an international criminal court (The Special Court for Sierra
Leone/SCSL) and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) followed
in 2002.

III | A Mind To Kill

First and foremost I want to express my deep gratitude to Marc; you have gone beyond what anyone
can ever expect from another human being in your support of my personal and academic
development. No matter how difficult the circumstances, you always supported me through thick and
thin. I am most grateful that you never stopped believing in me and always inspired me to go beyond
my limitations. Without you I would not have been able to do my research.
I want to express a special thank you to Lansana, my research assistant and close friend in Sierra Leone;
your friendship, your love and your dedication have brought me closer to the Sierra Leonean people
and society. You made me feel welcome and appreciated and were always ready to answer all of my
questions, no matter how impossible they may have seemed at the time. You were at my back and call
24 hours per day, which made my unconventional research methods practically possible. Because of
your dedication to my research and your involvement with the ex-child soldiers we worked with, I see
this research as a product of our joint efforts.
Another special thank you goes to all the ex-child soldiers who took me into their lives and trusted me
enough to share their experiences with me; I know it has been difficult for many of you to recount your
stories and to believe in my good intentions. I especially want to express my gratitude to the UCC Boys
in Bo Town and the Albert Academy Boys in Freetown for your time, friendship, love and trust. To
Commander Joe, Chief Mannah, Commander Saidu and Chief Hakeem; thank you so much for going
with me on fieldtrips, your endless talks with me, your help in finding respondents for my research and
the good laughs we shared. Your warmth, love and friendship will always be in my heart.
Both in Sierra Leone and in Holland there have been countless people who supported me and need a
special acknowledgement for their dedication and help: Mohamed from the YMCA, you made me feel
at home and always knew how to cheer me up when I needed it. The Augustine Foday family in Bo,
thanks for taking me into your family. The Flamingo Boys in Bo, thank you for your good care and
friendship. The staff of Peacelinks Sierra Leone, your assistance, your friendship, your warmth and,
most of all, the jokes and laughter meant a lot to me. Amadu and Shakalearn in Freetown, I will never
forget about all the relaxing veranda moments in which I found both inspiration and the true meaning
of hospitability. Niels and Debby in Holland, you were my safe beacon at home and took care of my
affairs during my absence, thanks so much for all the support. Eddie Foday, thank you so much for your
critical reading, being my Krio teacher and helping me edit the final draft of this dissertation.
I owe special gratitude to my supervisor Dr. Rod Aya who gave me the freedom to develop my own
research methods, ideas and theories and who always stimulated me to widen my academic horizon
and think beyond existing ideas. In this respect I would like to give a special acknowledgement to Dr.
Ton Zwaan who was, sometimes painfully, critical about my work but made me see that I could be too
rigid in my thinking. During my fieldwork his advice was always at the back of my mind and helped me
to keep an open mind and a broad view.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | IV


Dia Vandy is a lively, joyous and intelligent twelve year old son of a fisherman. He lives in a small village in an idyllic
environment and although Sierra Leone has been in a state of civil war for the last eight years, Vandy‟s life does not
seem to be much affected by it. One unfortunate day in 1999 however, his village is raided by the rebels. Dia, his
mother, and sisters are able to flee, but his father is captured by the rebels and put to slave labor. Dia cannot manage
to stay out of the claws of the rebels for long; eventually he himself gets abducted and forced into the life of a child
combatant. In a shady, destructed building he is initiated into being a killer. Blindfolded, he is forced to shoot and kill
another young boy. As a reward, Dia‟s new commander promotes him to the rank of captain. Dia is no longer a boy,
but a man. A “soldier of the revolution”. The indoctrination and brainwashing the rebels enforce upon him, seem to
take an effect; heavily under the influence of drugs and the exposure to crazy violence, Dia‟s own psyche is quickly
shattered as he turns into the super boy killer „See Me No More‟, a bloodthirsty killing machine. When Dia‟s father
finally tracks down his son and tries to rescue him, he meets an unfeeling, drug addicted, smoking and gambling
rebel instead of the innocent and diligent boy Dia had been just a short time before then. The only emotion Dia
seemingly is still capable of feeling is hatred. As he betrays his father to the rebels, the little killer can only yell: “Get
away from me, I do not know you, traitor, enemy! I do not know you. I hate you, I hate you, get away from me! Get
him! Get him! I hate you! … Traitor! Get away from me!”
Description of the storyline of „Dia Vandy‟ in the Hollywood motion picture „Blood Diamond‟ (2006).

Dia Vandy was once a carefree and loving teenager, but when he got involved with an extremely
violent rebel force, he quickly turned into an unimaginably cruel and heartless killer. The devilish RUF
rebels used drugs and brainwashing on Dia to make him a callous killer who can mechanically kill his
own father on command. With the rebels, Dia lives in an environment of total anarchy; he and his
fellow child soldiers soon form a bunch of drug addicted, programmed, violent monsters who are all
trigger happy and completely devoid of a conscience, emotions and feelings. Their behavior typically is
uncontrolled and unrestrained – their world is one of absolute madness. Their camps look much like
one would imagine hell to be: a place of lawlessness and destruction, the kind of place where someone
can throw a Molotov cocktail into a living room full of people without being punished. It is a world in
which destructive behavior is almost an inevitability, but Dia Vandy is, fortunately, not beyond rescue.
Despite his brainwashing and the harmful living environment, Dia is easily deprogrammed when his
father shows him his own emotions and displays genuine care for the boy.

For most people, stories like that of Dia Vandy, are shocking and leave an impression of horror and
disgust. Many people believe that boys like Dia Vandy inevitably end up as killing machines, devoid of
any empathic feeling and with no regard for human life. A common question is if child soldiers are
perpetrators or victims, or maybe even both at the same time. Are child soldiers still human beings or
have they turned into monsters? Is it possible for them to ever be „normal‟ again?

Dia‟s story is a familiar one, it is how many of us picture the life of a child soldier to be. But Dia‟s story is
as unreal as our fantasies; he is a purely fictional character in the equally fictional movie „Blood
Diamond‟. With the character of Dia Vandy, director Edward Zwick wants to show the audience “…a
most upsetting and yet oddly Tom Sawyerish image of child soldiers”1, an interpretation the

1 | A Mind To Kill
moviemaker himself apparently holds of child soldiers. The result is not a reflection of reality, but an
example of extremes. Zwick‟s depiction of child soldiers, however, did not just spring from his own
imagination; it is the result of the way child soldiers are commonly presented to the broader public.
We have gotten used to images of young children toting around heavy guns that are almost bigger
than they are through media reports and anti-child soldiering campaigns. The child soldier is the young
child with a deadly weapon, the embodiment of „stolen innocence‟. The purpose of this kind of
representation is to bring about indignation among the public. “War is no child‟s play”2 and children
should be protected from the exploitative adults who force them to join an armed struggle. Once they
get wrapped up in fighting wars, children supposedly get brainwashed into being coldhearted killers.
Because of their gruesome experiences and brainwashing, child soldiers supposedly don‟t have a real
personality anymore. Or, as Madeleine Albright strikingly put it; child soldiers have “…no identity other
than through the weapon they carry”3. It is apparently easier to see monsters or killing machines in
them, than to see them as human beings.

When I was first confronted with the image of child soldiers in the media, I was – like many other
people – shocked, but fascinated at the same time. A child with a gun was something that was far
removed from my own lifeworld, and I could not get a grasp of theirs. Because I wanted to understand
their situation, I started reading everything I could find about the subject. Throughout my studies, I
read more than 100 articles and books about it (of which a list is included), but even though there is a
lot of information in these works, they always left me with more questions than answers. Over time, I
changed my outlook and understanding about the subject countless times; I kept switching from one
opposite stance to the other. The greatest difficulty I met was that the existing literature only gives
abstract analyses, which made it hard for me to put myself in the shoes of a child soldier. The whole
phenomenon of child soldiering remained a mystery for me, as I could not understand the reasoning
and logic these children come up with to motivate their actions. After four years of extensive reading,
the phenomenon was still as impenetrable to me as it had been when I was first confronted with it.

A murderous child is something most people cannot comprehend; consequently, we come up with
explanations that place the phenomenon in an extraordinary sphere. It is a way of grasping the
inconceivable. One of the major reasons for my lack of comprehension was that child soldiers don‟t
have a „human face‟ in current media and scientific representations. Child soldiers remain an abstract
peculiarity, and from these accounts it is in fact hard to look beyond the guns and see the persons
behind the violence. The most influential studies on child soldiering are drawn up from the armchair,
far removed from the reality in which it takes place4. They are usually based on quotes and short
statements that are ripped from their contexts and typically concentrate on the image of the small boy
or girl with a big gun; a frozen image of a specific moment in time and space. Although there is no
significant body of research on psychological trauma in child soldiers, it is assumed that most child
soldiers are unavoidably psychologically traumatized by their experiences5. It is assumed that their

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 2

experiences as child soldiers have a devastating effect on them6, it is assumed that they run a high risk
of ending up in continuing cycles of violence7, and it is assumed that violence becomes a way of life for
child soldiers8.

However compelling explanations like these may be, they are based on moral judgment and, in fact,
have a dehumanizing flavor to them. I believe that social sciences should give an understandable
explanation for human behavior, instead of mystifying it by giving abstract analyses that make the
humanity behind behavior imperceptible. The typical child soldier as an insensitive killing machine,
devoid of any conscience and caught up in a cycle of violence, proved not to be that rampant in Sierra
Leone. If this had been true, postwar Sierra Leone - where more than 6.000 children participated in the
civil war - would have been much like a devil‟s playground by now, with high criminality rates and an
unimaginably high number of murders and assaults, which is obviously not the case. Many ex-child
soldiers in Sierra Leone went back to school (often on their own initiative), some of them found jobs,
some are married and take care of their families, many of them hop from one odd job to the other to
make ends meet, some are staying out in the streets of the big cities in a criminal way of life, and yet
some of them moved on to fight in other wars.

During my four months of fieldwork in Sierra Leone, I got close to many ex-child soldiers, and although
they are now adults and not child soldiers anymore, being friends with them gave me an insight in
their motivations and experiences as child soldiers. They let me into their lives and shared their past
and present experiences with me. By sharing their lives and histories with me and showing me the
sights where they fought, the issue suddenly became comprehensible for me; I could picture myself in
their situation and I could understand their reasoning and motivation better.

This study will ultimately show that child soldiers are not the equivalence of senseless machines and
that they are more than the violent acts they committed. Child soldiers develop identities that are
detached from their guns. Their behavior and decisions are motivated, both during and after their
participation. Even during their participation in an armed force, they do not live in a state of total
anarchy. Because of the strong hierarchical structures in armed forces, for example, they do learn how
to exercise self-restraint. Most combatants wore their weapon 24-hours per day, and yet they took
abuse by their leaders without resorting to violence. In the case of Sierra Leone, there were moments
of fun and laughter as well. Some of them fell in love or even got married. Some of them had intense
friendships with other combatants, and in many instances, there was some room for play. The fact that
they could kill „cold-bloodedly‟ does not mean that they lost all their innocence or humanity. Their
identity formation does not stop when the gun comes into their lives, and it does not take place in a
vacuum of fighting, terror, anarchy, abuse and fear. Child soldiers develop their identities in relation to
other people, both in violent and non-violent relationships.

3 | A Mind To Kill
The main focus of this study is the long term effect of participation in armed struggles on the lives and
identity formation of (male) child soldiers in Sierra Leone. I make extensive use of the narrative
perspective and I draw heavily on thick description of circumstances and life stories, to bring child
soldiers back to the human realm. The theories and methodology are woven into explanations, so that
it can be read and understood by a broad audience, while academics can use it in a theoretical sense, if
they use their own knowledge of theory. I aim to bring the reader into their world, therefore, I use a lot
of scene and situation descriptions; the reader can follow the decision making processes and options
(ex) child soldiers are confronted with, which will give the reader more insight in the context in which
child soldiers develop their identities and motivate their decisions and behavior, both during and after
their participation in an armed struggle. Next to that, I show some of my own difficulties, working with
them, to look beyond their acts as child soldiers and to see the human being behind them. Biasness is
an important reason for existing explanations; „we‟ think that killing people damages their minds
forever and makes them unreliable, but this is because „we‟ focus on the killing itself and not on the
reason for killing, or the person who did it. The underlying theme in my work is the question: „Can they
ever be normal again?‟ I show that they never stopped being normal.

This study does not aim to give an all-encompassing explanation of the phenomenon of child
soldiering and it will most likely leave the reader with many questions, but these questions, I feel, will
no longer concentrate on violent acts and abstract exoticisms, they will be focused on the human
aspect of the phenomenon instead. It is my intention to demystify the phenomenon and to lay the
groundwork for a research perspective that will look for answers in the human realm and takes the
person behind the soldier into consideration. The very term „child soldier‟ presupposes them to form a
homogenous group with specific characteristics, while in reality, no two child soldiers are the same.
Processes of decision making, for example, vary from individual to individual, and not from group to
group. My case study of Sierra Leone shows that even within the same country, the same cultural
setting, the same war and even within the same armed force, the concept of the child soldier is highly
problematic. There is a big difference between those who actually committed violent acts and those
who did odd jobs or administrative work, just like there is a big difference between a 17-year old who
fights out of an idealistic conviction and a 6-year old who is violently taken from his home and forced
to kill under the influence of drugs. Next to age and militaristic functions, the reasons for participation,
the living conditions, autonomy (or the lack of it), the objective and the (hierarchical) structure of the
armed force, the tactics applied, and the context of war play an important role in the development of
young people into combatants or soldiers. Their development into postwar civilians, again, is
dependent on different factors; their own understandings of their participation, the outlook on their
participation in their own environment as well as in the broader society (representation), how the
armed force(s) they participated in was and still is appreciated in society, and the way in which they are
able to rebuild their lives in social, cognitive, economic and political respects.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 4

Figure 1: Cover of the report 'End the Use of Children as Soldiers in Burma' by ARRC, Thailand
Figure 2: CD Cover “No Child Soldiers” from „Collectif Enfants Soldats 2006‟
(Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers, Amnesty, UNICEF,
RFI, Q Music, Kita Music & Cinékita)

Figure 3: Campaign Poster Amnesty Czech Dpt. Figure 4: Campaign Poster Amnesty Czech Dpt.
Part I

“There is Nothing Sweet in War”

A narrative perspective on child soldiering

General Shed Blood

Ibrahim Barry Junior, aka General [Shed] Blood:

“My men knew I had to drink human blood every morning. If we had a prisoner, I would kill him myself. I would
cut off his head with a machete. Otherwise I would send my boys out to find a prisoner or capture a civilian… I
had a wife, named Sia Musi; her [other] name was Queen Cut Hands because her specialty was cutting the
arms and hands off prisoners. She was our queen… Queen Cut Hands died in battle last year[;]…that night I
killed three of my boys to punish them. They should have died instead of Sia Musi. ….[Also] if one of the boys
committed a crime, if he refused to obey an order, I would put burning leaf on his eyes. It would blind him.
And if one of my boys tried to escape and was caught, my fighters would murder him themselves, because
they knew it would even worse if they brought him to me.” (Ibrahim Barry in Rosen 2005: 60)

A blistering hot Saturday, late January. I have spent the better part of the morning sitting in the
burning sun to observe people on the crowded „Congo Makit‟, one of the busiest weekend markets in
Freetown, to figure out the meaning of childhood in this society. A marketplace where children as
young as twelve go by themselves to negotiate for prices with the shrewd sellers of clothing and
school materials seemed the right place to be. Watching these kids wheeling and dealing brings back
fond memories for Lansana – my assistant and an „ex-child soldier‟ – who accompanied me. Excitedly
he tells me about how he used to con money from his parents pretending to need textbooks for
school, while in reality he used it to buy krep (sneakers) and fashionable clothes. Of course his parents
were aware of his schemes, he tells me, but as long as he did not ask for too much, they just let him
think that he outsmarted them.

Lansana‟s eyes get watery when he recollects how his parents used to spoil him rotten. He does not
need to explain the sudden change in mood. I know his parents were murdered by „rebels‟ during the
civil war and telling me about his parents automatically reminds him of his loss. I take his hand in mine
and caress it gently. It makes things worse. The tears now start to flow and Lansana is visibly
uncomfortable. The overcrowded and noisy market is not exactly a suitable place to break down
crying, so I suggest to leave the market and continue our conversation some other place. After wiping
his eyes and nose off tears and snot he follows me meekly. This Saturday is particularly hot and neither
of us feels like returning to my room, which must be stuffy as hell at this time of day. We decide to go
to Aberdeen Beach instead. The cool ocean breeze and the soothing atmosphere of a tropical beach
seem far more appealing to me, the trip out there however, is not. I am badly dehydrated from sitting
in the African sun for too long, my bladder is over capacitated as it is and clean public toilets are almost
impossible to find in Freetown. When the perspiration starts dripping off my body while we walk to a
nearby spot to take public transport, the prospect of having to travel by a chock-full podapoda (a fancy
word for a ram-shackle minibus with narrow and „stone hard‟ iron benches) becomes so unattractive
that I almost cancel the whole thing.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 5

My pressing bladder demands all of my attention, so when Lansana meets a friend of his down the
street, I cannot find the patience within myself to talk to the friend. Lansana starts eyeing me, but I fail
to understand the message. While the two of them talk, I observe the young man Lansana has just
introduced to me as his brother Ibrahim. They are not real brothers of course, just acquaintances, and
the use of the word brother is actually not meant as much for me as it is for Ibrahim; it is a way of letting
him know that his friendship is highly appreciated.

Ibrahim must be in his late twenties. He has a friendly and handsome face with an open and relaxed
expression. He is cheerful and engaging and he is very articulate in English. Although he seems very
friendly I come up with an excuse when Lansana suggests taking Ibrahim along to Aberdeen Beach. I
have been overspending as it is and the beach is not the cheapest of places in the country. Somewhat
annoyed Lansana explains to me that Ibrahim is an ex-child combatant, I should have understood that
from the eyeing a short while before. They know each other from their stay at the Brookfields Hotel, an
abandoned hotel in Freetown that served as a Kamajor base during the civil war and later on
functioned as a rehabilitation house for child soldiers. As almost every time I meet an ex-combatant,
I‟m surprised to hear that Ibrahim was once a fighter. Nothing in his appearance gives away his
warrior‟s past. Ibrahim comes across as polite, calm and sociable. He is willing to talk to me about his
experiences, but when Lansana suggests that we start talking right away; both Ibrahim and I are
reluctant. I still have the bladder problem and Ibrahim is doing construction work on the house that is
being built right behind us.

Although I know it is not smart to let opportunities like these go by, I ask Ibrahim to come and visit me
that coming Thursday, an invitation he fortunately accepts. I am taking a risk. The chances that Ibrahim
will show up are really slim. This time I understand Lansana‟s signalling perfectly well. His bulging eyes
suggest to me that I should give Ibrahim a small token, just to entice him to show up at our
appointment. I won‟t, instead, I emphasize to Ibrahim that I will not pay him anything, slimming down
the chances that he will keep to our appointment even further. For a poor man like Ibrahim, time is
extremely valuable. The time he will spend talking to me, he can also use to find money for food.
Strictly speaking, Ibrahim cannot even afford to make time for me, but he is not put off by my
somewhat crude statement. He says he will come, and I take his word for it.

From around the bend a podapoda approaches. The fast manner in which the apprentice calls for
passengers by shouting „Aberdeen, Aber, Aber, Aber, Aberdeen‟ indicates that the podapoda is nearly
empty. It is almost too good to be true at this time of day. Lansana and I hurry to board the dark blue
minibus. Before I hop in, I ask Ibrahim for his full name. “Ibrahim Barry Junior,” he answers, “Junior.” We
exchange a long and warm handshake to seal our acquaintance. I look into his eyes. He seems upfront
and I am sure that he will keep his word to visit me later that week.

6 | A Mind To Kill
As the podapoda softly shakes the content of my by now tortured bladder, the young man‟s name I just
met keeps resonating in my head. The name is familiar, but I cannot remember from what. The rest of
the day I keep trying to recall where I heard the name before. When I come home after a pleasant and
long day at the idyllic white sandy beach of Aberdeen, I take out my bachelor thesis from my bag. It is a
wild guess, but I don‟t want to have a sleepless night over a name, so I open the thesis. I do not really
expect to find anything, but there it is, on the very first page; Ibrahim Barry is General Shed Blood. I
used his story as the opening quote of my thesis. In the backyard of my house in Holland – a place that
is, in more than one sense, far removed from the haphazard construction site where I met the former
„general‟ – I had decided to use his story for the shock effect of it. And as I read the quote again, in
Sierra Leone, having just met the man behind the story, the grotesqueness of the quote still strikes me.
It is somehow unbelievable. Although I have always tried to keep a neutral opinion about child
soldiering, I had pictured General Shed Blood as half man, half monster. In reality, Ibrahim turns out to
be just a man, like any other. He has no horns, no aggressive attitude, and instead of a grim facial
expression I would expect a „General Shed Blood‟ to have, Ibrahim has a gentle and friendly

Although I try as hard as I can for it not to, discovering Ibrahim‟s identity influences my judgement. The
mere thought of having to meet him again, in my room nonetheless, suddenly makes me feel uneasy.
What was I thinking when I made the appointment? I raise my concern to Lansana and we agree that
we will try to find Ibrahim on Wednesday, to make other arrangements for our meeting.

That Wednesday starts off chaotically. My temporal home, the YMCA guesthouse, is fully booked and
for unclear reasons the staff decided to move me to another room. My stuff is scattered all over the
place. It takes me more than an hour to move my few belongings to the other room, just on the other
side of the hallway. I am in a bad mood. I hate to leave my poorly decorated veranda room nɔmba nayn
(nr. 9) without toilet and shower, which has become my home, for the slightly more luxurious and self-
contained room number eight. I am struggling to get my things back in order in the new room when
Mr. Ali, one of the cleaners, knocks on my door to let me know that „Mr. Thursday´ is waiting for me at
the reception desk. I don‟t know a „Mr. Thursday‟, so I am reluctant to go downstairs. It is probably the
guy from last night again, who came to profess his love to me. I am not in the mood for romantic
smooth talk so I run, in an agitated and annoyed mood, down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs I
meet Ibrahim‟s friendly eyes. I am taken by surprise. I did not expect him today. He was supposed to
come tomorrow. Mr. Thursday. It makes sense.

For a split second I don‟t know what to do. I have a panicky feeling. There are people on the veranda
which means that I cannot have a private conversation there, and I am not keen on inviting Ibrahim to
my room. I try to reschedule our appointment. I explain to Ibrahim that Lansana cannot be present this
morning to interpret our conversation, but Ibrahim can speak perfect English and he expresses that he

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 7

is more comfortable talking to me alone. There is no way out, I have to talk to him now. I pick myself
up. I have met several ex-child combatants and I have been alone with them in my room on numerous
occasions. Nothing ever happened, so why would it be any different with Ibrahim? Even though I am
hesitant, I decide to take him up to my room. As soon as Ibrahim is settled in the big armchair near the
window, he starts recounting his war experiences.

“Fighting is not part of me”

Junior, as Ibrahim likes to be called, originally comes from Liberia. When he was nine years old, „Rebel
King‟ came to his parents‟ house to extort money from Junior‟s father who had a job with the Liberian
government. When his father refused to give the rebel money, Junior – a small and frightened boy in
that time – witnessed „Rebel King‟ cut off his father‟s head. While „Rebel King‟ and his men “danced and
jubilated”, they handed over the severed head to Junior‟s mother. The boy himself was taken to their
camp to undergo military training and learn how to use firearms. He was placed in ULIMO, one of the
warring factions that participated in the Liberian civil war. He fought, heavily under the influence of
drugs, with ULIMO and ULIMO-K (a split off from the first group) for five years before he was taken to
Sierra Leone to fight with the juntai army. When he reached the age of fifteen, Junior had acquired
enough military experience to be promoted to „General‟ of the RUF‟s Small Boy‟s Unit (SBU). He was in
charge of fifty other child combatants. His war history does not end there. At the end of 1997, he was
captured by the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) and forced to join the infamous Kamajorii squad Yamotor iii,
a group that is well known for its cannibalistic practices.

In a calm and controlled voice, Junior tells me that he used to like the fighting. “I gained a lot of
experience, especially how to deal with people,” he says. The drugs made him happy and eager to kill
and he is still proud that he was considered to be a fearless fighter. When I ask him if he ever tried to
fight without taking drugs, he answers that he tried it once. “Without drugs, I could not even stand to
see blood,” he explains. He blames his recklessness during the war on the use of drugs and group
pressure. When he was a fighter, he liked to drink human blood and to eat the human heart. “We
would soak the heart in Gin and eat it,” he says. His colleagues believed that they would gain mystical
powers from eating human body parts, but for Junior it was “just a habit”. One of the reasons why he
took part in it was to obtain a reputation of evilness among his colleagues, a way to secure his own life
in a hostile environment. When he looks back on it now, he thinks it was just wickedness. “The war
brought demoness, war is just destruction,” is his explanation. Although he does not like to recollect

i Junta: a combination of the army of the 1997 coupist military AFRC government and the rebel army RUF.
ii Kamajors: a subgroup within the Civil Defence Forces comprised mostly of members from the Mende ethnic group from the
eastern and southern part of Sierra Leone.
iii Yamotor: The literal translation of Yamotor (a Mende word) is „they chew you softly‟ referring to cannibalism.

8 | A Mind To Kill
the past, Junior is very open and tells unrestrained about his participation in the war. He is not scared
to admit to having committed atrocities and having used sadistic methods to control his subordinates.

Despite the fact that he participated in fighting for more than eight years, from off the age of nine up
to seventeen, he is not a fighter to the backbone. “Fighting is not part of me,” he says in a determined
tone. “It wasn‟t my choice to fight, I was forced.” When the war in Sierra Leone ended and a group of
rebels offered Junior 1,500 dollars to fight in the Liberian war, he declined. He was tired of fighting and
he wanted to focus on his future. Right after the war he went through a DDR program that enabled
him to go back to school. After he obtained his basic certificate for the Junior Secondary School,
however, the DDR support was terminated and Junior could not progress to the next class. Due to high
unemployment rates and his lack of education, he has been an idler ever since. It is his dream to work
with other ex-child combatants one day, but his prospects are scanty.

As a single father of an almost two year old son he finds it difficult to make ends meet. He was
fortunate enough to find shelter with an older man who helps him to take care of his son, but the
situation is far from ideal. The panbodiiv he lives in is damp and is hardly a suitable residence for a baby
during the rainy season. Junior sees his situation as hopeless. Every day he ventures out on the streets
to find odd jobs to sustain himself and his son. His active participation in church life keeps him from
descending into criminality. God is his only hope. But no matter how hard his life is right now, Ibrahim
assures me that he will never fight again, no matter what happens. He cannot think of any reason that
could make him take up arms again. He sees his participation in the war as a waste of time. “There is
nothing sweet in war,” he says. “I sacrificed so much and in the end, I‟m left with nothing, I have no
one.” As a proud father he shows me a picture of his son, whom he calls „Junior‟. He is determined to do
good things with his future. He wants to be the perfect father to his son. The fighting belongs to the
past. “For good.”

“Liberian Rebel!”
After almost two hours of extensive talking, Ibrahim (or Junior) gets tired and we decide to wrap up the
interview. I have asked him many difficult and critical questions; he has not become agitated once. I
feel stupid for my own biasness. I tell him that he comes across as the embodiment of tranquillity. He is
very much at ease now, he tells me, but it was not always this way. Right after the war he had great
trouble adjusting to civilian life. He experienced nightmares and he could not get control over his
emotions. Sometimes he would just start shouting, for no apparent reason. He went through trauma
counselling, but that was ended prematurely when the plug was pulled from the DDR program. Part of
his struggle was the stigmatization by other people, who used to call him names and referred to him as
“Liberian rebel!” The nightmares and shouting only stopped when he started going to church, where

iv Panbodi: A tin shack or slum dwelling which is commonly used as a housing facility by the poor in Freetown.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 9

he found the support and acceptance he was graving for. In church he gets the chance to preach from
time to time. The preaching enables him to talk about his war experiences and helps him to put his
past as a fighter in perspective. In church he is not condemned for his acts as a child combatant but,
instead, he is embraced and encouraged to be an active member of the church community. Ibrahim
has learned to forgive himself. “I was a child soldier,” he says passionately, “I was forced, it‟s not a crime!
Us child soldiers need to interact with the community to heal,” he asserts. “When people avoid us and
focus on our negatives it will end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

We have a drink together on the cool veranda of the YMCA and engage in small talk. Once again
Ibrahim assures me that he will not ever fight again. Not even if they offer him a million dollars. General
Shed Blood died when the war ended. Next to me sits Ibrahim Barry Junior, a friendly young man in his
late twenties, father of a one year and seven months old baby boy. The struggle however, is far from
over. “The real trauma came after the war,” he tells me. “During the war I was doing fine, I had no
worries.” Now, even getting his daily bread is problematic. The abject state of poverty he finds himself
in endows him with despair. He has found a way to deal with his troubled psyche; it is poverty that
withholds him from building his future.

C O . C u t N ec k

“When I first became a Kamajor, by that time I didn‟t have much mind…
They came to me at night, they had captured some rebels. Five of them.
My uncle told me that I was the one that had to kill two of them. When I told him I was afraid, he said, „No!
You‟re a Kamajor! What are you afraid of?‟
My uncle calls the first one, I have to kill him with gun. The other one, I cut his head off. It can give you more
mind… I used a cutlass, it is a sharp knife, you have to cut two, maybe three times. The guy was kneeling
down, so I take him from the back. I cut two or three times. Blood sprinkled on me, my colleagues started
shouting, they take out the liver of the rebel, cook it and give it to me. When you eat the liver, it can give you
more mind to kill.”
(Amadu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 01/31/2007)

While Amadu concentrates on plucking some invisible bits of fluff from the smoothly ironed pants of
his worn out school uniform, he explains to me why he has come to see me this morning. “Last time I
come, I go home, I feel bad,” he says in a mixture of English and Kriov. He is referring to the interview he
gave me a couple of days before. I have gotten used to his usual generous and enchanting smile and
his cheerful mood, but today his face is stern and he is not in the best of spirits. He takes a deep sigh.
“That night I wake up from sleeping and I recall,” he says. “I‟ve been praying over this. You see, this was
the first time I‟ve been explaining this thing to anybody.” It has been almost six years since he
disarmed, he never spoke about it to anyone. Talking to me about his war experiences brought back
long hidden bad memories. Amadu comes straight to the point; “In 1998 I did some bad thing to a
civilian, I did some bad thing to her. I killed the son because of the way the woman reacts onto me that

v Krio: The lingua franca of Sierra Leone

10 | A Mind To Kill
makes me to do it. So again, me and that woman see in this town, so when I see the woman, I feel so
discouraged….!” His face shows he is troubled over the issue. “The woman knows me now,” he goes on
to explain, “and when she see me, she don‟t want to see me, she cries, and I feel so bad. At any time I
think about the war, I must think about that woman.” Amadu is guilt ridden. He has told me that he is,
in a way, proud to have been a Kamajor. He fought hard to liberate the people from „the rebels‟ and it
was never his intention to “just kill people”. He fought for his country. Still, he killed “unnecessarily”
once and it has bothered him ever since. At the time it happened, Amadu was 16 years old and he had
been fighting with the Kamajors for three years already. As CO. Cut Neck, a nickname he got because of
his specialisation in torturing and cutting off the heads of RUF „rebels‟, he had built up quite a
reputation among his colleagues and the inhabitants of the area he fought in;

“We the Kamajors, although we are trying to defend our areas, some people, they don‟t like the Kamajors. So if
you tell them you‟re a Kamajor, they think bad about you. We went to their town to safe them from the rebels,
but the woman doesn‟t want to appreciate that. ... We tried to call them to our side, but the woman started
shouting …‟you are Kamajors, leave me, you are not good.‟ We were in the town for the rest of the day and for
the rest of the day she made like this [clicking sound with the tongue]. So I say: „Why do you make like this, do
you know me? Did you know me from before?‟ She said she heard about me, that I‟m wicked, so I said: “You
heard about me and when you saw me you had to make like that, so because of that, I have to wicked you
also. So that makes me to do that. … The son was about seven or eight years old. … I used a gun to fire [and
kill the son] because I wanted the woman to recall me, so that when someone come to rescue her, she‟ll
remember.” (Amadu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 02/04/2007)

Little Big Boy

At the time Amadu killed the young boy, it had made perfect sense. The woman had insulted him and
on top of that, she had been ungrateful. But now, almost ten years later, Amadu has a hard time
coming to terms with it. “I have been praying over this,” he repeats. “If it is a rebel, because I killed a lot
of them, that cannot make me to think much, I just feel bad because the woman is a civilian, that
makes me to feel bad about it.” After fighting for three years, killing was not anything special to Amadu
anymore. “I was a little boy, but I was a big boy around, because I would have the mind to do
anything.” He is still proud of his ferociousness when he was a Kamajor. He boasts to me that he used
to be a good fighter. Butt naked or merely dressed in a short boxer, he would lead his group – that was
suitably called Born Naked – of other Kamajors through the frontlines, pressing forward, killing one
rebel after the other to make way for the rest of the troops to occupy enemy territory. CO. Cut Neck‟s
group was renowned for their fighting skills. They were usually appointed to lead attacks in battle.

Although the whole group had “the mind” to fight, CO. Cut Neck himself was the “wild dog” amongst
them. It was one of the main reasons why he was selected to command his own faction of fighters. No
matter how many battles he fought, he never got wounded. Not even a scratch. But although killing
had quickly become a common thing for him, it never became a “second nature”. He makes clear that

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 11

he had to be “in the mood to kill”. “Even to go and fight, I‟m not always in the mood.” Because of his
reputation of being a brave and brutal fighter, he was treasured by his superiors. If he was not in the
mood to fight, he would be exempted. Being well known for his “dangerousness” and “wildness” was
advantageous to him in yet another way. His group needed him in the battle, which secured him from
animosities from his own “boys”; he could be confident that no one would try to betray him and shoot
him in the back during combat. His role as torturer and his specialization in the cutting off of heads of
captured rebels made him both fearsome and admirable in the eyes of his colleagues. He went from
checkpoint to checkpoint to do the decapitations; it was a job hardly anyone else had “the mind” for.
CO. Cut Neck pressured information out of war prisoners by cutting off their ears, one by one, until he
got what he wanted. To avoid retribution, the prisoner could not be left alive. CO. Cut Neck severed
hundreds of heads with a knife or a cutlass. How many exactly, he does not recount.

What was once his horrifying introduction to the world of violence, when he was forced by his uncle to
cut off the head of a captured rebel, had turned into his safeguard against the envious minds of some
of his colleagues. “Then, being bad was good, somehow,” he explains, “because even when you are not
fighting, you are still on a battlefield. … If you don‟t have mind, your colleague will kill you. He might
just have some jealous mind for you and they want to take you out. If they know you are a wild guy …..
ooh…. they leave you alone, they are afraid to do anything to you.” That is why CO. Cut Neck always
readily volunteered to kill captured rebels and other prisoners. “I would always volunteer to kill people,
but I‟ve never killed a civilian,” he says. Except once. And he makes a great distinction between a rebel
and a civilian.

As a 13 year old boy, in the midst of the war, right after a rebel attack on his town, while his uncle
threatened to drive the boy from his house – the person that had been taking care of him ever since his
father had died years before – Amadu had had little other option than to take up arms and to fight in
the war. But even though his uncle initially forced him to become a Kamajor, Amadu eventually readily
accepted the task to defend his people and district against the RUF rebels. “Gladly.” “I did that because
the rebels are wicked, it was either us or them.” It was his job to fight and kill rebels. Killing civilians was

A Mind To Kill
Amadu can still recall the day it happened. He was in a mood to fight and he just “felt” like killing
someone. High on jambavi he shot a seven year old boy. He had smoked the jamba to prepare himself
for battle, as he used to do, not to kill a small child. He needed the drugs on the frontline. Drugs made
him think fast, and it gave him the “mind to kill”. Without drugs, he would even lack the zeal to fight;

vi Jamba: Marihuana

12 | A Mind To Kill
“For me to have mind, I have to smoke jamba and drink some liquor. … Jamba can make me to be wild! ...
When I don‟t have jamba, I open one of the capsules from the bullet and eat the powder. I just put it in my
mouth and cham [chew] it. That can give me mind more than the jamba. That thing I can say…is bad. Most
time I want to be wicked, I have to take the gunpowder. When I take it …. ooh…. I‟m wicked! It gives me mind!”
(Amadu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 01/31/2007)

Amadu‟s eyes have a sad expression when he tells me that he feels guilty. The boy he killed was the
woman‟s only child. He thinks about how the woman must feel. He identifies her with his own mother;
he is an only child too and he understands what the loss of a child can do to a mother. “I‟ve changed
what I‟ve done. Cursing, killing, drinking some blood, eating human liver. I pray to God to forgive. I
have matured. I try to help myself. I forget about the war. I‟m doing better. I used to have the mind, but
all is finished. I don‟t have the mind anymore. I try to forget about everything, because it is bad, what
happened in the war.” If the circumstances would demand it, he can still have the mind to fight again,
but it is not “his plan”;

“You know, weapons give mind to anybody. If you hold a rifle you have mind to do anything. If someone is
afraid of killing, we catch a rebel and make you kill him. You have to drink the blood and you have to wash
your face in the blood. Immediately when you do that, you will be strong in the battlefield. You will not be
afraid of anything. You will have the mind to kill. If you have mind, you can do anything. Some have a natural
mind, without taking any other thing. Most of the wicked people are the ones that don‟t have to take anything,
because that one has devoted his mind to go for kill. As for me now, I smoked jamba and eat gunpowder to
get the mind. But the war is over now. I don‟t have the mind anymore.”
(Amadu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 02/04/2007)

Amadu is determined to turn his life around. “I done a bad thing, but now I want to do a good thing
back. I have thinking [the capacity to think], I have to educate to make better some of the things I did.”
But it‟s not easy for him to realize his goals. After the war, he moved from his own town in the south to
Freetown – on his own. For some time he lived a criminal life in the ghettos, but he found there is
nothing to gain from street life and he wants to be “a somebody” someday. His hope is vested on
education. He lodges with strangers and moves on from one place to the next to earn money to pay for
his education. He keeps his past as a Kamajor well hidden from new people he meets. Having been a
Kamajor is now a bad thing, or at least it is in Amadu‟s social circle. “If you tell that you were a Kamajor,
some people might think bad about you,” he says bitterly. “I just sacrificed my life for the country, but
now a Kamajor is a bad somebody, who can steal or do other bad thing.” In the end, he feels, fighting
did not do him much good. “War is destruction,” he states. It cost him six years of his life. Afraid as he is
of being condemned by others for his past as a Kamajor, he keeps his bad memories well hidden in his
mind. Sometimes, when he is alone, he thinks back to the war and the things he did – like killing a
woman‟s seven year old son. He still smokes jamba from time to time; only now, it puts his mind to rest.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 13

Rebel, Soja, Hero

“Don‟t mind him,” Edward says jokingly while he points at Issa, “he is just a rebel!” All „UCC Boys‟ start
laughing at Issa. We are on a fieldtrip to Towama, a village at the edge of Bo Town, about a three hour
walk, largely over dust roads and unleveled paths. It was their choice to take me out to the remote
village. Why we have to walk all the way out there is a mystery to me, but I get the feeling I am being
tested. Just one week ago I was in the hospital and I have not even fully recovered from the extreme
dehydration and the salmonella poisoning I was suffering from and today is an extremely hot day. I still
have a bad diarrhea, I did not bring enough drink water and my shoes painfully squeeze my feet. I am,
by far, not strong enough to undertake an expedition like this, but I won‟t complain. I am in the
company of seven ex-child combatants, who have reminded me more than ten times already that they
had to bear much greater pains and discomfort when they were child soldiers than I do now. They did
not only walk far greater distances than this, but they had to carry heavy loads at the same time. In the
RUF, they tell me, you could be shot dead if you cried or complained. If I want to understand them I will
just have to do as they did, so I bite my tongue.

The „UCC Boys‟vii – a name I gave the group because they all attend the same secondary school (UCC) –
are still in doubt of my sincerity. Some of them suspect me of working for the Special Courtviii, but they
start feeling comfortable enough with me to mock me. Everyone is laughing at me, except for Issa who
is in a rather serious mood. He sticks to my side like glue and he is very keen to tell me about his war
experiences with the RUF. Unlike the others, he just speaks his mind. They all know each other from
school, but they never shared their war histories with each other. All of them keep their pasts well
hidden from the outside world. They reward Issa‟s openness and eagerness to talk to me with ridicule.
Having been a rebel is nothing to be proud of, in their eyes. Issa starts defending himself. “Now you are
making fun of me, but who is to say that you didn‟t even do worse things than me. The Kamajors were
no better than the rebels. They killed people. They looted. They killed people, just like we did.” Issa just
assumes that the others are ex-Kamajors. While some of the boys keep mocking Issa, a few of them
become quiet and just laugh sulkily every now and then – they are obviously not ex-Kamajors. When
they notice that I don‟t like the way they treat Issa, Edward reassures me that it is just fun. He was once
a rebel himself and he is close friends with Issa; he does not mean it that harshly. Then Patrick and Issa
enter into a heated discussion. According to Patrick, an ex-Kamajor, Issa‟s observations are incorrect –
but even if the Kamajors committed the same kind of atrocities, they were defending the country. The
ends justify the means. Patrick liberated the people from the RUF, Issa is responsible for destroying the

vii Iuse the word boy in the Sierra Leonean sense; In Sierra Leone „boy‟ is not solely used for young children, but for male
persons in the youth category (18-35) as well.
viii The Special Court for Sierra Leone is an international criminal court in charge of the prosecution of war criminals.

14 | A Mind To Kill
We pass a car graveyard, a remainder of the civil war. “The RUF did this,” Edward explains. “They could
just destroy, destroy, destroy. Some of those rebels, like this man here,” he says while shaking his head
in Issa‟s direction, “some of them are still really troublesome.” The group bursts out in laughter. They all
agree that Issa is troublesome, something that Issa himself admits straightforwardly. While he laughs
with the rest of the group, he is visibly disturbed by the treatment he gets. He starts franticly sucking
on a piece of paper he rolled in the form of a joint. There is no jamba or even tobacco in the joint, but it
seems to relax him all the same. Still, Issa‟s tension is noticed by the others and they instantly stop
scorning him. Edward tries to do some damage control. “He cannot help it, he has been with them for
his whole life, it has become part of him,” he says to me. According to Edward, he himself has unlearnt
„rebel-like‟ behavior when he was captured by the NPRC army, a force that was supposedly more
disciplined than the RUF. As a “rebel boy with the RUF” he was made to fight and kill people “at
random”, heavily doped up. With the army, he just killed when he fought on the warfront and he was
not even allowed to smoke jamba;

“The RUF, they were living in the bush. They forced people to carry the loot. They [the RUF] were without
vehicles. But the army, they have the army vehicle. If you go to warfront, they provide you with vehicle, give
you money for your feeding and the rebels did not. They were killing people, they say „carry loot‟, if you don‟t
do it, they will kill you, the rebels. But as a soldier, nobody will force me to carry any loot, because we are all
the same.” (Edward, ex-child combatant RUF/SLA, 02/18/2007)

The RUF and the NPRC army recruited Edward in the exact same way; through capture. Both forces left
him no choice but to fight, and neither one of the forces gave him proper military training to prepare
him for his tasks as a combatant. The initial stages of his participation with the two different armed
forces are very much comparable. He was confronted with the same kind of fighting, the same kind of
atrocities and the same kind of killings; yet, Edward‟s experience with the RUF is quite different from
his experience with the NPRC army. With the RUF, the constant hunger and staying in the bush for
months at a time are his worst memories, together with the possibility of being killed by his superiors
for minor mistakes and the loss of contact with the outside world while in the bush. With the NPRC
army he was given food, he stayed in town, and his life was not as insecure as with the RUF. Hierarchy
in the army was not implemented by a threat of violence or the death penalty. He was a soldier and
was treated in the same as the other soldiers. There were operative rules and punishments. Within his
unit, he was not a junior servant forced to carry loot or forced to go on food-finding missions in the
bush. It made a big difference. While he cannot think of one positive aspect about his participation in
the RUF Edward is, in a way, proud of his work for the army. When he talks about his experiences as a
´junior soldier´ he emphasizes on the fact that he fought for the NPRC government, a government that
had the support of most Sierra Leoneans during the first few years of its reign. In Edward‟s own
conception, by serving as a government soldier, he somehow made up for the destruction he caused
as a rebel.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 15

Bush Character
The group turns out to have a very diverse composition; three of them
fought with the RUF, two of them fought with the AFRC junta and the
Abu‟s face hardly shows any
emotion as he studies the photo of remaining two were once Kamajors. Just some five to seven years ago,
a maddened crowd parading these young men were each other‟s sworn enemies. Now they are
around with the severed head of an
ex-rebel on a stick I just handed to walking side by side, brotherly, joking and commenting on the war. There
him. Alpha is, no doubt, one of the
is some rivalry among them, but it is acted out playfully. “We are all
most serene persons I‟ve met in
my entire life. The kind of brothers now,” Abdul explains to me, “we have forgiven them.” As a
softhearted person, who could not
former Kamajor he is regarded a hero in the Sierra Leonean society and
even hurt a Tsetse fly if it was
stinging a fatal sleep into his that apparently gives him the authority to extend forgiveness to RUF
smooth skin. “It seems crazy now,”
rebels and junta fighters. But although he is a hero, even Abdul feels
he says in a low tone, “…but… it
happened. Many times. They were compelled to hide his past as a combatant.
monsters, these rebels. We were
glad to get rid of them. I did it There was a time civilians admired Abdul, just because he was a Kamajor.
once myself. I held the head. I can
still recall. I was really over joyous. During the war, the mere sight of a Kamajor ronkoix would command
You know, they didn‟t even seem
respect among civilians. In a chaotic and extremely violent civil war
like human beings then. It was
completely justified. Then. But it where one coup was staged after the other, where soldiers and civilians
was a crazy time.” When Abu sees
collaborated with rebels, and the government was unable to protect its
the shock on my face to his
reaction, he starts laughing out civilians from hostilities against them, the Kamajors (or actually the
loud. “Listen lady,” he says to me,
overarching CDF) were just about the only militia civilians relied on to
“maybe their reasons for fighting
the war were legitimate, but the liberate Sierra Leone. The Kamajor society had sprung from society, it was
way they fought it, it was really
a civilian initiative. The Kamajors were set out to protect the people, not
not. They behaved like monsters.
We dealt with them as monsters.” to fight them9. Of course, the RUF had claimed the same thing – referring
(Fieldwork diary, 01/29/2007)
to themselves as „Freedom Fighters‟10 – but it was the RUF that had
turned against the civilians and it was the RUF the population felt it
should be rescued from.
“We are fighting a war of survival. This is a people‟s uprising. … The enemy is the APC government. And all
those helping … The APC government army, the police, and any group or organization that is with the APC, or
trying to oppose our effort to redeem ourselves from the APC, is an enemy. But mind you. … Have nothing to
do with the civilians, the population. …. Have nothing to do with our people. Take care of the children, take
care of the old. And no looting in this war of liberation. I warn you, no looting. No raping. And above all, we‟ll
fight „til the last man, until the APC, …rise no more.
(Foday Sankoh in „The Lion Campaign from the East‟11)

Ultimately, many Kamajors ended up committing the same kinds of atrocities as the RUF, but for the
Kamajors it was not a war tactic and it happened on a much smaller scale. The Kamajor movement
mainly consisted of civilians; there was no clear command structure and they did not have sufficient

ix Ronko: A
special attire made of a traditionally woven cotton cloth embroidered with charms (cowry shells) believed to have
magical powers.

16 | A Mind To Kill
military knowledge, still they were the only force that proved to be successful in pushing the RUF
back and recapturing large sections of territory. The population trusted the Kamajors, despite any
misconduct. Like Alpha told me, long after the ending of the war, one Monday afternoon on a cool
veranda in a typical back street in Freetown, “it was a crazy time” – a time in which peace loving
civilians were parading around with severed heads pinned on a stick and a time in which two brothers
could belong to opposing armed forces. Devoted soldiers could be blamed and tortured for the
deeds of their defected colleagues. A young boy could be forced to kill his own father in a most brutal
way. Girls and women could be forced to stay with their capturers for many years, serving as sex
slaves. Brutal atrocities were the order of the day. Neighbors could accuse each other of being
collaborators or traitors, to save their own skins. It was a time in which trust was nearly eroded from
society and a time of rampant poverty. Many different people were drawn into the conflict during
eleven long years of threat and insecurity, and these different people had different, individual motives
for their actions; not only within the RUF, but among the Kamajors as well.

After the ending of the war, RUF fighters were abused, persecuted and sometimes even hunted and
killed because of the mayhem they caused in the civil war. The Kamajors on the other hand, although
not free of blame, were largely forgiven for their misconduct12. Not because Sierra Leoneans think
that the end ultimately justifies the means, in fact, many Sierra Leoneans believe that the RUF initially
had genuine reasons to start fighting and the RUF would easily have gotten broad support among
the population if they had not engaged in a terror campaign against civilians13. The population had
forgiven the RUF once before and had welcomed their fighters back into society during a short period
of peace in 1999, but the RUF had turned against them again. The RUF had proven not to be
interested in forgiveness. The Kamajors were forgiven because terror was not a main strategy or tactic
for them. Delinquency among Kamajors is seen as a side effect and the product of individual
lawlessness, not as a movement objective, and many Sierra Leoneans believe that child combatants in
particular were the main perpetrators of misdemeanors.

Abdul tells me he was ten years old when his brother had him initiated into the Kamajor society, he
did not understand what the war was about but because he had lost both his parents he felt that
fighting was his only option for survival. “Not just fighting oh,” he explains, “to fight as a Kamajor so I
can do something good for my country.” Abdul swears he never even touched a civilian; he spent
most of his time in the bush, sometimes going without food for days while he was still sent out to
fight on the battlefield. Abdul regrets that he participated in the war but at the same time, he is proud
to have been a Kamajor. In his own village, he still gets respect for his role in the civil war, but in a city
like Bo Town where nobody knows him, he is just another fighter who caused havoc and destruction.
According to Abdul, “People do forgive us Kamajors, they say …„oh the Kamajors saved us from the
rebel‟… but they do not want to believe we child combatants can be good people. If you do even
small [bad] thing, they can just say ….‟oh is because you are Kamajor, you still have that bush

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 17

characterx‟”. He feels it is safer to hide his past, because if nobody knows, he does not have problems
with other people. All the „UCC Boys‟ agree with him, neither of them (except for Issa) ever has any
trouble with others as long as their backgrounds remain hidden.

Rebel Without A Cause


RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

RUF is fighting to save our people
RUF is fighting to save our country
RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

Go and tell the President, Sierra Leone is my home

Go and tell my parents, they may see me no more
When fighting in the battlefield I‟m fighting forever
Every Sierra Leonean is fighting for his land
(RUF Anthem, see Appendix I)

The following day, Edward shows up for our interview at 6 pm sharp, right at the appointed time.
Without even properly greeting me, he presents a newspaper clipping to me. It is a publication of the
RUF anthem. He keeps the article as evidence of the past. “People try to lie on others, so that‟s why I‟m
keeping this [article], so people cannot lie about it, that the RUF was killing people and they tried to
change the national anthem and even the national currency,” he explains. Edward was only nine when
the RUF attacked his village and forced him to join their „revolution‟. Edward did not even have a real
understanding of the concept of war; he had not been confronted with war up until that time. “People
were saying there is a war, war, war, but I never think of it, I don‟t take it to be serious. We were curious
to know, who are those rebels …,” he says. He ended up fighting with the RUF for one year and four
months. Although he was too young and inexperienced to understand words like „democracy‟,
„autocratic rule‟ and „corruption‟ (the things the RUF was fighting for and against), Edward accepted
the RUF ideology as the truth. “They gave us food, and by that time, it was difficult to get food, so if
someone gave you food, he would just be your friend, you would just believe him,“ he remembers. He
was too young to understand what he was fighting for. He just did as he was told. Now, sixteen years
after the day he was captured, Edward seeks explanations for the war by reconstructing its history.

The newspaper clipping is not just a relic of the past; for Edward it is a confirmation that it happened. It
is a confirmation of the “brutality of the RUF”. It is evidence. The fact that the RUF publicly admitted to
their misconduct in 1997xi, and again in 1999xii, is unknown to him. His participation in the war and
knowledge of the movement was confined to his own unit, hidden away in the bush somewhere in
Sierra Leone, for one year and four months. Up to this day, the bigger picture, in which his own

x A bush character refers to wildness and deviant behavior.

xi RUF Apology to the nation, see Appendix II
xii RUF/AFRC Apology to the nation, see Appendix III

18 | A Mind To Kill
participation took place, remains a mystery to him. He has decided that the RUF was indeed “evil” and
that the NPRC soldiers were for the most part “good guys”, but at the time he fought with the RUF, he
believed in their ideology. He now feels lied to and taken advantage of. While he had been proud of his
achievements and his braveness as an RUF fighter, he is now robbed of his cause. His participation with
the RUF was “just senseless”, but this is something he only came up with after his participation, when
he was confronted with negative opinions of others. The newspaper article „proves‟ that the RUF
indeed told him lies and that it is really not his fault that he believed them. When the NPRC soldiers
captured him from the RUF, Edward was just about to turn eleven and he did not have an enhanced
comprehension of the war then, but he feels he can be proud of the time he spent with the army. While
even soldiers have a bad reputation because of widespread collaborations with the RUF, a soldier is still
better than a rebel because some of them (among whom Edward, as he explains) actually fought to
liberate the country. Edward repeats what he said the day before on when we were on our fieldtrip to
Towama; “I am not a rebel anymore, I am a soja [soldier], I made up for whatever bad thing I done.”

It takes a few days before I hear from Issa again. When he finally comes to visit me, he is not his usual
self. I have gotten to know Issa as a „comedian‟ who usually is very easy to laugh, but this Monday
evening he seems agitated. I ask him if there is any problem, but he denies and starts talking about the
war as if he is on a high-speed train. He talks for an hour and a half straight, without taking a single
break or even sufficient time to take a deep breath. He talks about his time with the RUF in great detail;
how he was captured as a twelve year old, how he was constantly beaten and humiliated, how he used
to be “troublesome” and how he managed to escape them when the war was about to come to an
end. By then, he had been with the rebels for almost four years. Adjusting to civilian life was extremely
hard for him. According to Issa, he has always been “troublesome”, even before he was a child
combatant. His participation in the RUF only made it worse. By the time he disarmed, he was used to
“bush life”; a life without parental guidance, great freedom and, paradoxically, harsh disciplinary
measures. He had a hard time adjusting to dealing with civilians, the very people who had been his
enemies for the past four years, in a pacified manner. He was taught that he was superior to civilians
and to suddenly be subordinate to them was a bitter pill to swallow. Everybody knew he had been a
rebel and especially in school this was to his disadvantage. While there were some adult civilians who
encouraged him to participate in social life, his peers would provoke him and mock at him.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 19

“It was on the 27th of March 1991 when the war started at the eastern part of Sierra Leone closer to the Liberian border at a
village in Kailahun district where the first bomb was dropped.

Before the war my father was a successful trader ... My father was having a shop filled with different types of stock and my
mother was travelling from town to town buying and selling goods. Life was much more better, everything was comfortable with
us, we were having a beautiful and complex house in town. I was attending one of the best private schools in my town. We were
not having a car. Our father bought for us a bicycle to go with to school. We were not aching our heads for anything that is been
ask at school. We were the first to go with it. We didn‟t knew what was hardship or even walk by foot for 50 meters without our
bicycle and our father was the top ranking man in town. Proper care was taking for us. We were brought up not to beg people on
the streets for our living or even our own friends. We did not know how to handle a cutie [cutlass] for cultivation of a farm. We
were living an independent life before this devilish act of our brother Sierra Leoneans, because of bad ruling of some parties in
government during that time and the want to overthrow the government for the day and mineral struggle for survival.

It was on Friday the 7th March 1997. We were in school at around 11:30 am when we heard a gun shut sounding like a music
“boys, girls” come to school, but we were playing and causing noise when our teacher came in and ask us to keep quiet and sit
down and she close the classroom door on us, at that time I was in class four (4) [about 12 years old] when they attack and we
were in class all doors close when the rebels came and open the doors on us and captured us and went with us away, tie our
faces and put us at the back of the lorry and went away with us to an unknown place. After the tension our parents came into the
school compound and check on us but by that time we were far away.

And when I was away I got and information that my father‟s shop has been cleared and it was set on fire and they again went and
clear our house and put it on fire. All my father‟s documents were burnt down and most of all left in the house, during the time
that the house was put on fire, our father escape and he was seriously chased. All my brothers ran away for their lives, at that
time my mother travelled for her business on her way back. She fall in an ambush. So everything was destroyed in her hands.
They tied her up, give her a serious beating and she was with them. So our whole family scattered, everybody was living different

When we reach the unknown town they untied our faces and then I saw strange faces talking to us and then threatened to
slaughter us and then we all started crying and they started shouting at us to keep or mouth shut. They started telling us that we
are going to treat you until your government reach our demand or change power, because if not that blood is going to overflow
like river Jordan and there is going to be a new Sierra Leone and history will be tell how there were people living in this country.

After a few months they started learning us how to shoot and lay ambushes for our enemies, after that guns were given to us.
These guns were heavy for our arms, so we used to drag them because we can‟t be able to lift them. We were removing peoples
foods from their hands and after a year foods became to be less and we started suffering from hunger. It takes days without
eating good foods except palm kernel which was our constant food and we were eating foods without salt which let us to swell
by part. Some of our friends didn‟t stand the swelling and die in the jungle, some get tired and asked their colleague to shoot
them because there is no food at times even sometimes when there is food is not enough. I used to go to the corner and cry
when I imagine how I was living. If I‟m found crying they beat me seriously and ask me to get up and move. Sometime we were
sent to the bushes to look for bush jams and dig up cassava‟s just to survive. We were eating all types of foods that I have never
seen before in my life. Life during the war was very nasty and bad off, thanks be to God I survive and all hope is about to go now,
but I‟m trying for them not to go.

After we surrendered to the ECOMOG military from Nigeria they went with us to their base give us some medical checkups until
the time for disarmament. When we went to the centre our guns were taken from us and registered our names and give us
money, one hundred dollars each, … and promise to put some of us who want to go to school and pay our school fees and other
who wants to go to skills training to learn them skills and give them tools to start with after the finish learning. Those of us who
went to school our school fees was paid for a year. After that they forgot about our business and our parents started taking their
responsibility. At that time my father was not acting normal again. Up till now he is frustrated he cannot say any sense talk. Our
mother too started doing little business. We walk one mile to go, one to come so every morning we walk two miles every day to
buy fire woods, split them and put them for sale just to have our daily bread and the little for our school fees and later our
mother change their business. She sells food on the street (cookery) and in holidays we use to work for people make seed beads
for people for money, help masons in building, help people to do business, people pay us to brush their lands. We use to go to
the casinos where people play gamble and praise the highest winner, we act like boys (battle man) after he wins he will give us
money and we will go and buy bulgur, because rice is too expensive. We did things that we had never done before the war. But
any way God will help us to fight the borbor pain feelings if there is the upper hands to support me to reach my future.”
(Letter from Issa, ex-child combatant RUF, April 2007)
Issa suddenly stops explaining, right in the middle of a sentence, and asks me in a harsh tone of what
use this information actually is to me. I am taping the interview and that makes him suspicious of me.
While he had been quick to trust my good intentions when we first met each other, he now thinks that
I might be working for the Special Court after all. It takes me some time to convince him that I am just a
student on a master‟s research but eventually he believes me. Then he asks me if it is my intention to
“mock” him, or people like him who fought the war, by telling their stories to the outside world. I
immediately think back to the fieldtrip and how the „UCC Boys‟ made fun of Issa. I had already noticed
then that he can get upset from being scorned and just this evening he has told me that he can still be
“dangerous” when he feels he is being mocked for having been a rebel; right after his reintegration
into society he stabbed a classmate of his with a ballpoint because “the boy would not stop making
nasty remarks” about him. I am sure that I have not done anything to provoke these kinds of thoughts,
so I ask Issa why he feels this way. He tells me that I am not the first person to “poke my nose” in his
affairs; many journalists, aid workers and other researchers have come before me and he has not ever
seen “a good thing from them”. So what is it about? Why do we want to know all these things? Do we
think it is funny? Issa goes with the idea that Westerners just come to exploit the former child
combatants. He tells me an incredible story about “some American” who approached him a year
before, asking him all kinds of questions about the way he used to fight and even requesting Issa and a
group of his friends to show their techniques and skills. Supposedly, this American recently let him
know that he had felt so inspired by the RUF‟s tactics that he enrolled into the American army as a
soldier. To Issa this is incomprehensible. He told the American how much he suffered under the hands
of the RUF and the man just took it as inspiring. “Is it funny to be forced to take on the enemy with a
gun you cannot even handle?” he asks me. ”Is it funny to be constantly bullied and beaten? Is it funny
to go without sufficient feeding for weeks?”

Issa‟s countenance is grim as he grumbles about how he feels exploited by organizations that pretend
to be working in the interest of child soldiers. There are several of these organizations in Bo Town and
all he can see from them is a signboard on their buildings. When he disarmed, he got 100 dollars in
exchange for his gun and his school fees for one year, after that, he was on his own. Sure, he has
parents and they should be assisting him, Issa explains, but his father is “traumatized” from the war and
his mother cannot easily carry the burden of taking care of four children on her own. Issa just “works,
works, works”, doing all kinds of odd jobs to pay for his feeding and education while he watches “these
Westerners drive by in their expensive cars”, staying in the expensive hotels and from the looks of it
not doing anything for boys like him. He once went to such an organization to ask their help to pay for
his school fees, but they did not consider him to be a child. “Do they want to help children or child
combatants, because most child combatants are not children anymore,” Issa asks me. He is twenty-two

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 20

now but, according to him, he was a child when he was abducted by the RUF, so if he is not a child
combatant, then who is? So what is it all about, he asks me. Is it about helping child combatants or
helping themselves? Do they think it is funny? Do they just come to get information from the child
combatants to reel in some funds and then “it di mϽni” (squander the money) themselves?

Issa is by no means the first ex-child combatant to complain about the exploitative behavior of
Western NGO‟s, reporters and researchers and I find myself running out of answers. Complaints about
Western NGO personnel “driving around the cities in expensive „Jeeps‟, „Nissan Patrols‟ or „Toyota Land
Cruisers‟ with the armored windows raised up and the doors safely locked, living in expensive houses
or hotels in the beautiful beach areas of the country far removed from the people they are working for,
with security guards posted at their gates, and excessively spending on alcohol and prostitutes in the
nightclubs” are quite widespread among Sierra Leoneans in general and among ex-child soldiers in
particular. “They behave like they are afraid of us”, “they don‟t even know the people they claim to be
working for”, “they are only interested in the nightlife and the beaches, that is why they come here”,
“they can only come down to the people in their armored cars” and “they claim to do projects, but they
can only leave their nice offices to spend money in the nicest clubs with other Westerners” are among
the expressions that were most uttered to me. One of the most obvious examples of the negative
image Western NGO‟s have in Sierra Leone is the nickname „NGO‟ which is given to persons who
always have money without (seemingly) having to work for it and who cannot assist others. The
negative image ex-child soldiers hold of Western NGO‟s and researchers has been a stumble block in
my own research; from the beginning, I have found it difficult to find cooperation and to gain the trust
of my respondents.

The ex-child soldiers who came in contact with Western NGO‟s or researchers claim they were
promised so many things, like education, assistance in job finding, or even rehabilitation in another
(Western) country, but nothing ever came of it. Some of them went through DDR programs, but these
programs (according to them) could not adequately help them on a long-term basis. Some of them,
like Issa, only received a onetime payment in exchange for their weapon, some stayed in rehabilitation
centers for some time, some were offered skills training and toolboxes (that unfortunately are in many
cases “useless because there is no paid work” for them), and some got payments for school fees for a
specific period, depending on their situations. None of them feels they were given sufficient
opportunity to (re)build their lives as civilians through the assistance of these organizations. Instead,
they watch one NGO after the other and one researcher after the other coming into the country,
getting information from them and leaving them empty handed. Some of them feel resentment; they
struggle to (re)build their own lives, by themselves, yet these organizations take the credit and the
funds for “supposedly helping” them. Many of them feel exploited and they are not willing to “play
that game” anymore. Issa is no exception.

21 | A Mind To Kill
JϽnki BϽy - Emmerson

Hi James kam luk dƐn de drɔgs Hey James come and see them taking drugs
Mama a de si yu rayt naw mama
DƐn de tek brawn-brawn They are taking brown-brown
A de si yu lƐk f‫כ‬l pikin mama
Kam wach dƐm Come and see them; Junky boys!
Mama yu na f‫כ‬l pikin
Jɔnki Bɔy dƐm I don‟t ever want to be called a junky boy
Shhh mama sshhhh
“Ee mama my head is flying/spinning”
Mi nɔ nƐva nƐva yu na f‫כ‬l pikin Mama
Mi nɔ nƐva
As they take brown-brown
Mi nɔ wan lƐ dƐn k‫כ‬l mi Jɔnki Bɔy Mi ed dɔn skata
(cocain with gunpowder)
Mi ed dɔn faya
Wa yo mama They look like clowns
Mi mama bin dɔn w‫כ‬n mi ee
Mama mi ed de flay Their brains go round and round
Shouting “my head is flying/spinning”
As dƐn tek brawn-brawn Mi nɔ nƐva nƐva
“Oh we‟re sorry”
DƐn kin tan lƐk klawn Mi nɔ nƐva
They don‟t shower
DƐn bren de go rawnd Ɛn rawnd Mi nɔ wan lƐ dƐn k‫כ‬l mi Jɔnki Bɔy
They don‟t cut their hair
De ala way, mi ed de flay oo
Luk dƐn de staga Look at them coming
Oo ya, wi s‫כ‬ri yo
Luk dƐn de maga Mama secure your, dish, pot, axe and wrapper
DƐn n‫ כ‬de was ee
De waka lƐk udat de klem na lada They will steal it and sell it at the cartel
DƐn n‫ כ‬de bab ee
Jɔnki man dƐm dƐn wet bo na fƐda It is a big problem, for tomorrow‟s children
Wach dƐm si dƐm de kam
DƐn de fred wata dɔti lƐk kichin lapa If we work hand-in-hand (rain or shine)
Mama kip yu pɔt yu pan
If dƐn pas ya viktim dƐm go ala Teach them; they would learn; Junky boys!
Yu aks Ɛn yu lapa
Sok jin go lɔs
DƐn go tif Ɛn go sƐl na katƐl
Wam gus go l‫כ‬s I don‟t ever want to be called a junky boy
Wat a big prɔblƐm o
Pademba calling Bad boy, bad boy
Fɔ wi pikin dƐm tum‫כ‬ro
Pa Kabbah sayn di lƐta What will you do when the law comes for you?
If wi ɔl j‫כ‬yn an ‫כ‬nda san εn ren
Wi taya wit dƐn Jɔnki
Tich dƐm dƐn go no
dƐm fil se dƐn fɔnki “Right now, I see you mama
Jɔnki Bɔy dƐm!
DƐm na di west prod‫כ‬kt insay dis kɔntri I see you like a chick
Mi nɔ nƐva nƐva WƐn a d‫כ‬n blast se Emmerson tƐnki Mama you are a chick
Mi nɔ nƐva Sshhhh mama ssshhhhhhh
Jɔnki Bɔy
Mi nɔ wan lƐ dƐn k‫כ‬l mi Jɔnki Bɔy You are a chick mama
Mi nɔ wan koken
My head has exploded
Bad Bɔy, Bad Bɔy mi nɔ wan brawn-brawn
My mother had warned me
Wetin yu de du, Wetin yu de du Mi nɔ wan pils
I dont ever want to be called a junky boy”
WƐn dƐn kam fɔ yu Way
Bad Bɔy, Bad Bɔy
Mi ed dɔn skata Look at them staggering
Wetin yu de du, Wetin yu de du
Mi ed dɔn faya They walk as if they‟re climbing a ladder
WƐn dƐn kam fɔ yu
Mi mama bin dɔn w‫כ‬n mi ee Junky men are light like a feather
Bad Bɔy, Bad Bɔy
They fear water; filthy as kitchen rags
Wetin yu de du, Wetin yu go du
Mi nɔ nƐva nƐva If they pass by; victims will complain
WƐn dƐn kam fɔ yu
Mi nɔ nƐva Wet pants will get missing
Jɔnki Bɔy
Mi nɔ wan lƐ dƐn k‫כ‬l mi Jɔnki Bɔy Hot goose will get missing
Mama a de si yu rayt naw mama Pademba prisons is calling
A de si yu lƐk f‫כ‬l pikin mama Pa Kabbah signs the warrant
Mama yu na f‫כ‬l pikin We‟re fed up with these junkies
Shhh mama sshhhh They think they are funky
yu na f‫כ‬l pikin Mama They are the waste products of this country
When I finish blasting them, say thank you

Junky boy
I don‟t want cocaine
I don‟t want brown-brown
I don‟t want pills
Jonki Boy
Issa‟s mood rapidly worsens as he repeats that he thinks I am just taping our conversation to get a
good laugh out of it with my friends, because what is it to me, really? He likes to think that I am
different though. I stay in a cheap family guesthouse, I do not hang out with other Westerners, I eat the
local foodstuffs, I live like a “poor person”, I can cook, I do my own laundry (by hand of course), and I
have not made one single promise, but still, he is wary of me. The fact that I was perceptive enough to
notice his troubled frame of mind ultimately convinces him that I must have good intentions after all.
When we were on our fieldtrip to Towama, Issa tried to shock me. While he waved his hands with a
dramatic gesture only a few inches from my face, he asked me: “You see these hands? You see these
hands? I hold many souls in these hands….” I ignored his statement then, but now I take those same
hands in mine and try to show him that I do not judge him. As soon as I touch his hands, Issa drops his
hostile attitude and tells me why he is agitated this evening. “It is because I have not taken my jamba
today, you know I need it to feel relax, to clear my mind.” Especially now that he has exams he is highly
dependent on jamba to be able to concentrate on his schoolwork. Without the jamba, he feels “wild”,
and he cannot “focus”.

On one hand the jamba prevents Issa from doing “bad things” and it assists him to control his temper,
which he badly needs to be accepted in society. On the other hand, the jamba is the main reason why
Issa still hangs out in the ghetto‟s and engages in criminal acts to get money to pay for his “addiction”.
His dependency on jamba puts Issa in an awkward duality; it helps him to “function” but it gives him a
weak position in society at the same time. „Jamba eyes‟ are hard to hide from the outside world and his
regular presence in Bo Town‟s King Jimmy (the ghetto) does not go unnoticed either. Issa desperately
wants to be “a somebody” and he struggles hard to get education in order to gain respectability, but
by using jamba, he undermines his own efforts. The use of narcotics is quite the opposite of
respectable behavior in the Sierra Leonean society. Issa is considered to be a rascal. He wants to stop
using drugs and alcohol, but he does not know how to kick the habit. For now, he wants to
concentrate on completing secondary school, and to do that, he needs to “numb his mind”. The jamba
is his only salvation.

22 | A Mind To Kill
Ston dεm - K-Man ♪

Faya go b‫כ‬n dεm faya If you don’t want people If you use what you have
Wans mi no mi n‫ כ‬h‫כ‬t nob‫כ‬di to slander your reputation To get what you want
Faya go b‫כ‬n dεm faya You’d better not progress in life My brother, it’s not bad
Ston dεm Don’t give up, don’t give up; But remember one thing;
Pik di ston try your luck don’t hurt anybody
εn ston dεm
Hala pan dεm Mek sh‫ כ‬yu n‫ כ‬tr‫כ‬st no b‫כ‬di Faya go b‫כ‬n dεm faya
Klap han pan dεm Put yu fet to di ‫כ‬lmayti Wans mi no mi n‫ כ‬h‫כ‬t nob‫כ‬di
Di sem wan we de laf to yu Ston dεm
Fire will burn them Na di sem wan de t‫כ‬k about yu
(They will not succeed) Mi br‫כ‬da yu gεt f‫ כ‬bi str‫כ‬ng Yu gεt f‫ כ‬mek sh‫ כ‬yu at klin
As long as I know make sure Lε di tin yu si n‫ כ‬ful yu rawnd Yu at f‫ כ‬klin lεk shatin
that I don’t hurt anybody Put yu fet to di ‫כ‬lmayti N‫ כ‬kip am na yu at
Stone them Forget about vanity Te i r‫כ‬tin
(Show them something) Yu kin bi so gud εn str‫כ‬ng Mi br‫כ‬da dat n‫ כ‬gud
Pick the stone S‫כ‬m pipul dεm stil wan pul yu dawn Dat na bad tin
And stone them If yu yuz wetin yu gεt f‫ כ‬gen Hala pan dεm
Shout at them Wetin yu wan Klap han pan dεm
(Hiss at them) Mi br‫כ‬da I n‫ כ‬bad Pik di ston
Clap your hands at them Wan tin yu f‫ כ‬no f‫ כ‬sh‫כ‬ Ston dεm
(Show them you condemn them) N‫ כ‬f‫ כ‬h‫כ‬t no b‫כ‬di
You should be selfless
No b‫כ‬di n‫ כ‬go kam yet na dis w‫כ‬l Make sure you don’t trust anyone and not envy anyone
We εvri b‫כ‬di d‫כ‬n lεk Trust in God Your heart should be
If yu n‫ כ‬wan mek dεm t‫כ‬k b‫כ‬t yu The people who are friendly as white as satin
N‫ כ‬f‫ כ‬bi s‫כ‬m b‫כ‬di to your face Don’t keep grudges
If yu n‫ כ‬wan mek dεn pwεl yu nem Are the same people until they get chronic
N‫ כ‬f‫ כ‬bi s‫כ‬m b‫כ‬di who gossip about you My brother that is not good,
Don’t give it up; don’t give it up, My brother you have to be strong That’s a bad thing.
try your way Don’t be fooled by appearance Shout at them
Trust in the Almighty (God) Clap your hands at them
It is impossible to be liked Forget about vanity And stone them
by everybody You can be generous and strong Pick the stone
If you don’t want people But still, some people would want to
to gossip about you pull you down
You’d better not prosper in life
Nasty Killer

“They [the RUF] inject you with marijuana. And other than marijuana …. cocaine. And brown [brown], and…
they have the injection. There they have the powder, they have powder, they put it in your hand and you sniff
it [makes long sniffing sounds], you drug it like that. So I was in the influence of that drugs. So I‟m not afraid
of anything. …When I was fighting, the drugs make me wicked. …But now [after the war], I tell you
something, if I don‟t smoke, if I don‟t drink, I don‟t do normal thing, I‟m telling you something. I will not to
normal thing. But when I smoke, I drink, I don‟t like to talk to someone. Or I work a lot. I will not get into
trouble.” (Interview 02/10/2007)

“Munjay? Munjay!” Tommy is yelling from the other side of my closed door. He has persistently been
knocking on my door for the past five minutes. It is ten in the morning and I am still in bed. I am not fit
enough to receive any visitors today; my head is still heavy from the excessive amount of Star Beers I
drank the night before and my legs just don‟t seem to want to function. I have been up all night, to visit
a night club with some of my respondents; a pleasurable way to get to know them better, but it is
energy consuming at the same time. I have a busy day ahead of me and I really want to rest some more
but Tommy obviously knows I am in my room and he seems determined to speak to me. As „the
researcher‟ I am expected to be available virtually 24 hours per day and I really should be grateful that I
at least was granted time to rest until ten, as I usually get disturbed at around eight in the morning
already. I weakly grumble “go away, please let me sleep” towards the door but it does not help a bit.
“Munjay, please, it is me, Tommy, I need to talk to you,” Tommy answers from the other side. Munjay is
a Mende name Sierra Leoneans gave me to show me their appreciation of me and to include me in
their society, it means „our mother‟, and it is a great honour to receive a name like that since the
mother is considered to be the most important person in someone‟s life. Normally I like to be called
Munjay, but today the name can only send shivers down my spine. By calling me Munjay, Tommy calls
upon my responsibility towards him and I simply cannot ignore his plea. I get up, loosely wrap a lapaxiii
around my shaky legs and open the door. The energy, with which Tommy had been knocking and
calling me just moments ago, suddenly seems to be gone; Tommy cannot even look at me, he hangs
his head in dismay while he turns around and walks out on the adjacent veranda. I know I am
supposed to ask him what is bothering him, but I know I am being manipulated so I decide not to say
anything and just wait for Tommy‟s own explanation.

My response is obviously not to Tommy‟s liking. He sighs many times and noticeably squeezes a
couple of tears out before he starts to talk. In a soft tone he tells me that his „landlady‟ kicked him out
of her house just the night before. He was staying in the woman‟s house in a living arrangement that
bears much resemblance to slavery but which is widely accepted and a quite common phenomenon in

xiii Lapa: A sheet of fabric that is used as a long skirt.

23 | A Mind To Kill
the Sierra Leonean society; in exchange for domestic chores like fetching water and firewood, cooking,
laundering, ironing and scrubbing floors, the unpaid servant gets a place to sleep – usually on a mat on
the floor in a shared room, referred to as „the boys‟ quarters‟ – and, in most cases, one meal per day.
Living arrangements like these may seem crude to the outsider and indeed, it makes boys and young
men who find themselves in a situation like this vulnerable to exploitation, but moonlighting is almost
impossible since unemployment is rampant, the cities are overcrowded, so to find an affordable
(student) room is an unreachable ideal for most young people and in a country as poor as Sierra
Leonexiv going on „0-0-1‟xv is not anything extraordinary. Sometimes, youths have no other option but
to stay in a living arrangement like this, but more often than not, it is a choice. Tommy, for example,
lost his parents during the war, but he still has family in his village with whom he can stay, and even in
Bo Town he has a room to himself. Tommy chose to come to Freetown and to enter into this kind of
living arrangement; there is no secondary school in his village and he wants to get education. In Bo
Town he must take care of his own feeding, of which he is not capable. In Freetown he can find some
odd-jobs that can pay for his school fees, school uniform, textbooks, notepads and pamphlets and he
at least gets one meal per day. It beats living on the streets or being a beggar in Bo Town.

Although a living arrangement like this is not peculiar to ex-child soldiers, they do form a considerable
part of the unpaid servant population. Some of them, most notably ex-RUF combatants, could not
return to their homes after the war out of fear of retributions; many abducted RUF combatants were
forced to commit atrocities or murders in their own communities to detach them and to prevent them
from escaping the RUF and running back home, some voluntary RUF combatants deliberately
committed atrocities or murder in their own communities to „settle old scores‟, in both cases, many ex-
RUF combatants are still not welcome in their places of origin. They are usually poorly educated or
poorly skilled and therefore unable to find paid jobs, which leaves them with two options; to turn to
the streets where they live a life in criminality or to find housing with strangers and subdue themselves
to the position of unpaid servant.

In many cases, ex-child soldiers came to the cities to find prospects of a better future. Many of them
had had some amount of responsibility or even respectable positions in their armed forces, and they
got to taste a life of abundance, respect and admiration, a life they do not want to trade in for a much
more mundane village life in which they are “just farmers or fishermen”. „To be admired‟ and „to be
somebody‟ are important societal values in status-conscious Sierra Leone, and even more so for ex-
combatants who were either once admired for being strong fighters or who want to rid themselves of
the negative image that rests on their status as ex-fighters. Education is seen as the only way to get a

xiv Sierra Leone was ratedthe second poorest country in the world in the UNDP 2006 Human Development Report.
xv „0-0-1‟ is a common expression, it refers to the amount of meals a person has per day, in this example zero meals in the

morning, zero meals in the afternoon, and one meal in the evening.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 24

Kongosa - K-Man ♪

Lεf f‫ כ‬kongosa Dεn go t‫כ‬k te dεn t‫כ‬k wetin no f‫ כ‬t‫כ‬k

Yu n‫ כ‬sabi yu k‫כ‬mpin Na so dεn de
εn de pwεl in nem Dεn go lay te dεn lay te di lay-lay d‫כ‬n
Lεf f‫ כ‬kongosa Na so dεn tan
N‫כ‬toso wi de n‫כ‬toso wi tan bo Yu n‫ כ‬ivin no usay a de
Mek wi lεf f‫ כ‬kongosa Yu n‫ כ‬ivin no udat a bi
Tεl mi way yu de go εn t‫כ‬k b‫כ‬t mi naw
Stop gossiping
You don’t even know this person They just talk and say things
And you are tarnishing his character they are not supposed to talk about
That’s not how we are That’s how they are
Let’s stop gossiping They will lie until there is nothing left to lie about
You don’t even know where I am
εni b‫כ‬di we de t‫כ‬k tu m‫כ‬s And do you know what I am
Na p‫כ‬sin we de kongosa Tell me why you go on gossiping me?
Na so dεn de
Bifo yu gi dεm tin f‫ כ‬it Lεf f‫ כ‬kongosa
gi dεm tin f‫ כ‬t‫כ‬k i n‫ כ‬fayn f‫ כ‬yu
Na so dεn tan i n‫ כ‬fayn f‫ כ‬yu at ‫כ‬l
Yu n‫ כ‬ivin no usay a de Lεf f‫ כ‬kongosa
Yu n‫ כ‬ivin no udat a bi i n‫ כ‬gud f‫ כ‬yu at ‫כ‬l
Tεl mi way yu de go Mama lεf, Papa lεf, ‫כ‬nkul lεf, sista lεf, br‫כ‬da lεf
εn t‫כ‬k b‫כ‬t mi naw f‫ כ‬de cham yu k‫כ‬mpin in nem

Anyone who talks a lot Stop gossiping

Can be a gossip It’s not good for you
That’s how they are Mother, father, uncle, sister, brother stop gossiping
You rather give them an opportunity (spoiling other peoples’ reputations)
to gossip than a meal
You don’t even know where I am
Neither do you know what I am
Tell me why do you keep gossiping about
secure job or to become a respected member of society. The higher the education, the higher the
chances of becoming a “bomba”xvi, the lower the education, the higher the chances of becoming a
“social dropout”. But education is (relatively) expensive and the overall educational level in Sierra
Leone is (perceived to be) low. Quality education can only be obtained in the big cities and those who
do not have social networks in the cities or someone who can „assist‟ them, must find alternative ways
to achieve their goals. Although many ex-child soldiers see their position as unpaid servants as
degrading and difficult, it is also the only way to have a shot at a successful life.

Right after the war, Tommy lived in the streets of Freetown for some time, but he found it difficult to
survive. He decided to turn his life around and to “become an accepted member of society”. He found
a church that could provide him with the necessary social support network; he found a family willing to
support him in his educational endeavour, and a woman who was willing to take him into her
household as an unpaid servant. Considering the circumstances, he was doing relatively well. Tommy‟s
biggest problem was the expected submissiveness that goes with the position of unpaid servant.
Yesterday, he tells me, he got into a fight with one of the other boys in his house over food. According
to Tommy, he had gone to church in the late afternoon and found an empty plate upon his return. The
other boys had eaten his share of the daily ration and, on top of that, provoked him by making nasty
comments about his alleged drunkenness. Tommy swears he was not drunk but he admits to having
smoked jamba, something his landlady had explicitly forbidden him. “That boy, that Ahmed …. he just
provoked me, provoked me, provoked me, and even pushed me and kicked me,” Tommy explains. “I
tell you Munjay, that boy… he can just jealous of me. He does not want me to succeed in life; he wants
me to become a social dropout again, that is why he treats me this way.” Tommy got so annoyed over
this treatment that he took an empty cola bottle, broke the bottleneck and threatened to stab his
tormenter. The incident was reported to the landlady, who forced Tommy out of her house. Tommy
tries to convince me that everyone in the house wants to see him fail, but I do not believe that that is
the reason why Tommy now finds himself out on the streets again. Undermining others out of envy
happens quite often in Sierra Leone, but this is mainly achieved through kongosa (gossip and
backbiting) and besides that, the reason for this kind of envy is most commonly the fear of someone‟s
unevenly progress, something that cannot hold for a second year secondary school pupilxvii.

Tommy is desperate, he does not have anywhere to go and he is afraid that he will loose the assistance
of his other benefactors when they hear about the incident. His tears now start flowing naturally and I
put my arms around him to try to comfort him. Tommy is in deep agony. He feels he was unfairly
treated. He starts crying uncontrollably, and complains to me that he only finds himself in this situation
because his mother was murdered by the rebels. It happened right in front of him. He was six when the

xvi Bomba: The word bomba (Krio) means strength or excellence. In popular usage it usually refers to (young)wealthy persons,
persons in the upper economic echelons, or successful businessmen.
xvii See for example: Ston dεm by K-Man and Kongosa by K-Man

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 25

rebels shot her. “If my mother was still alive, I would not have to go through all this,” Tommy moans. He
believes that his mother would have been able to protect him from hardship, but since she is no longer
alive, he is left to take care of himself. Tommy‟s tears are genuine and manipulative at the same time. I
am sure that he experiences real grieve, but he also wants to sway me into taking some action on his
behalf. Although I am aware of his strategy, I agree to talk to his benefactors and his landlady in the
evening. I have gotten to know Tommy pretty well over the past few weeks and I know that he must
have left some truths out, but I also know that he really tries to be a good boy, as he likes to call it, and
that he needs people to care about him. He has told me this on many occasions.

In the afternoon, I visit Father Momoh, the executive director of CAW (Children Associated with the
War), a national NGO that was in charge of reintegration programs for child soldiers. Lansana and
Tommy come with me, it is part of the reconstruction of their lives and both of them went through the
CAW program. Although it has been years since they last saw each other, Father Momoh easily
recognizes Tommy, Lansana needs to reintroduce himself. Tommy almost immediately takes the floor.
He tells Father Momoh enthusiastically that he is now a “good boy”; he is doing well in school, he is an
active church member, and his ultimate aim is to become a Father himself. He animatedly tells that he
is often called „Father‟ as a nickname because of his dedication to religion. Father Momoh responds
with some reserve; he can see that Tommy has much improved since he went through the CAW
program in the Brookfields Hotel six years ago. He is impressed that Tommy is now cheerful, that he
can speak in a normal tone and that he is even fluent in both Krio and English (while before that time
Tommy could only express himself in limited Mende). Father Momoh is however sceptical about
Tommy‟s so-called transformation into a “good boy”. Father Momoh got to know Tommy right after his
demobilization and he has seen quite some nasty behaviour from the boy.

According to Tommy‟s former Kamajor commanders, he used to be one of their most notorious
fighters. Tommy‟s history as a combatant, however, started with the RUF. The rebels took him from his
village when he was seven years old. Both his mother and father were killed in front of him, and
Tommy himself was taken to the bush to undergo „military‟ training. Not long after his capture, he was
sent to the battlefront to fight, and he was good at it. Within his unit, he was renowned for his
fierceness. He was small but swift and he did not ever hesitate to pull the trigger. In general, he was not
ill-treated by the RUF. His commanders “loved him” for his “activeness” and even among the other
fighters he commanded a lot of respect. Tommy used to fight in the forefront, he went on scouting
expeditions, he acted as a spy in civilian settings and during village raids he was the one who would
force civilians out of their houses.

“Around that time, Commander … feel that I was so active, I was so active, I was so brave.
So Commander … loved me for that.” (Interview 02/10/2007)

26 | A Mind To Kill
Due to his merit as a fighter he was given many different nicknames, of which „Nasty Killer‟ probably is
the most descriptive. Tommy does not know how long he fought with the RUF, but he estimates it to
have been about three years. One day, during heavy fighting, he was captured by the Kamajors. As a
rule, the Kamajors killed their prisoners of war, but Tommy was lucky; the commander in charge came
from the same village and therefore decided to spare him. Tommy would not be killed if he would join
the Kamajors and prove his loyalty to them. They came up with a complex scheme to unleash a
surprise attack on the rebel camp where Tommy had been based. It was Tommy‟s job to disclose the
location and to distract the rebels.

“Our commanders *with the RUF+, they like womanizing and they like food, they like smoke. So… I made a plan,
I said to the Kamajors, I will go and take these small-small girls, because they like that. They will not be
suspicious of me. So when I come back [to the RUF camp] they [the commanders+ say: “Oh brother, my
brother, he has come back.” They were shouting, shouting, shouting. So I just say to them I’ve come with food,
with some women, they was happy. At that time I tell the guys, the Kamajors. …. I was whistling, I was
whistling the guys. They was coming. At that time, the Kamajors was in ambush. They ambushed the guys,
killed some of the guys, we come back, they were encouraging me, talking to me.” (Interview 01/15/2007)

Tommy passed the test with flying colors and he was taken into the Kamajor movement as a carrier.
For the first few months he was not allowed to fight. On one hand because the Kamajors were not all
that certain about Tommy‟s loyalty to them, and on the other hand because they sympathized with
him. Because Tommy was one of the few persons within his unit who had combat experience and
knew how to operate a weapon, he was given the task to train other Kamajors and to give them
weapon training. Tommy himself only occasionally participated in the fighting with a machete.
Eventually, Tommy was given a weapon and the permission to fight on the battlefront. He quickly
developed into one of the bravest and most respected young combatants in his unit. One of his
formers commanders once told me: “Tommy was dangerous, he could really fight, he was so brave, in
fact a lot of us fighters owe our lives to him, he could do what others were afraid of.” Tommy was
happy and eager to fight, but he heavily relied on jamba and brown-brown to give him “the mind to

After seven years of fighting, approximately three years with the RUF and four years with the Kamajors,
the war ended and Tommy was forcefully demobilized. By that time, Tommy was so used to his gun
that he did not want to give it up without a fight. Tommy had literally grown up with his finger on the
trigger; his right index finger still stands in „firing‟ position and a deep scar still shows where the trigger
used to touch his flesh. He took three shots at the Kamajor leader before he could be disarmed and put
through a DDR program. Father Momoh was one of the CAW workers who took care of the angry and
unruly fourteen-year old right after his demobilization. Father Momoh and Tommy both remember
that the boy was not even able to speak properly, he used to abuse and assault other ex-child soldiers
and staff members and for a long time, Tommy desperately wanted to go back to fighting.

Tommy is obviously not the wild and unmannered ex-combatant Father Momoh used to know
anymore, but the picture Tommy presents of his current life is a little too bright for the Father, he has

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 27

seen too many tricks from the young man to just take his word for it. But Tommy is not lying. He is a
devoted church member and he does go to church a lot, maybe not every day as he claims, but very
often anyway. He finds redemption in religion and the idea that God is always watching him helps him
to stay on the “straight path”. He prays in the hope to be forgiven for all the “bad things” he did as a
combatant and he is afraid to add any deviant behaviour to his record. As long as he talks to God, he is
aware that he should swear off violence and fighting. He does not want to end up in hell just like he
does not want to become ”a social drop out in terms of society”. Tommy is no saint, he still smokes
jamba, he likes to drink strong liquor and he can tell (white) lies, but most of his bad behaviour now
boils down to monkey-tricks, something that is not peculiar for a nineteen-year old. The incident that
took place the night before is more serious, but it is an exception at the same time.

After an elated start of the conversation, Tommy and Lansana complain to Father Momoh about the
way both of them still have to struggle to get education. Both of them feel let down by the CAW
program; they were promised support to rebuild their lives, and since their lives are still not rebuilt in a
way that can satisfy them, the program failed in their eyes. Father Momoh explains that the funds were
too limited to help everyone on a long-term basis, but CAW does still support some ex-child soldiers
who remained to be involved in the program. Lansana and Tommy did not show their faces at the CAW
office since they left the program; it is therefore, in a way, their own responsibility as well. Before we
leave the cool office, Father Momoh asks the two young men to stay in contact with him this time
around. Both of them nod in agreement but it is clear that they will not keep their promise.

Good Boy
At around eight p.m. Tommy, Lansana, Raymond (a friend who decided to tag along) and I walk from
Forte Street to New England Ville. We are already half an hour late for our appointment with Tommy‟s
landlady, and we still have a twenty minute walk ahead of us. Tommy is getting anxious so he takes the
lead to try to speed us up. While he manoeuvres us through the unlit streets of Freetown with its many
potholes and ditches, he tries to tell his story to the other two. Raymond and Lansana don‟t believe a
word he says and make fun of him. He cannot even finish one sentence without being critically
questioned. Tommy gets agitated, he needs all the support he can get right now, but all he can get is
ridicule. He tries to get support from me, but my phone is constantly ringing, and since I try to keep
close contact with all of my respondents, I feel obliged to answer their calls. Tommy is greatly annoyed,
but he keeps his calm.

As we walk down Jomo Kenyatta Road, close to our destination, a taxi that somehow got off the road
and on the sandy footpath, comes driving right at us. All four of us narrowly escape the high speeding
car, but we all got a good scare. The taxi driver makes an emergency stop, jumps out of the car and
starts scolding at us. Lansana blows up with anger. He runs up to the taxi and shouts at the young

28 | A Mind To Kill
driver. I am still shaky in my legs, and my head is not clear enough to register exactly what is
happening. Tommy is upset too, I can hear his nervous breathing when he takes my hand to steer me
away from the heated argument that is about to come to blows. While I hear Lansana and the driver
challenging each other to take the first punch, Tommy reassures me that it will all be fine. The air is
filled with tension, but nothing happens. Lansana has already calmed down when a police officer
comes to the scene to arrest the taxi driver. We don‟t have time to stick around and talk things over to
lower the adrenaline level in our bodies. While Raymond and Lansana vigorously discuss the event
with the taxi driver, both Tommy and I become quiet as we walk, hand in hand, up to his house. I use
the silence between us to prepare myself for the meeting with Tommy‟s landlady, and I guess Tommy
is doing the same.

Tommy‟s benefactors arrived long before us and already had a lengthy talk with Tommy‟s landlady.
Apparently Tommy lied to them, so before we get time to settle down, Tommy is already pressed hard
to give an explanation for his behaviour. Tommy speaks in a calm tone when he tries to refute some of
the allegations that are made against him, but his listeners seem to have made up their minds already.
Before he can finish explaining his side of the story, he is called a liar and told in a harsh tone to “shut
up”. Every time Tommy opens his mouth, one of the women slaps him on the back of his head (which is
meant to disgrace him) and tells him to “lεf am! lεf am!” (stop it) or to “shut up, shut up, shut up!”
Tommy‟s landlady complains that she cannot ever trust the boy again. She admits that he usually is
very obedient and that he works hard, he has a pleasing and sweet character and she is fond of him
but whenever he smokes jamba and drinks rum (strong liquor) he gets aggressive and unpredictable,
and this is exactly what happened the night of the fight. The other boy admits that he provoked
Tommy, but supposedly only for his own good; he had noticed that Tommy was high on jamba and he
had wanted to make Tommy aware of the harms of the drug. I find this story a little too good to be
true, and decide that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. One thing is certain though; Tommy
went too far when he threatened to stab the boy with the smashed cola bottle. The landlady says she is
not inclined to take Tommy back into her household, and in principal she does not have any obligation
towards Tommy; if she feels he misbehaved, she can kick him out of her house at will.

Tommy‟s landlady and his benefactors keep discussing the issue over and over again, while Tommy sits
silently on the steps of the veranda. As soon as the tension lessens, he takes his chances. He walks up
to his landlady, begs her forgiveness and then lies flat on the floor and caresses her feet to show the
woman his submissiveness. This is the reason why Tommy invited both me and his benefactors this
evening; so he could apologize to his landlady in our presence. Having an audience of „important
persons‟ present gives the apology more weight, since it is a humiliation for Tommy. The landlady is
visibly annoyed. She lets Tommy lie on the ground, begging and pleading, for quite some time. Since a
rejection of this kind of apology would mean humiliation on her own side, however, she cannot do
much else than forgive him. She hastily touches the back of his head to indicate that she forgives him,

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 29

but she warns him at the same time; this is his absolute last chance, if he ever drinks one drop of
alcohol or ever smokes jamba again, she will kick him out and not take him back in. Tommy promises
to better his life and to be “a good boy from now on”. To emphasize his promise he kneels down to
almost everyone and begs for forgiveness. I can see that it is difficult for him to do this, he still feels
wronged, but he swallows his pride to please his landlady.

When Tommy has apologized to everyone, the women want to discuss the issue some more, but I have
heard enough. Tommy offers to walk me down to the main road. On our way down, Lansana and
Raymond lecture and pester Tommy about his misbehaviour. I am night-blind and cannot make my
own way down the pitch dark and badly damaged street, so Tommy stays close to my side, his hand
squeezes mine tightly. I whisper in his ear that I am proud of the way he handled things this evening,
he may have been at fault, but he has had enough for one evening, and he controlled himself
remarkably well considering the circumstances. Tommy is grateful for my support. “Really, Munjay, I
promise you, I want to be a good boy, I don‟t want to be out on the streets again, I am going to be a
good boy, I promise you,”xviii he says softly. I repeat that I am proud of the way he handled his affairs
and suggest him to be solving future problems in the same restraint way. He knows, of course, that he
should restrain his anger, but the jamba sometimes takes over his temperament. He needs the jamba
to be able to concentrate on his studies, but it can make him aggressive at the same time. It is an
insolvable issue.


The following night, Lansana and I pick up Tommy at his place. His landlady has given me permission
to take Tommy out dancing. We go to the nearby SLBS canteen with a group of students, a police
officer, and a group of ex-child soldiers. Strange enough, there are almost no girls or women in the
club, but the place is quickly overcrowded with young men from the neighbourhood. Because not
many Westerners visit this place, I get a lot of attention. The DJ constantly calls my name over the
microphone and many people watch me as I dance with Tommy and his former commander. Many
people compliment me on my dancing qualities which makes Tommy shine with pride. We are all in a
cheerful mood, and my companions are drinking heavily. I take it slow, I want to keep a clear head and
besides that, I haven‟t had more than ten hours of sleep in the last three days, too much beer can just
knock me out. Tommy is not supposed to drink any alcohol, but the canteen is soon out of soft drinks
and the place is too hot not to drink anything. Tommy tries to hide his drink from me, but I can see the
top of the green Star Beer bottle sticking out the pocket of his jacket. I don‟t want to spoil his evening,
but I do give him a warning. Tommy promises me he will not “to drunk”.

xviii The language Tommy uses might come across as somewhat childish for a nineteen-year old, but this is solely because he
does not master the English language, in Krio and Mende he expresses himself in a more mature way.

30 | A Mind To Kill
Around three a.m. the place gets too hot and Tommy and I go out to the veranda to get some fresh air.
A couple of boys follow us outside and start plucking my body, pulling my arms and trying to convince
me to dance with them. Tommy and I move around several times to get rid of them, but they keep
following us. Ultimately, we give up and decide to ignore them. When the situation gets too intense,
Tommy and I go back inside to the others who are out on the dance floor. Just as we enter inside, the
song Borbor Pain starts playing. The song is extremely popular and in no time everyone gathers on the
dance floor to dance to its exuberant beat. For a moment I forget my stalkers, but then one of the boys
walks up to me and rudely pulls my arm. He demands to dance with me. From the force he uses and
the coercive look in his eyes, I can tell that he won‟t take no for an answer. Tommy attempts to pull me
away from my attacker, but this nearly splits me in two. Lansana then empties the content of his beer
bottle on my attacker‟s head, which leads to an escalation. The boy‟s friends all crowd up on Lansana,
who smashes his beer bottle on the floor and threatens the mob with the sharp „weapon‟. Tommy is
anxious to get me out of the palava (heated argument). He quickly assesses the situation and
manoeuvres me through the angry crowd. It is of no use, the palava is about me, and as soon as I move
an inch, the crowd follows me.

Although it has not yet come to a physical fight, there is a lot of shouting and there are too many
people pushing and pulling each other for this thing to blow over just like that. Some boys provoke
Tommy by pulling the facing of his jacket and pushing against him, but he does not respond in any
way. He tightens his grip on my hand and finds a way to get me outside. We are almost pushed off the
narrow and steep stairs that lead to the parking lot, but we make it out there without taking one single
punch. Tommy takes me to a woman who sells cigarettes and candy and commands her to take care of
me while he goes to arrange for a taxi. For a short while, I am safe at the small market stand but it does
not take long before the mob moves out onto the parking lot. The troublemakers are quick to localize
me and they start ganging up on me. I cannot go anywhere. On one side I am surrounded by a group
of frantic boys, on the other side of me is a deep, dark gap. The situation gets even more threatening
when some of the people in the crowd in front of me start fighting each other. I don‟t know where
Tommy suddenly came from, but he pulls me out of the crowd again, drags me towards an empty taxi
and shoves me inside. We wait for Lansana and then quickly leave the scene. As I watch over my
shoulder I see that the palava has resulted in a mass fight. By phone, we learn that all of our friends
have made it out of the vicinity without getting engaged in fighting, except for the police officer who
tried to resolve the issue.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 31

Borbor Pain – Emmerson ♪

Yu we nɔ bɔn mit am A mɛmba di tɛm fɔ di kiti kiti I tu bad i tu bad so so strɔgul

Lɛ wi gɛt op se Som ɔf wi rɔn go Gambe ɛn Guinea En di strɔgul ɛvride i de dɔbul
Wan de wi go mek am Wetin wi yay si nɔ bi lili Na so wi go day pan di strɔgul
Sɔm sidɔm wet Maxwell Khobe Di sistɛm tu ad na di jɔngul
Yu we nɔ bɔn mit mɔni
Yɛs Pan aydul wi layf jis de tangul
Lɛs ɔpɔtiniti
Orijinal Borbor Pain
Stil yu wan bi sɔm bɔdi
Wi na borbor pain Nɔ to so nɔ to so i fɔ bi o
I nɔ izi
Nɔ to so nɔ to so a bin bɔn o
Bɔt naw wi de krɔl Na di sistɛm na mek a dray so
Wi na borbor pain
Wi de fɔl En di po mek a tɔn popolipo
Bɔt wan de wi tu go tɔn to fo
Lɛk we dɛn put bilolo pan sɔl Bɔt mi na borbor pain
God nɔ dizayn wi pan po
Na so wi bɔn mit di wɔl Nɔ say a nɔ de go
Wi habit go wan de sho
Wan de wi go stand tɔl Lɛ wi bia ya
En di ɛntaya wɔl go no se
Wi na bin borbor pain
Hir dis Wi de liv na Babylon
Wi na borbor pain
Man dɔn stren Wi de pe taks fɔ laf
Nɔmba wan wi bɔn na panbɔdi Man dɔn stren Dɔbul taks back fɔ sniz
Di gem we wi ple na gboskidi Man dɔn taya I nɔ izi a no
Wi napi na pisis ɛn vɔmi Evride tin de wam lɛkɛ faya Bɔt wi na borbor pain
Fufu pap ɔ dɛn bit bɛni Bɔt stil ayman gɛt fɔ bia From Mɔnde to Frayde
Mi na borbor pain Do di bra dɛm de mek I don’t kia Wi de fɛn di mɔni
Dɛn jis lɛf wi na trit fɔ de sɔfa Fɔgɛt fɔ prez Jah nem
We a kin lik mi ginigini
Bɔt all de train Masiful daddy God, fɔgiv
Mi Akpari de shayn lɛk u rɔb ori
We a train bɔt stil man de strain Wi na borbor pain
Dɔn nak mi wan kɔp gari
Wan wɔd di bɔy nɔ de yɛri I mek a disayd fɔ chenj to bɔn agen Di sosayti we wi bilɔng
Mi na borbor pain Bɔt pan ɔl di wok man nɔ si no gen Ful ɔf ɛnimis amɔng
Man dɔn dray lɛkɛ ken Fɔ sɔvayv yu gɛt fɔ bi strɔng
Off to skul wit mi kaki
Dɔn lɛf so so ven Kam jɔyn mi sing dis sɔng
De payl frɔm Kissy to Portee
Bɔt mi na borbor pain Yɛs, lɛk borbor pain
Univasiti pas yu gori
A nɔ go rɔn awe
I nɔ izi
Fɔ liv lɛk borbor pain

Borbor Pain
Borbor Pain = The Sufferer

You who were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, get your hopes up, one day, you will achieve something.
You who were not born to have money (in life), and with even lesser opportunities, you still want to be a
‘somebody’, It will not be easy, because we are sufferers. But one day, even the little we do have, will be more.
God didn’t create us in poverty. Our destiny will one day show. And the entire world will know, that we were

First of all, we were born in a tin shack .The game we played was ‘gboskidi’ (a game for children that resembles
cricket, it has improvised materials, an empty trashed tomato can serves as ball, the goal is made from an old bucket
and instead of real sticks thick tree branches are used). We are dressed in rags and we eat cheap foodstuffs. Like
sufferers. At any time I can wear my ‘guinea guinea’ (a popular name for fake brand wearings, ‘indicating its
cheapness because cheap goods are imported into the country through the free ports of neighboring country Guinea).
I ‘shine’ like someone who rubs any expensive body cream. After eating my one cup garie (pounded pulp from the
cassava tuba, a foodstuff that is relatively cheap because it has very few ingredients and it doesn’t take many
materials to prepare. The cassava pulp swells up in the stomach which gives a long feeling of ‘satisfaction). This boy
won’t hear one single word. I’m a sufferer. (The sufferer takes one step at a time, with each step, he makes some
improvement to his situation. By wearing the guinea-guinea, the sufferer (temporarily) moves on from a stage of
abject (visible) poverty to someone who is (comparatively) well off. He can afford (at least) the guinea-guinea
wearings, he is still eating poor man’s food, but nonetheless he (at least) has something in his stomach. He feels like a
senior man now. He has come a long way; from wearing primitive clothing (loincloth as diapers) to fake brand
clothing. He is somehow independent and doesn’t want to answer to anyone anymore.)

The sufferer goes to school wearing cheap, thick and durable cotton clothing. He walks from Kissy to Portee
(Freetown). (the sufferer cannot afford to take transport to school, he has to walk, a long distance, every day to go to
school) And even if he reaches university level, he has to ‘gori’ with someone. It’s not easy. (poor students cannot
afford to rent their own rooms, they depend on the goodwill of others to share their rooms with them, free of charge.
The ‘owner’ of the room is the gorilla master, the student who is lodged is the gorilla. The latter has no rights to the
room; if the gorilla master wants to have the room to him or herself (for the day, or the evening), the gorilla is denied
access to the room. In addition, sometimes gorillas have to do odd jobs for their gorilla master. Being a student is one
of the most desirable positions in society, but even if someone reaches that stage, the suffering continues.)

I remember the time of the conflict (civil war). Some of us fled to other countries (Gambia & Guinea). What we went
through was hard to take in. Some, the ‘real’ sufferers, stayed in the country until the (ECOMOG) intervention by
Maxwell Khobe. We are sufferers. We are crawling, and falling, like an earthworm suffers when you put salt on it (a
way of killing the earthworm so that it is cut into pieces, the abdomen will enlarge, it is a slow and painful death).
That’s how we were born into this world. But one day we will overcome the hardship. The sufferer has strained
enough, he is fed up. Every day the situation gets worse. The common man (man from the ghetto) has to bear his
plight. The seniors (elite/power holders) in society behave like they don’t care, they just leave the poor to suffer in
the streets. Despite all the educational training, we sufferers are still straining. Many of us sufferers become Born
Again Christians, it is our only hope. Despite all the hard work, we don’t see the fruits of our labor. Instead, we get
thin like wheat. You can see the veins through our skins. But we are sufferers, we can endure it. We will endure it. It
is very hard, it is a hard struggle, and it doubles every day. We will eventually die in the struggle, because the system
is too hard (in the ‘jungle’). Our lives are entangled in idleness.

It isn’t the way it is supposed to be. It isn’t the way we were born. It is the system that dries us out. And the poverty
gets worse and worse. But we are sufferers, we don’t have anywhere to go. We have to bear the situation.

We live in Babylon (the common man is downtrodden, he is not recognized). We pay taxes for laughing. We pay
double for sneezing (paying taxes for a lot of unclear things and getting no visible returns) It’s not easy, I know. But
we are sufferers. From Monday to Friday, we are looking out for money (this refers to people who walk the streets
for a good part of the day, in search for friends and acquaintances who will take pity on them and give them money
for feeding and other necessities) We forget to praise God (because we are too busy), may He forgive us. But we are
sufferers. The society we belong to is full of enemies. To be able to survive, you have to be strong (it is a survival of
the fittest). We all have similar stories. But if we work hard, one day, we will achieve something.
Borbor Pain

The podapoda that is driving me from Lumley to PZ (Freetown) comes to an abrupt stop, the tires make
a squealing sound, and I painfully hit my head against the window frame. We almost ran down a young
girl who tried to cross the busy street while toting a heavy jerrycan with water on her head.
Immediately all the passengers in the overloaded minibus start barking at the driver. “Yu na stupid
man!”, “Yu de kres!” (you‟re crazy), “Yu no get no manners bo!” they yell at him. “Stupid DDR driver,” my
assistant Lansana shouts. While all the other passengers contribute to the scolding I ask Lansana what
he means by „DDR driver‟. “Well, they are ex-combatants, after the war, they just gave them their
driver‟s license, they don‟t even know how to drive,” Lansana explains. “Just like that?” I ask with
disbelief. “No, they were given some … training….., but it was short, they still don‟t know how to drive,
and they cannot behave, they are just rude,…. and violent,” he says. Our conversation gets interrupted
by two men who are loudly yelling at each other right next to the stationary podapoda. They have a
heated argument over the younger man‟s market stand that apparently blocks the way for pedestrians.
The tall, nicely dressed, middle-aged man threatens his opponent: “A go moles yu, a go moles yu! (I
will molest you),” he says in an aggressive tone. For a few seconds, it looks like the argument will end in
a fight, but then the market seller suddenly removes his small market stand and gives the older man,
who is still shouting and grumbling, free passage. When I first arrived in Sierra Leone, scenes like these
used to upset me, but I have gotten so used to them by now that I don‟t even give it another thought.
Heated arguments between strangers are the order of the day in the streets of Freetown; it is not
anything special to me anymore. The older man walks off and the market seller sets up his stand in a
different position. Nothing happened, like it almost never does.

“People can just be violent in this country,” the man who sits behind me complains. “It is because of
the war you know,” he says, “people cannot be normal anymore.” A few other passengers hum in
agreement. According to my fellow-passengers, the war made many people intolerant and aggressive.
“But it is getting better now, not so?” one woman says. Apparently, right after the war everybody was
violent, but now, people are cooling down again. As the podapoda continues the journey, my fellow-
passengers keep discussing the high levels of violence in society. Lansana is of the same opinion as
they are that, “people are just too violent in this country”. I disagree with them in silence. Although I
have witnessed countless heated arguments and some street fights myself, I don‟t believe that their
perceptions are right. I have spent a lot of time in Bo Town, and out there I never witnessed any public
argument. This kind of intolerance seems to be typical for Freetown, not the whole of Sierra Leone.

I turn towards Lansana and ask him why he moved to Freetown. “To go to the university, Freetown is
the only place where you can get university education, but you know this,” he replies. Of course I know
his reasons for moving from Kenema to Freetown, but I am trying to make a point. “So how long have

32 | A Mind To Kill
you been in Freetown?” I ask him. “Three years now,” he answers. “And how many people do you know
here?” “Oh, many!” “So how did you get to know all these people?” I ask while I hold on to the iron
bench when the podapoda takes a sharp turn. “They are my classmates and my university colleagues,”
Lansana explains. “So are they close friends?” I ask him. Lansana is bothered by the question but
replies: “No, I just know them, I don‟t have many friends.” “So how many people can you turn to in this
city when you are in trouble?” I want to know. “One,” Lansana says, “….well……it depends really….if it
is for money…….not anyone…….well one……maybe.” Having only one person to „maybe‟ rely on
in the entire city is rather meager if you take into account that a trip from Freetown to Kenema (a city in
the eastern part of Sierra Leone and approximately 210 miles from the capital) takes about six hours
and an amount in money that is equivalent to about four days on „0-1-1‟. “So when you for example,
say, break your leg, who can pay for your medical bills?” I ask him. “Oh….nobody,” is his annoyed reply.
“And in Kenema?” I go on to ask. “Oh….nobody.” “And in the village?” Then Lansana gets angry;
“Nobody!” he snarls at me, “I have no one, I am an orphan, I take care of myself, you know all this!” I
know Lansana does not like to talk about these things, and I do not mean to upset him, but his own
situation is a perfect example of the way many ex-child soldiers in Freetown live.

Lansana came to the capital to pursue his academic career, and although his life is difficult he is, in a
sense, lucky. Freetown literally bulges with underprivileged and unemployable youths, poor families
that live with too many people in small and decrepit panbodis, and solitary adolescents looking for a
better future. Many people fled to Freetown during the war and refused, for many different reasons, to
return to their places of origin after the ending of the war. Many of them have little or no educational
prospects or access to the labor market, and many of them don‟t have a social network that can take
care of them in time of need. Many people roam the streets in search for money or opportunity.
Usually without any luck, because the social distance between the city-dwellers is enormous. “I‟m sorry
to upset you Lans,” I say, “but tell me again why you don‟t have many friends.” Lansana takes a deep
breath. “I don‟t have money,” he explains. “Here, in this country, if you don‟t have money, you don‟t
have many friends. This is Africa, not Holland. In this country you cannot eat alone and see your fellow
watching you, hungry. In this country we share. I cannot afford to share, so I don‟t have many friends.”

I want to ask some more questions but our conversation gets disturbed by the podapoda driver who,
for the second time this trip, has to make an emergency stop. As can be expected, the passengers in
the podapoda are upset and abuse the driver. “You stupid DDR driver!” Lansana yells at the man again.
The surly driver does not respond to any of the scolding. Stoically he switches the volume button of
the car radio to max. The voices of the passengers are abruptly subdued, and the driver loudly mimes
to Emmerson‟s popular song; “Mi na borbor pain (I am a sufferer)!” “They are just violent!” I hear
Lansana say, but I don‟t respond. Other than reckless driving, this „DDR driver‟ is guilty of nothing.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 33


“Mi na Borbor Pain, I am a real sufferer, the original Borbor Pain!” Fomba sings enthusiastically. It is 7
p.m. and we have just found a nice place to sit on one of the tribunes (which are in effect just concrete
steps) at the National Stadium. I took Fomba and two other ex-child soldiers to witness the launching
of Emmerson‟s popular new album Tu Fut Arata (a rat on two feet), but we are early. Emmerson will
only perform at around two a.m., so we have some time to kill. Fomba is excited. When he starts
humming the first verse of Borbor Pain (the first single of the new album), I start singing the lyrics.
Fomba and Alpha, who sits on Fomba‟s other side, are impressed. I have heard the song about ten
million times this last month, and although the lyrics are in Krio, I must have been nearly stupid if I
would not have memorized at least some parts of the song by now. Borbor Pain is unimaginably
popular. The song is played everywhere, on household radio sets, in the podapodas, taxis, shops,
cookeries, clubs, and bars and so on. Everyone you meet is Borbor Pain. Only a few individuals cannot
identify with the song, the rest of the population has adopted it as a “poor man‟s anthem”. The stadium
slowly fills up with young people, all nicely dressed up, and everyone seems to be in high spirits
tonight. Fomba, Alpha, Lansana and I drink some lukewarm Carlsberg beers and crack jokes. We are all
having a good time. Then suddenly Fomba says, with a smile from ear to ear, “I‟m traumatized”. We all
laugh out loud.

Fomba has tears in his eyes from laughing when he says that it is actually true, he is traumatized. I ask
him to explain what he means. “Well, you know, traumatized!” he answers. Alpha starts laughing again.
“About the war you mean?” I ask Fomba. Now it is his turn to ask me for clarification. I ask him if he still
has bad memories about the war. “Well sometimes, but not really…,” he says. “Do you have
nightmares?” I inquire. “No!” “Flashbacks?” “Just sometimes, but not for more than two years now,”
Fomba answers. I am running out of options. “Bedwetting?” Fomba and Alpha almost choke in their
beers and they laugh at me hysterically. The question I just asked is really hilarious to them. Fomba has
a twinkle in his eyes when he answers; “Not since I was a small boy!” Alpha concurs with a loud “Yeah!”
Neither of them thinks about the war that much anymore. When Fomba says he is traumatized, he is
not referring to his experiences as a child combatant. Fomba is referring to the here and now, he
suffers. Daily life in postwar Sierra Leone is his trauma. “Really, I tell you for free,” he says, “I did not like
all the fighting in the war, the fighting…, the shooting…, I was afraid many times, but in the war, you
know, at least I had food, I had people to take care of me, I was doing better. Now, as I talk to you, I
don‟t even have a decent place to sleep, I don‟t have a good clothes, I don‟t even have enough food
every day. I‟m telling you, Munjay, I am traumatized!” For Alpha it is the same. He does not have a
permanent residence, he struggles to get his one meal per day and he cannot buy the pamphlets he
needs for school.

34 | A Mind To Kill
Both Fomba and Alpha are in the first class of secondary school, and neither one of them knows if they
will be able to get the money for their school fees for the next semester. Daily life is a struggle for both
of them, but they are determined to “mek am” (make it). “You see, during the war, life was comfortable
for me, it is only now that I am suffering. We are struggling every day in this country, I‟m telling you,
here is hell,” Fomba grumbles. “When we were with the Kamajors, they promised us a lot, this Hinga
Norman, he promised that we would rule this country. We were fighting, fighting, to save our people,
but we get no benefits. We are disgruntled,” Alpha says. It is a story I heard many times before.
According to the ex-Kamajors, Hinga Norman - then Deputy Minister of Defence - promised them that
they would become the police, the army and the leadership of the country. The Kamajors genuinely
believed that they would one day be rewarded for their efforts to liberate the country. They are
disappointed and believe that they deserve to be recognized, instead, they are criticized for their „bush

Di Sistem, Di Sistem

The crowd in the stadium goes mad when the Inspirators step up onto the podium to perform their
song „Komot Na Ya‟ (Get out of here). As the band sets in the chorus of the song, the crowd drowns
A se wi angri, wi n‫ כ‬gladi I say we are hungry, we are not happy
Man dεn de wok wi n‫ כ‬gεt no salari We work without getting paid
Os rεnt εn layt bil j‫כ‬s de m‫כ‬na wi Rents and electricity rates are too high
K‫כ‬m‫כ‬t na yaah Get out of here
Na yu papa gεt de Does it belong to your father

K‫כ‬m‫כ‬t na ya - The Inspirators ♪

The song is a complaint against the government, and it is immensely popular, like almost all other
songs about the political system and corruption. Many Sierra Leoneans believe that they are poor
because of „the system‟. Songs like „Komot Na Ya‟, in which the government is asked to get out of
office, hit home for many people. Fomba and Alpha are no exception; they mime the song at the top of
their voices:
‫כ‬l dεn p‫כ‬ltishian vampaya All those political vampires
Suppressing the needs of the people Suppressing the needs of the people
Sucking human blood everyday Sucking human blood everyday
way wi deli layf n‫ כ‬pr‫כ‬pa Why is it that our daily lives are not proper?
Εvride εn nεt wi de s‫כ‬fa Every day and night we are suffering
‫כ‬prεsh‫כ‬n stavesh‫כ‬n nε ova Oppression and starvation go on endlessly
Una want f‫ כ‬mek wi day po ba Do you want us to die in poverty?

When the song ends, a group of boys behind us start singing some lines from Borbor Pain; “We de live
na Babylon, we de pay tax for laugh, dobul tax back for sneeze, i nor izi I know, but wi na borbor pain.”
“The system, the system,” Fomba concurs laughingly. “I know, I know,” I reply. “I de morna wi (it‟s

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 35

Di Sistεm, Di Sistεm - Jungle Leaders ♪

Di sistεm tu r‫כ‬f tεl wi br‫כ‬da

Mεmba se yu gεt f‫ כ‬pe yu skul fis
choking us) !” “That‟s right!” Fomba shouts while he gives me a low five. ova yanda
The system is responsible for their suffering, or for their „trauma‟, as Mr. Minista luk to dis mata,
Mek s‫כ‬m chenj, mek it pr‫כ‬pa
Fomba would say. When the crowd quiets down somewhat, Fomba Papa n‫ כ‬de wok, mama n‫כ‬gεt m‫כ‬ni
explains to me that he wants to be a politician. One day, he will change A wan go skul
b‫כ‬t di sistεm mek a w‫כ‬ri
the system, so that boys like him don‟t have to suffer in the same way in
Di poman s‫כ‬ri
the future. “But you see, even to get an education, it is hard for me, I have As i sik so na bεrin
Aw f‫ כ‬liv dis layf
to struggle to pay for my school fees, I don‟t have anybody to assist me,”
We yu n‫ כ‬gεt m‫כ‬ni
he says. I ask him why he is so dead set on getting an education. Fomba
The system is too rough
says he wants to be “a somebody”. Without education it is hard to find a Remember that you have to pay
job, and without a job, it is impossible to start a family, and he does not your school fees
Mr. Minister look into this matter
want to end up in the streets. “If I get education, I can make good for Make a change, make it a good one
Papa doesn’t have work,
some of the things I done,” he utters with a sigh. “In this country people
Mama doesn’t have money
don‟t take you serious if you don‟t have an education. They will say that I want to go to school,
but the system makes it impossible
you are a bum, you are nothing, nobody, and I want to be a somebody, I The poor man is in a pathetic situation
am smart, I can be the President if I want to, and I want to, …be the If he gets sick,
he will immediately think of his burial
President. We youths are marginalized in this country, nobody wants to How can you live in such a system
When you don’t have money
hear us. As President, I will change that.”
Εvride insay dis k‫כ‬ntri man
When Fomba jumps up to dance to the tune of another song, I think back na soso kraysis
Fambul j‫כ‬s de s‫כ‬fa wit angri εn diziz
to a couple of days ago, back in Bo Town, when Edward came to ask me
Εnisay yu pas man na so-so trafik
for help to pay for his school fees. Although the amount he was asking for Se di w‫כ‬s tin mi si d‫כ‬ti bl‫כ‬k trafik
was not that high, about six Euro‟s, I had refused to give it to him. I know Frirt‫כ‬ŋ, Kenema, Makeni εn Bo
Pipul dεm de s‫כ‬fa yεs a want una f‫ כ‬no
many ex-child soldiers who are in the exact same position as Edward, and Kam insay Frit‫כ‬ŋ bak
I cannot help all of them, I could not favor him over others. Edward was na so-so s‫כ‬faresh‫כ‬n
Se di pipul dεm de s‫כ‬fa
desperate; he would do anything to collect his school fees. I had asked
Yεs di pipul dεm de s‫כ‬fa
him how he planned to get the money. He said that he would find a way;
Every day in this country
“I will not drop out, I have to continue my education, I will find the
people undergo crises
money, except for by other means.” By other means he meant some Families are suffering from
hunger and sickness
illegal way, like stealing, or a violent robbery. He told me on quite a few Everywhere you go, there is traffic
occasions that he still can be dangerous if he has to. The prospect of The worst thing that I’ve seen were
heaps of rubbish causing traffic jams
having to drop out of school apparently is convincing enough. The Freetown, Kenema, Makeni and Bo
The people are suffering, I want you,
pressure of wanting to be successful in life is weighing heavy on the the politicians, to know
shoulders of boys like Edward and Fomba. In their eyes, education is the Coming back to Freetown,
there is suffering
only way to get a respected position in society. To be somebody means The people are suffering
access to money and privileges, things they were used to during the war, Wutεtε wutεtε Salon de tεtε
but that are now painfully lacking in their lives. Education is their way out A se wi wach d‫כ‬n bes si
we Salon de tεtε
of hopelessness.
With all the abundance in resources
Salone is still crippling

Di Sistεm m‫כ‬na wi ya
36 | A Mind To Kill The system is choking us
Figure 9: Panbodi in Freetown

Figure 10: The interior of a podapoda

Yu Go Si Am – Emmerson ♪

Aw l‫כ‬ng Salon go sid‫כ‬m Aw Salon miniral dεm b‫כ‬ku We di Ticha we in salari

de luk di tin de go r‫כ‬ng na so di kriminal dεm pak Tεl mi naw aw f‫ כ‬lεk dis wok
Since 1961 wi stil n‫ כ‬no Dεn j‫כ‬s de liv pan di bif Mi taya wit di tif, mi taya wit di lay
usay wi bil‫כ‬ng Na wi dεn lεf gi di bon Mi taya wit di we aw dεn pikin
εn wi n‫ כ‬go push if win ‫ כ‬rut Fri l‫כ‬ya t‫כ‬k n‫ כ‬way mek a dray dεn de day
di kriminal dεm am‫כ‬ng lεk ban tik Mi taya wit tolayn,
εn bring dεm kam to j‫כ‬stis Yu gεda wi trade na shofild Mi taya wit di lay
Dis na di v‫כ‬ys ‫כ‬f di y‫כ‬ŋ Pr‫כ‬mis o dεn n‫ כ‬bin fulfil Mi taya we de taya we de taya
Una de k‫כ‬t wi kek εn de lay pan wi Wi de luk ‫כ‬p to Ja f‫ כ‬εp k‫כ‬t di layn
Yu we de tif Salon m‫כ‬ni
lεk wi na ful-ful Du ya tεl mi wεn wi go lεf di kray
If yu yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s wan de yu go si am
K‫כ‬zin kam luk di dayamint pεnsh‫כ‬n
Yu we de mek wi de cham gari
dεn pe mi papa …Na yu wes
If yu yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s wan de yu go si am
Neba kam luk di fishkek salari Tεl dεn di tru bifo dεn fes
dεn pe mi mama F‫ כ‬go insay dεn yes
Kokolyoko Salon de kray
F‫ כ‬liv sεf f‫ כ‬di de nas pas a tot fish N‫ כ‬fala swit t‫כ‬k
Dεn mek a fεd ‫כ‬p wit layf
na Malama F‫ כ‬klap te yu k‫כ‬ntri pwεl
D‫כ‬ti mek malerya
F‫ כ‬pe mi Bεkε fi na libanis Na yu wan gren no aw yu kin s‫כ‬fa
de mek m‫כ‬t na di erya
bak a t‫כ‬n f‫ כ‬sav Te yu p‫כ‬t b‫כ‬yl
Bag rεs in j‫כ‬s de diya
Ol de dεn slap mi yay A no εdukesh‫כ‬n costly b‫כ‬t
O dεn kombra wahala
Us tεm a go lεf f‫ כ‬kray Rid di Salon istri
Luk we dεn yutman mori
Br‫כ‬da us tεm we a go pr‫כ‬spa T‫כ‬n am pej to pej
Yu we nob‫כ‬di n‫ כ‬s‫כ‬ri
We di lida dεm na arata Εn dεn yu chεk yu ej
Wi d‫כ‬n taya f‫ כ‬yεri stori
T‫כ‬k dεn big-big inglish Yu go si di advantej
N‫ כ‬to natin mek wi de w‫כ‬ndrin
D‫כ‬n dεn lεf wi f‫ כ‬de langwish We de mek deli a de gr‫כ‬mbul
Wi de mεmba tumara angri
An‫כ‬da p‫כ‬t-ol opin ‫כ‬yl s‫כ‬ve e eee Fr‫כ‬m we mi mama b‫כ‬n mi
Aw l‫כ‬ŋ f‫ כ‬liv pan gari
Te tide b‫כ‬ys a de str‫כ‬gul
Pan ‫כ‬l wi Salon m‫כ‬ni
Fr‫כ‬m we a de gr‫כ‬mbul na trit Na we yu kam na trit
Wi pr‫כ‬blεm na dεn anyampi
dεn n‫ כ‬wan no Yu go no se di gr‫כ‬n n‫ כ‬lεvul
If dεn n‫ כ‬day wi n‫ כ‬go hapi
Di wok dεn gi udat n‫ כ‬fit dεn n‫ כ‬wan no Bik‫כ‬s dεn politicians na satanic sons of
Dεn Ticha dεm dεn n‫ כ‬de gεt pe
Εvri m‫כ‬nt m‫כ‬ni go l‫כ‬s the devil
B‫כ‬t usay dεn de tif so naw na Ticha
F‫ כ‬go tr‫כ‬s Salon kam f‫כ‬s Na dεn bin ful di yut tete wi br‫כ‬da dεn
bin mek dεn de de
Kam tεl mi b‫כ‬t di dayam‫כ‬n, k‫כ‬z tr‫כ‬bul
Dεn tif 1.8 bily‫כ‬n
di gold εn di silva B‫כ‬t if dεn yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s
Dεn sεn dεn pikin abr‫כ‬d
Bifo dis ‫כ‬yl t‫כ‬k kam gimi fiva G‫כ‬d go mek dεn si am in double
Oke na dat mek dεn n‫ כ‬kya
Luk aw we wi po lεk ch‫כ‬ch os arata Transp‫כ‬t aw m‫כ‬s f‫ כ‬pe
Divεl‫כ‬pmεnt na us iya
Lε di ‫כ‬yl n‫ כ‬kam ad pan di bita Lungi Brij na pas di rapch‫כ‬
Oo dεn n‫ כ‬go t‫כ‬k tru
We di dayam‫כ‬n, we di rutayl pas di rapch‫כ‬
Dεn m‫כ‬t dεm ful wit n‫כ‬f biya
we di b‫כ‬ksayt, tεl mi we di silva
Natin pas alaki
We di wata εn di gud rod tεl mi naw Yu we de tif salon m‫כ‬ni
Bumbuna layt na pas di w‫כ‬l d‫כ‬n
we di layt aws pawa If yu yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s wan de yu go si am
Pas di w‫כ‬l d‫כ‬n
Luk we yutman dεm ‫כ‬l de s‫כ‬fa Yu we de mek wi de cham gari
Pas di w‫כ‬l d‫כ‬n
F‫ כ‬go fεn wok dεn se go bring pepa If yu yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s wan de yu go si am
We di Ticha we in salari Yu we de mek wi de slip angri
Tεl mi naw aw f‫ כ‬lεk dis wok If yu yay n‫ כ‬b‫כ‬s wan de yu go si am
Mi taya wit di tif, mi taya wit di lay
Mi taya wit di we aw dεn pikin dεn de
Yu Go Si Am = Face the Consequences

How long will Salone sit by and see things go wrong? And leave us to languish
Since 1961 we still don’t know where we belong Another pot-hole has opened for them—oil survey
And we cannot progress
if we don’t uproot the criminals from amongst us I have been grumbling in the streets, they don’t even care
And bring them to justice They employ unqualified people without caring
This is the voice of the youth about the consequences.
Every month some money will disappear from the bank
You who steal Sierra Leone’s resources For international debts Salone tops the list
If you continue to live you will face the consequences Tell me about the diamond, gold and silver
You who let us to survive on gari Lest I catch fever form the oil talk
If you continue to live you will face the consequences We are as poor as church rats
I hope the oil thing will not add to the bitterness
Sierra Leone is crying Where are the diamond, the rutile, and the bauxite;
They have made me tired of living tell me where is the silver?
Filth is letting malaria to be rampant in the area Where is the water, the good road network;
The cost of rice rises rapidly tell me where is the electricity?
Problem for the mothers Look at how the youths are suffering
Look how penniless the youth are To be employed they’ll ask for diploma’s
We are tired of hearing stories Where is the teacher and his salary?
We are worried about tomorrow’s hunger Tell me how can someone like a job like this?
How long shall we be living on gari I am tired with their stealing and lying
With all our national wealth I am fed-up with the way the children are dying
Our problem lies with those kleptomaniacs I am tired of queuing
Until they die we will not be happy We are looking up to God to help reduce the queues
The teachers don’t get their salaries Please tell me when we shall stop crying
But the knowledge of teachers have made the politicians
They stole 1.8 billion Leones Tighten your belt
and send their own children abroad Tell them the truth in their faces
That’s why they don’t even care about other people So that they will not easily forget
When will there be development Don’t be carried away by sweet talks
They will not speak the truth And go on clapping until your country deteriorates
They are full of alcohol Only you know how you suffer
The Bumbuna hydro (power plant) can only be actualized for your pot to boil (To have a meal)
on Judgment Day (election time). I know education is expensive
But read the history of Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone has minerals in abundance Page after page
But we have just as many criminals And then check your age
They live on the steak and give us the bone You will realize the disadvantage
I am as thin as a drum stick Which makes me complain daily, since I was born
They assembled us at the Showfield Up till now man, I am struggling
And never fulfilled their promises It’s only when you step out that you will know
You eat from our cake and lie to us as if we are fools there is inequality
Cousin, come and see the meager pension Because those politicians are satanic sons of the Devil
my mother is paid They fooled the youths until our brothers caused trouble
Neighbor, come and see the worthless salary But if they continue to live
they pay my father. God will surely let them see the consequences
Even for daily survival I have to carry fish at Malama Double
For my BECE fees to be paid I had to serve a Lebanese
How much is transport fare?
They slap me in the face all day
When will I stop crying? Lungi Bridge will only be built during the Rapture
Brother how shall we prosper?
When the leaders are rats (thieves)
Delivering long English speeches
using jaw-breaking words

In between performances, when there is not so much noise, I try to call Amadu (CO. Cut Neck) who was
supposed to come with us this evening but who decided to stay home. He is recovering from malaria.
Luckily Amadu had some money to pay for medication, because malaria can become fatal if it is left
untreated. Amadu is one of the lucky few who found a job as a living-in servant, but the money he
earns is barely enough to pay for his feeding. Just like Lansana, Amadu only has one good friend he
can rely on in time of need. Back in the village, nobody can assist him. Fomba is slightly better off. He
has family in Freetown, and on occasion he can get some assistance from them. Alpha came to
Freetown by himself, at the age of twelve. He met a man in the streets, who took pity on him and
offered to take him in as his own son, but the man is poor himself and he cannot afford to pay for all of
Alpha‟s needs. In practice, Alpha is an unpaid servant.

Except for Muhammad, an ex-child combatant with the RUF, I have not met any ex-child soldier who
has sufficient support from family or friends. All of them have to find their way through life by
themselves. Sierra Leone does not have a social security system that can give them benefits. Social
security or social benefits are a strict private matter. Youths rely on assistance from family members or
from people who take pity on them. Nothing is expected in return, except for the promise that the
beneficiary on his turn will assist others when he is financially able to do so. Those who cannot find
anyone to assist them are on their own, and for child soldiers, this is often the case. Many of them have
lost one or both parents during the war, some of them cannot return to their homes, and some of them
are just from poor families that don‟t have the means to support them. The lack of assistance and
people to care for them is a major reason for their discontent about the Sierra Leonean society. The
Kamajors especially feel betrayed and abused. “I have fought for them for all these years, I have lost
years of my life, and this is how they repay me,” Fomba said to me once.

Right before the show starts, I decide to find a bathroom to ease myself. It is a long and dangerous
climb down over the heads and shoulders of other people, the stadium is chockfull. When we finally
arrive at the balcony, we run into Tommy. He came late because he had to help make arrangements for
the funeral of one of his benefactors. On the surface he seems calm, but deep down, he is in panic. He
is afraid to lose all the assistance he is getting, the roof over his head, and ultimately, his future. When
the two of us are alone, Tommy grabs my hand. “Who will take care of me now Munjay?” he asks me. “I
have nobody to care for me in this world.” His „jamba eyes‟ fill up with tears. “They all want to see me
fail,” he says. “But I will not become a social dropout again!” Emmerson interrupts him. The sounds of
Borbor Pain fill the stadium and everybody goes crazy. “You were not born to meet am, let we get hope
say, one day, we go make am!” Tommy sighs and says; “It‟s not easy!”

37 | A Mind To Kill
Money Lover

419 - K-Man ♪ Weeks later back in Bo Town, on a Saturday evening, I sit on the veranda
of my residence with Edward and Abdul. They try to convince me to
A de bay f‫ כ‬yu sus εn klos
Gi yu m‫כ‬toka εn os come with them to Emmerson‟s album launching at Coronnation Field,
A lεk sεf yu n‫ כ‬lεk mi a de fos but I have to decline. I have already witnessed the launching in Freetown
I will buy you shoes and clothes and besides that, I have planned a trip to Mattru Jong and Bonthe. I
Give you a car and a house
suggest to them to take their girlfriends instead. When I take out my
And if you don´t like me,
I will make you like me wallet to make my suggestion practically possible, they readily accept.
As I hand over the money, five Euro‟s in total, I realize that their lives are
Care 4 Yu -Cee-Jay ♪ very different from the lives of the ex-child soldiers I met in Freetown.
The boys in Bo have friends, most of them have families nearby and
εni tin yu want a go bay f‫ כ‬yu
‫כ‬l di tin yu nid a go gi tu yu many of them have girlfriends. Most of them have a social network they
εn a go ivin lε mi layf f‫ כ‬yu can rely on, if not for financial support, then for moral support. The boys
bic‫כ‬s I’m the guy for you
in Freetown are virtually alone. Compared to the boys in Bo Town, the
Anything you want I will buy for you boys in Freetown live a life of social isolation. They do not really belong
Anything you need I will give to you
I will even stake my life for you to society. According to Edward, they are all outsiders, but if I compare
Because I am the guy for you
Bo to Freetown, in terms of social networks, the ex-child soldiers in Bo
Town are much better off.
Mabinty -Dry Eye Crew ♪
To confirm my thoughts I decide to call Amadu. When he picks up his
Mi n‫כ‬to jεntriman,
phone I ask him how he is doing. “Oh,” he answers, “am managing.” “Aw
b‫כ‬t mi na ryal l‫כ‬vaman
Yu anti tεl mi se di uman bizniz (how is your love life)?” I ask. “Oh, I don‟t have a girlfriend
na b‫כ‬mba gεt f‫ כ‬mared yu
right now,” Amadu chuckles. “Why not?” “You see, as for now, I don‟t
B‫כ‬mba we gεt m‫כ‬ni big os εn m‫כ‬toka
B‫כ‬mba we go pul dis famili pan have money, these Salone women, they always ask you for money and I
yagba don‟t have time to go out to find money for my girlfriend, I have to
Mabinty dεn wan t‫כ‬n yu m‫כ‬ni l‫כ‬va
Dεn se na yu go pul dis famili pan concentrate on my studies as for now,” is the answer. “So….what are you
s‫כ‬fa doing?” I ask him. “Nothing much really, I sit in the compound, I have

I am not a rich man completed my chores, now I‟m just sitting,” Amadu says. “Are you going
But I am a real lover man to see some friends today?” I ask. “No,” he answers, “it is just me.” After a
Your aunt told me that
A Bomba is going to marry you short conversation I say goodbye, hang up the phone, and call Sam, an
A Bomba with money, a big house,
And a car.
ex-RUF child combatant. I ask him the same questions and he gives me
This Bomba will get your family almost the exact same answers as Amadu. He has no friends, nobody to
Out of misery
Mabinty, they want to make take care of him, no money and hence, no girlfriend. Sam will spend his
You a ‘money lover’
Saturday evening alone in the dark; everyone else has left the house. He
They think you will help them
Put an end to their suffering. has to guard the house, as usual, and there is no fuel for the generator.
Sam and Amadu spend the evening alone; Edward and Abdul go to a bar.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 38

Part II

“Di Kiti Kiti”

Civil War

The Context of War

On the terrace of a trendy, hypermodern bar in Amsterdam, I try to catch the last rays of the watery
evening sun. With half an ear I listen to my friend Mary rambling on and on about my fieldwork, while
my thoughts wander off to Sierra Leone. I take a sip from my glass of café macchiato, a coffee that is
almost as fancy as the decorations of the establishment. The difference between Amsterdam and Bo
Town is almost unimaginable. It‟s a world of difference. No dust clouds are blown up by vehicles
passing by, like there are in Bo. The streets in Amsterdam are neatly paved. I can enjoy my „hip‟ coffee
and dim sum, a Chinese delicacyxix, without being disturbed by toothless beggars every two seconds. If
I would really want to hear her, I would be able to hear my friend Mary talking without even having to
make any effort. There is no loud, deformed music shouting in my ears, which could interrupt the
conversation. Even the glass I‟m holding would be an almost absurd luxury in Sierra Leone.

Although it has been only two weeks since I returned to Holland, it is getting harder and harder to
grasp my memories of the small West African country where I spent the last four months of my life. My
experiences there have been so intense, that I surely thought I would never forget any minute of it; the
feeling of dust in my nose 24 hours per day, for example, the smell of dried fish at the market, the
buzzing liveliness of cars and people at Fenton Road, the taste of cassava leaves. I was certain that I
would always remember all of it, not as a vague memory, but as vividly as I experienced it at the time;
the smells, the sounds, the tastes, the feelings, „always‟ has proven to last shorter than two weeks. Bo
Town now seems far, far away – a dream almost. Sometimes I can have a vivid memory of occasions or
people, or even feelings, but they fade almost as fast as they came up. No matter how hard I try to cling
on to the memory, it rapidly gets paler. What is left is a one dimensional reflection, one that is prone to
change. As more time passes, the more the memory will be colored by my interpretations. When the
sun finally withdraws behind the ugly yellow building in front of me, leaving me in the chilly shade, I
wish wholeheartedly that I was back in Salone. While I‟m perfectly aware of the fact that I have damned
the heat there so many times, I now imagine the sun to have been just warm enough to comfortably
caress my skin. The extra dimension I have just given to the memory is solely tied to my discomfort
right here and now. In a strict rational sense I know this, but that doesn‟t change my mind-set.

Suddenly the image of Suba, a cheerful, slightly chubby twenty two year old, who always wears
slippers that are too small for his big feet, pops up in my head. Suba is one of the ex-child combatants I
met in Salone. He has spent six years of his life with the RUF. With the rebels he fought in the frontlines,
completely doped up, and committed the most horrific atrocities thinkable. He once cut off a woman‟s
breasts, just to guess the weight. Cutting off fingers, raping, looting, torturing, killing, he has done all of
it, and he could tell me about it without hesitation. He could do so, he told me once, because his past
as a child combatant now seemed more like a long gone, abstract memory than something that

xix Dim Sum is a term the Chinese actually use to describe a light meal. It is a delicacy in Holland.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 39

actually happened to him. At the time he tried to explain this to me, I could not really understand it.
Never having experienced any war or extreme violence in my life, I thought that experiences like these
would leave a lasting impression on one‟s mind. But now that I‟m confronted with the slow but sudden
fading of my own intense experiences in Salone, his words all of a sudden fall into place.

As I order a fresh mint tea to flush down the crumbs of the dim sum, my attention turns back to my
friend Mary, who is now highly engaged in an analysis of the phenomenon of child soldiering. She
draws conclusions about the issue without even asking me about my findings. I have gotten used to it.
Everyone seems to know pretty much everything about child soldiers. With the issue of child soldiering
it is much the same as with football; everybody is an expert. Just like everybody else, Mary imagines
child soldiers to be something close to monsters or killing machines, an image that is inevitably linked
to the brutal atrocities and the „senseless killings‟ they have become known for. She has not met one
child soldier in her entire life and I know that she has never seriously concerned herself with the issue,
yet she is able to summarize their experiences in a casual conversation over a café latté and a fresh
mint tea.

The stereotype image Mary holds of the child soldier reminds me of my first meeting with Ibrahim. By
then I had met so many child soldiers and child combatants that I had lost count. I knew from
experience that they are human beings, just like anyone else, but knowing what he had done as
General Shed Blood before I got to know him as a person, had made me all too quick to judge Ibrahim
for his deeds as a child combatant. I had stepped into the trap of generalizing his deeds onto his whole
being myself. I did exactly the same thing as Mary is doing now. When she utters her admiration for
my courage to be in close contact with such “monsters”, I am ready to drop the subject, but then
Edward‟s words start resonating in my head: “Tell them we are not bad people,” he made me promise
right before I left Salone. “Tell them that we are no weirdo‟s, or freaks, or monsters or anything like that.
Tell them we are just like them. Tell them, yes it is true, we fought the war, but not with our senses. We
were given cocaine and jamba to kill ourselves. But now, everybody is aware.”

I ask Mary to close her eyes and to picture herself in a brutal war, with cruel killings being committed
right before her eyes, the bullets flying around her head with a dazzling speed, and her best friend
coming up to her with a heavily bleeding, gaping wound. “Now imagine that a nasty looking enemy is
running towards you,” I instruct her. “He has his machete raised up high in the air, he is ready to kill
you, and he can hack your head off any second now. Now, …you hold a loaded AK-47 in your
hands…,” I continue, but Mary interrupts me. “I cannot picture it, sorry,” she says. The context of war is
hard to grasp on a late sunny afternoon someday in mid April on a peaceful terrace in Amsterdam. But
it is exactly the context of war that explains why they did what they did. They conducted their actions
in a certain context, in a certain confined space in time – a time of bizarreness, cruelty and constant
danger. They lived in a world of violence, one they had to adapt to and on their turn, inevitably

40 | A Mind To Kill
contributed to. It was war. Terror was the number one weapon. It shaped the war. And it was the
character of the war that defined their actions.


The RUF was formed in 1991 by Foday Sankoh, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray out of a student activist
group that had been planning a violent revolution against the then ruling APC government, since
1987. The student movement proved to be incoherent and was dissolved within the first year of its
existence, but Foday Sankoh made use of the opportunity to unleash his own „revolution‟ with the RUF.
On 4 March 1991, through BBC‟s radio program „World Service for Africa‟, Foday Sankoh announced an
armed rebellion if the then president Joseph Momoh would not resign from office within ninety days.
Only nineteen days later, on 23 March 1991, a group of one hundred armed mercenaries from Burkina
Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone led by Foday Sankoh, attacked Bomaru, a town in the diamond rich
Kailahun District, in the eastern part of the country. While the RUF was able to conquer a large part of
the Kailahun District within a month‟s time14, Foday Sankoh declared, in early April 1991 on BBC‟s radio
program „Focus on Africa‟, that it was the RUF‟s aim to overthrow the APC government and to restore
multi-party democracy in Sierra Leone15.

Initially, the RUF got some support among civilians. Foday Sankoh‟s speeches enticed a number of
people to join the RUF voluntarily. The movement especially attracted young people. In the 1980‟s, the
Sierra Leonean state almost went bankrupt after a long period of misrule by the APC one-party state,
that had ruled through a patrimonial system of despotism, favouritism and corruption. The country
that was rich in resources like diamonds, rutile, gold and bauxite, and was relatively well developed in
the 1960´s, was completely dependent on the IMF by 1990. The educational system of Sierra Leone,
once called the „Athens of West Africa‟ because of its excellent educational facilities, had almost
completely collapsed. Education was now a privilege rather than a right, and only accessible to the
country‟s elite. The population of Sierra Leone lived in abject poverty16. Youths made up more than 50
per cent of the total population, yet, they were the most marginalized under the APC regime. Because
political power and participation in decision-making were largely related to age, young people were
virtually powerless. They were largely dependent on elders in the society for employment and
development, a situation in which many of them ended up in unpaid labour relationships17. Education
had become an unattainable ideal, and on the labor market they were last in line to get jobs. In
practice this meant that many young people were unable to find paid work. No job meant no income
and without income, young people had to depend on their families or caretakers for their survival. It
also meant that many of them were unable to build an independent life, to marry, or to have their own
residences. A larger bulk of the country‟s youth population was in a position of vulnerability to

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 41

exploitation by elders in society. This position caused widespread disgruntlement among youths
throughout the country.

Youth marginalization was not only one of the reasons for the foundation of the RUF; it was also an
important drive for youths to join the movement. For some village youths, participation in the armed
struggle meant an opportunity to escape suppressing familial and authoritative ties or to get some
form of autonomy or power. For unemployed city youths, as well as for youths who were involved in
illegal mining (San San Boys), joining the RUF meant an opportunity to make an independent living.
With slogans like „free education‟, „free healthcare‟ and „better housing‟, the RUF enticed numerous
young people to join the revolution. As the RUF advanced and prolonged their armed struggle, they
mainly targeted civilians, government officials and traditional authorities18. Civilians were assaulted,
killed or forced to carry looted property and perform domestic tasks. Civilian residences were burnt
down and almost without exception, women were sexually violated19.

From the beginning of its existence, the RUF drew the larger bulk of its voluntary young recruits from
the margins of society. The involvement of social dropouts, unemployed and unemployable youths,
young criminals and drug addicts and a (seemingly) arbitrary use of terror and brutal violence against
civilians soon gave the RUF its notorious criminal character. The RUF‟s motto „Arms to the People,
Power to the People and Wealth to the People‟xx lent itself to be interpreted as a justification for
anarchic behavior, a feature that had a strong appeal to outlaws and the socially marginalized. It was a
process that proved to be self-reinforcing; revolution and political ideology came to be overshadowed
by personal quests for opportunity and wealth, the lust for adventure and deviancy, which in turn led
to the RUF‟s isolation from the majority of the population and support from influential members of
society. To achieve its goals, the RUF had to expand in numbers, but because of the RUF‟s „criminal‟
reputation it proved to be an unfeasible task to attract large numbers of politically motivated
volunteers into the movement. At this point in time, they had already reached a point of no return. The
only way forward was through the use of criminals, thugs and forced recruits. Ultimately, the larger
bulk of the RUF combatants either came from Liberia or they were conscripts. The RUF captured young
men and boys, like Ibrahim, Edward, Issa and Tommy, injected them with drugs, and forced them to
fight for the movement.

Edward was eight years old when the RUF captured him. When he, together with group of other young
boys, tried to flee from the rebels, some of his friends were shot dead. It served as a strong warning for
the rest of them; trying to escape from the rebels would be punished with death and the same applied
to insubordination. Initially, Edward was treated well. He was given food, an important enticement for

xx See the RUF document „Footpaths to Democracy‟ (RUF 1995).

42 | A Mind To Kill
him to like the rebels since food had been scarce for months already. He believed in their doctrines.
And how could he have doubted them? They had changed the national flag, they had changed the
national anthem, they claimed, and they had a new anthem to prove it. They told him that they were
the new government, and the rebels were his only source of information. Besides that, politics was not
something he could easily comprehend as an eight year old. He did not even understand “what rebels
were” before he was captured by them.

One of the main ingredients of the food the rebels prepared for Edward, and other youthful conscripts
like him, was marijuana; his tea and soup were richly spiced with the illicit drug. Edward did not get
much military training but he was given some shooting practice. The RUF made him shoot at a stick
and when he succeeded in hitting it, he was considered ready for battle. The first killing was extremely
difficult for him, but it became easier with time. Ultimately, killing was the same for him as drinking a
glass of beer. The drugs killed his „own mind‟ and gave him the „mind to kill‟ instead; Edward‟s own
conscience was rooted out by the drugs and he developed the courage to killxxi. Life in the bush was
hard on him. He was not only assigned to fight on the battlefront, he had to carry looted property and
do hard labor to find foodstuffs in the bush as well. He constantly felt threatened and bullied by his
superiors. Some of them were just a few years older than he was. To ensure his safety, to minimize the
bullying and to reduce competition, he became “dangerous” and a “fierce fighter”, one of the only
possibilities to command respect from his colleagues and superiors. Additionally, fierceness was
sometimes rewarded with promotions to higher ranks and more privileges. It was a way for Edward to
have some control over his own situation.

Sam found a different way to protect himself from animosities within the RUF; since he was afraid to
fight, his only alternative was to get into good relationships with his superiors. He was able to woo one
of the female leaders, who secured his feeding and protected him from going to the warfront. When
the girl died in battle, he found another patron within the RUF leadership just by using charm and

Moses, who was sixteen when captured by the RUF, did a similar thing. Because Moses was one of the
few combatants that had had some education, he was highly valued by the RUF‟s leadership. When he
realized that being critical would only lead to punishment and the risk of being killed, he pretended to
support the ideals of the movement and maneuvered his way into a leadership position. Moses was a
“brave warrior”, and his educational skills made him indispensible to his unit. Through his position he
enjoyed many privileges like access to food, healthcare and money. So although it was not his choice
to become involved in the RUF, he led a comfortable life with them. In fact, according to Moses, his life
as a combatant was “much more comfortable” than his current life in postwar Sierra Leone. He had

xxiThe word „mind‟ has two different meanings; in the first instance it means that Edward‟s own conscience was rooted out by
the drugs and in the second case the word „mind‟ (as used in Krio) indicates that he developed the courage to kill.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 43

access to everything he needed and he had status, something that is highly valued in the Sierra
Leonean society.

Ibrahim was fifteen when he was made „General‟ of the Zebra Battalion of the Small Boys Unit. He held
command over fifty other young RUF combatants and he treated his subordinates ruthlessly. Nobody
forced Ibrahim to punish and kill his soldiers with cruelty, he used his own judgment. An excessive use
of drugs helped him to become one of the most notorious young killers in the RUF. As a „General‟, he
lived like “a king”.

Bockarie was abducted from his parents‟ house when he was eleven years old. He was never forced to
fight, but instead, he was used to do hard labor and to carry stolen property from raided villages.
Although he was not involved in any fighting, he witnessed a lot of extreme violence. If they ran into
an ambush, he had to depend on his colleagues to save his life. Without a weapon of his own, he was
helpless in situations like these. In the camps, he was last in line to get food and he had no means to
defend himself against the other boys in his unit. They would just threaten him with their guns, harass
him, and force him to do all kinds of odd jobs for them. He stayed with the RUF for four years. He
attempted to escape only once but he was caught and mildly punished. His accomplice and childhood
friend, however, was shot dead in front of him. Bockarie never tried to escape again but he kept
dreaming about it. He spent his time with the RUF in constant fear.

Michael, who was abducted at the age of nine and a “fierce fighter”, managed to escape several times.
He kept going back to the RUF because civilian life in a war torn country was harder on him than
fighting with the rebels. As a civilian he didn‟t have anything. With the RUF he was protected from
other armed forces and he had access to food and money. For Michael, fighting was “just a job” and it
was a far more profitable one than fetching water or laundering for other people.

Although Ibrahim had been afraid of the Liberian rebels who abducted him, he quickly adapted to the
„rebel-life‟; by the time he joined the RUF and he even enjoyed the fighting and the violence;

"I kill hundreds because I fought for long years. When I have taken my drugs I would even kill my brother. I
feel happy to kill when I have taken the drugs. Sometimes I remove your heart and just chew your heart."
(Ibrahim Barry, ex-child combatant in Sunday Express, 01/09/2000)

But even though Ibrahim seems to have been “happy to kill”, he still refused to go back to fighting
after his demobilization, despite the fact that he was offered 1.500 dollars to fight in the Liberian civil
war. According to Ibrahim, it was the drugs that turned him into a killer.

Muhammad, abducted at the age of nine and an RUF combatant for two years, has the same
experience. With the RUF, most of the fighters were under the influence of hallucinogens almost
permanently. “When I used drugs I would not even see you as a human being,” Muhammad explains.
“You would be just an ant or some small insect; I could just crush you like you were a small ant.” All of

44 | A Mind To Kill
the ex-combatants agree that the first killing was the hardest, after that, “you can do anything”. This is
probably the reason why the RUF initiated most of them into the movement by forcing them to
commit atrocities or murders against family members or senior figures in their communities. Some
boys were forced to rape their own mothers or one of their sisters; some had to kill their own fathers.
The RUF supposedly used this tactic to cut off all ties between the combatant and his environment.
Once they were part of the movement, the abducted boys were told they were recruited because they
were children and could therefore “do anything”. Muhammad explains;

“They told us we are good in the force, because we are small boys, we have *more+ mind than them *the adults+. So
we are there, killing people, burning houses. … I used to cut people’s hands in fact, because I’m a small boy. They
used to give me drugs. They say I’m a small boy, so I can do that work…. It was not hard to cut the hand …. I used
machete …. I cut continuously until the bone got broken. But at that time they give us drugs. … At any time we want
to go and fight, they give us drugs, we are small boys, we are the ones who are in the front, … we are small boys so
we can be killed, that is what they did to us. … When I take marijuana, I feel my eyes red and I can just think that I
can do anything because it is not with my mind. It is not with my head. Without the drugs I could not fight. Because
by that time I was a small boy. The rebels gave me drugs, and that give me the inspiration to do the work. I did not
understand anything about the war, because I was a small boy. We just destroyed people and burnt houses. I’m just
fighting, because they forced us to fight. They didn’t explain anything to us. They just forced us, gave us arms and
say ‘you are going to join them fight the war’. I understand now that fighting is not good. We destroyed the country
and even ourselves.”
(Muhammad, ex-child combatant RUF, interview 02/19/2007)

In some cases, being a captive with the RUF meant living a life in constant fear, but in most cases, the
new recruits found ways to adapt to their new environments. On some occasions, usually right after
successful looting sprees, the rebels had exuberant (Blood Diamond-like) parties with excessive
drinking, drug abuse and useless destructions, but because the RUF was pushed back into a forest
survivalist movement, the combatants typically stayed in the bush and in military camps where strict
rules and discipline were in force.

When child combatants first entered the force, killing meant survival, but after a while, committing
violence was not about survival anymore, it had become their life. Some child combatants went
overboard and got „addicted‟ to committing violence and murder, but most of them only committed
violence (although in many cases excessively) if they had to; during battles, attacks, other encounters
with the enemy, and when they were threatened by their colleagues. But even the child combatants
who enjoyed committing violence left the RUF as soon as they had the opportunity. The fact that they
were used to killing does not mean that they could not get tired of it, because most of them did and
many RUF ex-child combatants declare that they will never fight again. When they reflect upon their
participation, most of them blame the drugs and their young age for their brutal behavior as
combatants, they just did not know better. It is a way to distance themselves from their acts and to
make a clear distinction between their lives as child combatants and civilians.

The former abductees declare that they felt forced to join the RUF and that they were forced to fight.
They were usually approached in a violent way or even held at gunpoint, but they were given a choice
– to join or to die. Some chose the second option and were killed on the spot, others “decided to join

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 45

them”. The drugs, constant bullying, violent threats and sheer force helped them to develop “a mind to
kill”, while they themselves decided how far they would go. Some of them developed into lieutenants,
commanders or generals, while others remained to be regular soldiers, porters, carriers or spies.

Most child combatants stayed with the RUF for many years and some of them enjoyed a great amount
of freedom and responsibility. Some child combatants got so wrapped up in the fighting that they did
not even consider the possibility of escaping for a long time. Some of them ultimately believed in the
movement‟s ideals, some of them liked the way of life, and some stayed because they did not have
anywhere else to go. Some of them owned cars, some of them had girlfriends or wives, and some of
them fathered children. Although there was a lot of infighting in the RUF, most child combatants had
at least one close friend. The RUF child combatants grew up in a world of extreme violence, they were
encouraged to be brutal and they were rewarded with promotions, money, respect, or commodities
for being „bad‟.

The child combatants who joined the RUF at a very young age, approximately younger than ten, claim
that they did not understand that what they were doing was considered to be bad in mainstream
society. In the Sierra Leonean society, young children usually have to obey orders from their elders
without questioning them, so they just did as they were told. They regret to have been abducted, they
regret to have been forced to fight, and they regret the hard life they led in the bush. In fact, almost all
of the ex-child soldiers with the RUF still have stomach problems from the excessive intake of drugs
through food and from the strange “bush foods” they were made to eat in times of extreme scarcity.
Many of them consider bush life as the most difficult thing about their participation, next to the loss of
one or both of their parents.

Most ex-RUF members do not feel responsible for their acts as child combatants, while at the same
time many of them are still proud of the fact that they were once “dangerous killers”. Back then, they
were admired and respected, they had power, and many of them had money, girlfriends, food, and,
most important of all, it kept them alive. When they recall the war, they usually don‟t think about the
killing or the violence, they think about what they have lost – parents, family members, a home,
material assistance or moral support, and most significantly, future prospects.

46 | A Mind To Kill
Figure 11: Fieldtrip 'UCC Boys'

Figure 12: DDR ID Card


The Kamajor movement was the largest of several different civil defence forces that took up arms
against the RUF when the government proved to be incapable of protecting civilians from terroristic
violence directed against them. The exact origin of the Kamajor movement remains to be unknown.
Many different stories circulate about the history of the movement, even among its (former) members,
but it is certain that it started with several different and separate small civil defence groups in the
southern and southeastern areas of the country. The first known organized civilian defence group was
the Eastern Regional Defence Committee (EREDCOM) in Kenema (sometimes referred to as Hindo
Hindo, the Mende translation for „man man‟), that was formed by the late Dr. Alpha Lavallie, a former
University history lecturer, on 7 December 199220. EREDCOM was dissolved not long after its formation
in early 1993, when Lavallie was killed after his car hit a landmine, believed to be set by government
soldiers21, but the popularity and formation of civil defence groups in the area rapidly increased. It is
generally believed that these initial groups mainly comprised Kamajoisia – traditional hunters who
possessed mystical powers – but many common young men, who did not have any hunting
experience or traditional mystical knowledge, claim to have been selected by their Paramount Chiefs
to defend their areas as well. The Kamajoisia groups did not have any military experience and only a
few of the fighters possessed a single barrel gun. Most of the vigilantes fought with sticks and
machetes, but they proved to be so successful that the NPRC government started using them to guard
checkpoints22 and to assist the national army as trackers and guides in the bush because of their
superior knowledge of the terrain23.

In 1993, as the ranks of the national army, the RUF and the civil defence groups grew, the character of
the war became more and more obscure. Civilians formed the main targets of violence, while different
groups of fighters and collaborators were drawn into the war. Discontent amongst soldiers of the
national army increased because of low payment, lack of adequate equipment and training. Many
soldiers started scheming with the RUF in terrorizing citizens – a phenomenon that has become known
under the term sobel; soldier by day, rebel by night – for their personal gain24. The NPRC government
was not able to get full control over its own army and formally announced that vigilante groups were
to be formed in every locality to help the government regain control over the country. Separate small-
scale civil defence groups in the southern part of the country were unified into one movement.
Following an RUF invasion in Bonthe district in the south, an herbalist (Allieu Kondewa) supposedly got
secret knowledge on how to compose a concoction to make fighters, now called Kamajors,
invulnerable to bullets. In order to get the magic protection, Kamajors had to undergo initiation rituals,
which changed the character of the movement into a society with secret warrior knowledge.

47 | A Mind To Kill
“One day the RUF came to the
village, dressed as civilians, asking
for the chief, saying that they
wanted to change
From 1995 onwards, membership through initiation became widespread
profession…after two weeks back,
they came back, with their full in the region, and the Kamajors were organized into one movement with
combat. They were fully armed. …
They took us to the other village, several different squads, under the leadership of Samuel Hinga Norman.
me and my dad. … Almost the More and younger men were appointed by their Paramount Chiefs to
whole town was carried to the
next village. They were evil defend their villages, towns or provinces. Allieu Kondewa became the
people. They were mistreating
people that were working for
High Priest or Chief Initiator of the Kamajor society and initiator for
them. Even my dad was Bonthe District. Kondewa passed down his secret knowledge to several
supporting [working for] them, he
worked for them for two months. other senior initiators25 who were responsible for the initiation of
Suffer him, make him to carry loot
Kamajors in their own squads26, all belonging to the overarching Kamajor
for them. ..One day, my dad went
to them and said he wanted to go movement27. The Kamajors soon gained momentum among the
to the next village, he said:
‘Mister, I have been doing this population.
work for you for all this while, but
today, I am not feeling bright’. Initiation had (at least) two purposes; to endow participants with magical
They slapped him, kicked him,
slapped him, slapped him, slapped powers and to make them part of an exclusive (secret) society to ensure
him … They said: ‘If the man don’t their loyalty and to keep the secret knowledge within the Kamajor
take the load, we will kill him.’ My
dad cried in fact. He took the movement. The institution of secret societies is not alien to Sierra
load…No one was allowed to help then they had been
Leonean culture; they have been part of social life from before the
beating him, he was not able to country‟s known history. There are various different secret societies in
walk for far distance….But then…
It was my fault in fact…. I said, ‘I’m existence of which the Poro (for men) and Bondo (for women) societies
tired’…and the man *one of the
are probably the most broadly encompassing and the most well known.
rebels+ said; ‘Well, if you are tired
I will kill you and leave you at the Secret societies have the typical function of binding its members
scene…’ Then I said, ‘I want to get
treatment for my dad, I will not go together in social, economic or political networks and to create mutual
anywhere from this scene’.…. loyalty networks. Before any person can become a member of the secret
So…they shot him there… I
escaped them…I went to Bonthe. society, he has to undergo initiation rites in which he gets special training
We were there, we heard about
these Kamajors. So I decided to
and has to endure physical ordeals which usually take place in the bush.
join Kamajor society. We heard At the end of the initiation period, which can vary from a couple of days
that you get protection, the bullet
will not even enter your body…. to a couple of weeks, the initiates have to swear an oath of secrecy. In the
By then, I was fourteen years, to case of the Poro society, for example, this oath is taken on fetish medicine
fifteen. So I wanted to go and see
these people, I said, ‘are they (a concoction of leaves) that is rubbed into a series of small and
human beings or not?’ I went
…and I wanted to join the superficial cuts in the backs of the initiates. The medication stays in the
Kamajors…so I went to my initiates bodies forever and will automatically be activated as a lethal
mother, I said, ’Mom, all these
kids, they are joining the poison as soon as the initiates break the oath. The scars function as a
Kamajors…I am going to join to
revenge the death of our father.
physical marker of their membership. After the initiation fee is paid, the
So my mom said ‘No, you are initiates leave the bush and are introduced to the outside world as full
small for now’. So I said ‘No, I am
not small’. My mom warned me in society members, and this is usually followed by a big celebration.
fact, she said, you are not to join.
But I went to the society…for Initiation into the Kamajor movement bore much resemblance to the
(Patrick, ex-child combatant Poro initiation, and it had much of the same functions. But unlike the
Kamajors, interview 02/18/2007)

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 48

Poro, Kamajor initiation had no standard procedures; every initiator had his own initiation rites and
practices, and as the war prolonged, the initiators came up with different phases of initiation, in which
initiates could obtain other or greater powers. In most cases, initiation took ten days in which the
initiate had to go through education and physical ordeals to prepare him to become a Kamajor. Most
initiates went through series of beatings, and many (but not all) were
initiated into their functions as warriors through the sacrificial killing of a
human being (usually a rebel or a “collaborator”), whose organs and meat
were then eaten and used (in combination with the ashes of the body
remains and a mixture of herbs and leaves) as a fetish medicine to give the
initiate magical protection from bullets, poison, and evil spirits, either in a
drinkable potion or through the rubbing of a poultice into small cuts on the
Figure 13: Kamajor marks upper body.

During initiation and some specific period after (which varied from
initiation to initiation), the initiate had to refrain from touching
women, touching corpses, sitting on a matawodo (a wooden
mortar) and abstain from drinking alcohol and eating foodstuffs like
okra and tola, because these taboos could spoil the medicine. The
initiation was concluded with a final test, a „confirmation trial‟, in
which the magic protection was tested:

“At the final test, they fire at you, they poison you, they try you with an evil spirit,
all of these things, it’s very intensive. Young guys go stand over there. They take an
AK-47, open rapid fire on you, not just one shot, rapid firing: bebebebebebebeb.”

If they passed the test, the new Kamajors had to take an oath to Figure14: Matawodo

keep the secrets of the movement and to adhere to the general rules of conduct like the prohibition of
looting, unnecessary damaging of property, raping, unlawful killings, infighting, becoming a renegade
and firing a weapon without command. Any violation of these rules could be severely punished and,
more importantly, it would spoil the medicine and take away the magic protection. The fetish medicine
served both as protection from harm and as a self-regulatory mechanism since it was in the Kamajors
own interest to adhere to the rules. Breaking the rules could lead to injury or even death. This
mechanism seems to have worked as foreseen; in the initial stages of the movement‟s existence there
were not many reports of misconduct by Kamajors, but this changed when the movement expanded
over the years.

From 1996, when the newly elected SLPP government united the various civil defence groups under a
national central coordination system (the CDF), the movement started growing rapidly and
membership was no longer restricted to appointment by Paramount Chiefs. Any able bodied male

49 | A Mind To Kill
civilian who could pay for initiation was welcomed into the movement, age was no longer a selection
criterion; some Kamaboysxxii were as young as eight, but if they had not reached the aged of twelve yet,
except for in exceptional cases or circumstances, they were usually employed to do odd jobs. The
upper echelons could not keep up with the rapid growth of the movement what ultimately resulted in
a poor command structure and a growing number of misconducts towards civilians. In some cases,
Kamajors lost sight of their objective to liberate the country and emulated with the RUF to enrich
themselves. Although the misdemeanors of the Kamajors were not as widespread as those of the RUF,
many Kamajors ultimately committed the same kinds of atrocities.

Numerous recruits willingly joined the movement because the Kamajors were widely admired for their
successes. Next to adult volunteers, the movement attracted many youths and even children. One of
the main powers of attraction was the (perceived) immunity from bullets. Because they would be
endowed with magical powers, the risks of participation were minimal, so many young men were
eager and proud to join the Kamajor movement; it gave them the chance to contribute to their society,
to protect their families from the RUF and to be admired by the population at the same time.
According to one research, 98% of all child soldiers who participated in the Kamajor movement claim
to have been volunteers28.

Most child soldiers with the Kamajors who joined the movement
before 1997 indeed declare to have been volunteers; some of
I was forced to brush the farms of them joined because they wanted to defend their societies from
those who had left to fight for the
Kamajors. It was hard work and I did the RUF or defected soldiers, to avenge the deaths of family
not have the knowledge to do it. At
the end of the day, I had to find my members, or to get protection from RUF violence. Some of them
own food. It was not easy. I decided to joined because they were attracted by the mystic warrior culture
join the Kamajors myself, because at
least, in that way I would have food. of the movement and others joined because they saw
But then, this farm work was
participation as economically beneficial since the Kamajor
humiliating at the same time. It was
better to join the Kamajors.” movement would take care of their feeding, and some saw an
(Alim, ex-child combatant Kamajors,
fourteen at the time of recruitment, opportunity to get their hands on looted property. As many men
interview 02/01/2007) left their farms to become Kamajors, many children and youths
were forced by their Paramount Chiefs to work their lands
through a system of unpaid communal labor. For several young
men, this was a reason to join the Kamajors themselves. Being a
Kamajor was more desirable than being a forced laborer.

xxii Kamaboy is a popular name for children (under fifteen years of age) who participated in the Kamajor movement.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 50

Many orphans found a safe haven with the Kamajors, since they were vulnerable to recruitment by the
RUF, or they simply did not have anyone to take care of their daily feeding. In many cases, joining the
Kamajors was the only acceptable alternative, but still they feel it was their own choice to join the
movement. Commander Saidu, a former General Battlefield Commander, was seventeen when he
decided to join the Kamajors. He had been able to finish his secondary school education during the
war and was ready to enroll into the university. The war, however, prevented him from pursuing his
academic career. His family could not raise the money to assist him, so Commander Saidu was forced
to find paid work to sustain him, and to help support his family. He went to the mining districts with
two of his younger brothers to “try his luck” there, but the mining areas were largely under the control
of the RUF, and they could hardly be called „safe places‟ to earn a living. Commander Saidu survived
many rebel attacks, but it made him realize that his life was vulnerable, and that he might be better off
with the Kamajors;
“The rebels attacked us, they wanted to kill us. They captured us at that time. We were captured, some of
my colleagues got killed by the rebels. So I survived narrowly. Because they were among a group when they
opened fire and I don’t even understand how did I manage to survive, because some guys were dead. Some
guys were killed. So I went to Kenema, I stayed there for some time, you know the war had to intensify even
more than that. They attacked Kenema. At that time by 1998, no 1997, when they overthrow the Sierra
Leone government the government with the People’s Army *AFRC+. So the Kamajors were fighting alongside
the ECOMOG. When they captured Kenema, …. I joined them. I had no alternative at that time. I could not
do my business, I could not do mining, I could not go to school, I sat down and thought “oh…” and the rebels
were threatening us… to kill us. When they catch you, definitely if you don’t join them they will kill you, and I
was not in place to join them because I had seen the way they are terrorizing people, and I was a victim, so I
was not in place with them. I decided to make up my mind. I joined the Kamajors… It wasn’t my choice. It
had never been my choice before. It is because I had no alternative at that time, that’s why I took up arms. I
have another profession.”
(Commander Saidu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 12/20/2006)

Commander Saidu explained that, in fact, many young boys and youths joined the Kamajors because
they had no other option;

“Some of these guys get into this thing because they have no option. Some of them, their parents have been
killed by these rebels. They don’t have no support. They don’t have support. So as a result let’s just say they
don’t go down holding arms, they will be … But if you take up arms, you’ll be a bit relieved. One, by having
food. You’ll get food. You have protection; if anything happens to you, people will be there to help you
immediately. So these are some of the reasons. Some of these kids get into the fighting. Some of them. Some
of them were there willingly. Some of them were there because they had no option. But most had no option.
Some still have their family but they have no one to take care of them, because their parents don’t have the
chance. They have been displaced or… they are somehow destitute. They don’t have the sources now to
maintain their children. So as a result the children have to go down to the street, to find somewhere … you
know… to provide. So they get down to the Kamajors.”
(Commander Saidu, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 12/20/2006)

It came to a time in which even free passage from one village to the other, or from one area to the
other was nearly impossible without passing through either RUF or Kamajor territory. For many boys
and young men, the only way to be safe from harassment or forced recruitment, was to at least identify
with, or to join one of the forces voluntarily. The Kamajor movement was, by far, the most attractive
force for most of them.

51 | A Mind To Kill
The majority, if not all, of the Kamajor child soldiers were forced to participate by external
circumstances beyond their control. But it must be taken into account that the entire population of
Sierra Leone was confronted with the hardships of war and that choice was an ambiguous concept for
almost every Kamajor. Most former combatants feel that they had no other choice but to join the
Kamajors. The over eighteens who joined the movement had, in most cases, exactly the same options
and alternatives as their younger colleagues. The war was ravaging their country, they all stood the
chance of being attacked by rebels or sobels, and there was no one who could keep them safe. Many
people were chased from their villages and towns, many had lost family members and property, and
many of them had lost the ability to feed themselves and their families.

The bulk of all adult, child and youth combatants were drawn into the Kamajor movement by exactly
the same push and pull factors, but there is a significant difference between adults and their younger
counterparts; in the decision making process adults took societal status or position in the postwar
society into consideration, while young people, in most cases, did not even consider the possibility of
the war eventually coming to an end. Many adults declared that they decided not to join and to accept
hardship or vulnerability to attacks from the RUF because they did not want to deal with the stigma
that comes with the status of „ex-combatant‟ after the war. Children and youths typically focused on
the short term; most of them did not understand that they stood the chance of being negatively
stereotyped for having been combatants after the ending of the war.

When ex-child combatants reflect upon their participation now, at a more advanced agexxiii, all of them
state that, knowing what they know now and having experienced the hardships of fighting in the war,
they would make the same decisions again if they would have to do it all over again. They regret the
war, “it was not of their making”, and they regret the fact that they “had to fight”, it was not their wish,
but it was their own “choice to join and fight”. Nobody forced them to join – they paid a (relatively)
high amount for their initiation and they were aware of the possible (short-term) consequences. All of
them understood that they could lose their lives and they understood that they were supposed to take
the lives of others. In fact, before being accepted into the Kamajor movement, they had to take an
oath; they had to vow their readiness and willingness to sacrifice their lives in battle. And they were
very much aware of the permanency of death; almost all of them had lost family members or had
witnessed people dying. They made a conscious decision.

Choice or Force?

The Kamajor movement was not the only armed force that drew large numbers of fighters into their
ranks; the RUF grew exponentially and in 1997 the Kamajors had to take up arms against both the RUF

xxiii My youngest respondent is now 17 years old, the average (current) age of my respondents is 24.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 52

and the AFRC government, which had come to power through a coup on 25 March 1997. Because it
became harder to find willing recruits, the Kamajor movement started forcefully recruiting children
into their ranks. Usually, society members pressured families into submitting their sons into the
movement, sometimes through an appeal on their sense of guilt, and sometimes through active or
even violent persecution;

“When I was initiated, they came to my town and forced me to join the Kamajors. In fact, they beat me for the
rest of the day. I was under threat, under continuous punishment, …. that I am to join the Kamajors. During
the punishments, my father became angry over the issue. He said, „Why are you treating my son that way?‟ So
they took him [the father] to the guardroom, they started to molest my father. They said: „Oh, do you think
we are crazy? We are all Mende, we belong to this town and now there is a war, we are risking our lives, going
to warfront and then your son is sitting down? You want you and your son to be kept safe? So you are going
to be punished now.‟ So they took me to the guardroom and started to punish my father. Because of all the
punishment, I decided to go with them. I walked by myself. They took me and initiated me by force and went
to my father … for him to pay money for the initiation. They threatened my father to give them the money, so
my father finally gave them the money. That is how Kamajors in that area were behaving, they were forcing
people to join them.”
(Michael, ex-child combatant Kamajors, fifteen at the time of recruitment, interview 02/07/2007)

In some cases, orphans were forced to join the Kamajors by their family members, like it happened in
Amadu‟s case. In other cases, groups of Kamajors went to the villages, accused the inhabitants of
collaborating with the rebels and abducted the children into the Kamajor movement as a form of

“We were in the village there [in 1999], when some men,…some group came. They were the RUF. And they
came at that day, they paraded around the village and …even shot a soldier, so they went again … and when
they went the soldiers decided that, „this place, we must have to go‟. So when they went, we were left in the
village. So when the Kamajors came and they started saying that, „ok, you have kept all these rebels and all
these soldiers here and all your children, let them join us or, you are going to die‟. So at that time, our
parents were crying, crying, crying, and one of the Kamajors came and buckled my mother…and they hold
me. When they hold me now, I was there with them, so we went into the bush to initiate me.”
(Fomba, ex-child soldier Kamajors, eleven at the time of recruitment, interview 02/04/2007)

Young RUF combatants who were caught by the Kamajors, like Ibrahim and Tommy, were
incorporated into the movement either as vigilantes or as full society members. Ex-RUF child
combatants who had managed to escape and had been accepted back into society before, were
tracked down by the Kamajors and forced to join them.

All of these ex-child combatants state that they were forced to join the Kamajors, but paradoxically
enough, they feel that they themselves ultimately chose to join. They were “forced but not coerced”.
However crude their options may have been, they feel they were given a choice; either to die or to
become a Kamajor, to be out on the streets or to fight and liberate their country, to see their parents
molested or to protect their family members from abuse by becoming a fighter. Many young men and
boys were able to resist even this kind of hard pressure; some were killed, some were beaten, some
were cut off from food, some were harassed for months, some had to escape the area and some were

53 | A Mind To Kill
just left alone. The ones who were not able to resist are the ones we now call ex-Kamajors. They chose
to join, and without exception, they are still proud of this decision.

RUF versus Kamajors


According to Ibrahim, who fought with both forces, there were no real differences between the RUF
and the Kamajors; when he joined the Kamajors he was initiated into the Yamotor squad (Mende for
„they chew you softly‟), a cannibalistic group that killed at will;

“The Kamajors acted much the same as the RUF. Sometimes, if we felt like killing someone, we would just
smell at them, the civilians, to identify them as rebels so we could kill them.”
(Ibrahim, ex-child combatant RUF/Kamajors, interview 01/23/2007)

But although there indeed were many similarities between the RUF and the Kamajors, there were some
significant differences between the two movements that determined the experiences of their
members. While the Kamajors were fighting to save the country, the RUF was fighting to destroy the
country, or at least, this is how it is generally understood. The
Kamajors are heroes, the rebels are villains. The Kamajors always
knew what they were fighting for; they fought to remove the “The RUF boys, they did things…, they
were not human. They did things that
“animals” that were destroying their country from their villages and are not even from this planet!”
(Shariff, civilian)
towns, and all of them still truly believe that they were fighting for
good reasons. The RUF child combatants, in most cases, feel that they
were misled into thinking that they were fighting a just cause or they
just fought because they were told to fight.

Former RUF combatants have to be grateful that they were welcomed back into society, and although
they feel they were victimized, they believe that they don‟t have the right to complain about their
current situation. They relate their own suffering to that of the broader society; the country is poor, and
everybody struggles, they are just one of the many borbor pains
(sufferers) in society. The Kamajors, on the other hand, feel that

“I fought so hard for this country, and in the they should be rewarded for their participation as they were
end, no benefits. I liberated this people, promised during the war. They fought alongside the national
but they don’t want to be grateful…”
(Peter, ex-child combatant Kamajors) army, and while the army got wages and pensions, the Kamajors
did not get anything. Kamajor ex-child combatants believe that
they sacrificed their own lives and development to protect the
safety of others, and got nothing in return. They relate their personal hardships in the postwar society
to their individual pasts as soldiers or combatants. As Kamajors they gave up valuable years of their
lives, while others had the chance to develop themselves at their expense.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 54

Rats and Ants

After the war, most Kamajors were welcomed back in their

own societies. While the larger bulk of them went back home, “Rebels are not animals!
some of them moved to the cities to find a brighter future. We are human beings!”
(Muhammad, ex-child combatant RUF)
Many RUF child soldiers did not have the same choice; some of
them did not even have memories of their lives from before
the war, and some feared revenge from community members. Many of them simply could not return
home and ended up in the streets of the big cities. They had come out of the bush and disarmed
because they were promised amnesty and forgiveness, but the reality was quite different; rebels were
openly persecuted, molested, and sometimes even murdered by civilians. Most ex-RUF child soldiers
accepted that they had done something wrong and they made great efforts to be accepted back into
society, but some did not feel up to the challenge and preferred to be out on the streets rather than to
beg for forgiveness and to subdue themselves to their former enemies. They resented having to be
submissive to civilians all of a sudden. They had been taught to feel contempt for civilians, they used to
see them as saw as small ants, ready to be crushed, and they used to hold power over them. After the
war, the tables had turned; now they were the ones who had to take orders and abuse. Some former
rebels simply refused to be treated like “animals” by civilians.

Although many Kamajors committed crimes against civilians, they were never completely detached
from civilian life and they were never taught to dehumanize civilians on a large scale. Quite contrary,
the Kamajors fought to protect them from the rebels who they, to be able to kill them, saw as small
rats. Rebels were taught to dehumanize virtually everyone who did not support them, while Kamajors
were only taught to dehumanize rebels. It made a big difference for their reintegration into society.

Most Kamajors, except for those who committed crimes in their own communities, smoothly
reintegrated after the war. RUF soldiers were not as easily accepted back into society. For a long time,
the social distance between former rebels and the civilian population remained to be great, but in
present day Sierra Leone, mostly due to sensitization campaigns, even the formers rebels are forgiven.
The ex-child soldiers who stay in the ghettos and the streets (a life of criminality) usually don‟t have any
means to return to mainstream society. Only a small group of former ex-child soldiers prefers the “thug
life” over a life as a full society member; criminality offers them higher rewards than hard and
degrading labor and being a notorious gangster can command respect in certain circles, while beggars
and unpaid servants occupy the lowest positions in society. For them, being a thug has become a way
to keep some self-respect29.

55 | A Mind To Kill
Bush Monkeys

Because the rebels were largely isolated from civilian life during the war and because of the anti-
establishment structure of the movement, RUF child soldiers grew up as “bush monkeys” ; they lived
according to “the laws of the jungle” rather than according to societal rules of behavior. Children who
joined the RUF at a very young age did not even know what was considered to be acceptable or non-
acceptable behavior in mainstream society. In most cases, they were not familiar with societal norms
and values, traditions, and customs. Bush life and the values of the RUF was all they knew. When they
left the RUF, they entered a completely different world. They had to unlearn the “bush behavior” they
had gotten used to and learn to behave as society members. Some of them went through DDR
programs that helped them to adjust to civilian life, but most former rebels reintegrated without any
external help, they learned through trial and error.

The Kamajors fought close to their own communities and most of them did not stay out in the bush for
long periods of time. Many of them did not even leave their own homes and those who did were
usually allowed to go home every once in a while. They were socialized into military and civilian life at
the same time. Some Kamajors only fought occasionally, only to chase the rebels from their own
villages or towns, some Kamajors were only initiated into the movement to get the magic protection
but never fought, some Kamajors decided to return home when they felt that they had done their civic
duty, and yet some Kamajors stayed in the movement for years and lived a full life as soldiers or
combatants. Typically, orphans and forced recruits had no choice but to stay in the Kamajor movement
permanently. Their experiences are much similar to those of the RUF child soldiers.

Commanders and Soldiers


One of the most striking aspects of the Kamajors is that, although many of them were forced to join the
movement, most of them enjoyed a great amount of freedom. Many child soldiers were forcefully
initiated, but they were not constantly held at gunpoint to keep them in the movement. Once they
were initiated, child soldiers chose to stay with the Kamajors voluntarily. During initiation, child soldiers
were told that they were specifically recruited because they had “more mind to fight” than adults.
Supposedly, adults were easier distracted by thoughts of their families and their civilian
responsibilities. Children and youths, as they were told, were in a unique position; they could solely
concentrate on the fighting, and were therefore more vital to the movement than their adult
counterparts. To underscore these statements, many children were given extra magical powers, which
made them feel special. Many of them claim to have been commanders, and almost all of them could
go on unsupervised missions. Child soldiers with the Kamajors were trusted and respected, they often
commanded or trained adults, and they could contribute to strategic planning. The Kamajors were part

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 56

of a society, they took their responsibilities seriously. Virtually every Kamajor child soldier, even the
ones who were captured from the RUF, had great freedom of movement and a sense of autonomy.
They had opportunities for self-realization. Force was indirect; if a Kamajor would escape or refuse to
fight, he would stand the risk of losing his face and reputation and he could be ridiculed or even
disrespected in his own community for being a coward or failing to take on his duty as a society

In the Kamajor movement, force was far more subtle than with the RUF, where most forced child
soldiers were constantly supervised or even held at gunpoint to prevent them from escaping. Ibrahim
was one of the few forced child combatants who managed to get a leadership position in the RUF, in
which he enjoyed a great amount of freedom and autonomy. Most RUF combatants remained to be
regular soldiers throughout their participation. Child combatants who proved to be trustworthy and
loyal to the movement could be promoted to higher (usually solely symbolic) positions, but this was
usually only possible for those child soldiers who, like Ibrahim, could not return to their homes. Just like
the Kamajors, RUF child soldiers were told that they were selected to fight for the movement because
they were children and therefore more brutal and braver than adults. But even though the RUF told
them that they were worth more to the movement than elder participants, being a child soldier also
meant that they were disposable to the movement. If they did not obey orders, they could be battered
or killed, and many of them witnessed these threats becoming reality for some of their colleagues.
Because most of them were constantly suppressed by their superiors, child soldiers with the RUF had
limited opportunities for self-realization. They were mostly concerned with survival and developing
strategies to get more autonomy.

Child Soldiers
Children and youths were, as they were literally told, purposely
recruited into the armed forces because they were children.
“Especially the children, they were worse
Several commanders testified that children were typically than the adults, they could do anything.”
(Joseph, civilian)
randomly recruited. The only selection criterion appeared to be ---------------------
their youth and not any specific talent or character trait. The RUF “When I tell you that I go kill you, I will not
think twice, I just pull the trigger and shoot
and Kamajor leadership alike saw several advantages in the use you, ……dead…..”
(Tommy, ex-child combatant RUF/Kamajors)
of children as combatants: First of all, children were already used ---------------------
to restrictions on their autonomy, and they were used to obeying “The older ones, they are cowards, they let
us small boys go in front to fight the enemy,
adults without questioning them, which made them more docile they only come when we take many of them
out already.”
and easy to handle. Second, it was easier to capture children
(Andrew, ex-child combatant RUF/Kamajors)
than it was (although it happened) to capture adults. Third,
because of their limited knowledge, children were more

57 | A Mind To Kill
susceptible to believing the movement‟s ideals. Fourth, the use of children in combat had an
important strategic function; on the battlefield the RUF, for example, sent the child combatants first to
shock the enemy. Government troops were explicitly instructed not to shoot at children; it was an easy
way to paralyze the enemy. Fifth, according to one Battlefield Commander, children were less likely to
protest or revolt against their captors, because they “seemed to lack the capacity to work together”.
And last, children allegedly were less troubled by a conscience and fear than adults, they were (again
allegedly) more self-centered, more competitive and more eager to please their commanders, which
made them creative in finding ways to excel in fighting.


On that terrace in Amsterdam I try to explain to my friend Mary what fighting in a war was like for the
child soldiers I had gotten to know so well during my fieldwork in Sierra Leone. Mary has a hard time
putting herself in their places; she could just not imagine that she would ever have been able to fight
herself when she was a young child. “Don‟t think of yourself playing carelessly in a nice, peaceful street
like that boy over there,” I say to her while I point at a young boy who is loudly laughing and playing
with a small plastic ball with a few other kids, under the watchful eyes of his parents. “Oh I know,” Mary
answers, “children in Africa are not children as we know them here in Holland; they are adults before
they reach the age of ten! It is completely different! They have to work hard, while children here are not
even capable of making their own beds at that age. So probably, for children in Africa it is not so
strange to take up a weapon and fight in a war. For these children it would be just a shock to even see
a gun, they would probably not even know what to do with it!” she says referring to the same group of
children as I did moments before. I laugh bitterly. It is not what I meant, I was hinting at the extremes of
war, but what she expresses is a common idea about children in Africa.

Even in the political and scientific debates about child soldiering, childhood is a highly contested
concept. Opponents of the dominant (usually referred to as humanitarian) vision on child soldiering
plea for a more cultural approach and challenge existing notions of childhood and youth, because
they (supposedly) are based on Western cultures and therefore not applicable to many non-Western
societies30. In different cultural contexts, they argue, children can be competent beings and rational
actors who, in many cases, are capable of exercising influence on their own situations or who can
rationally decide to voluntarily take up arms. In this latter view, children and youths are strong and
resilient and participation can even have an empowering effect on them31. Different countries have
different customs and it is possible that in some social settings the above notions are correct. In the
case of Sierra Leone, however, this viewpoint is largely inaccurate. Childhood indeed has a different
meaning in Sierra Leone than in, for example, Holland. In Holland children are exempted from labor
and from bearing any (legal) responsibilities until they reach eighteen. Hard labor and heavy domestic
chores typically belong to the job responsibilities of adults. Children (older than fourteen) in Holland

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 58

walk paper rounds and sell in stores on Saturdays to have some extra-pocket money, not to support
their families. In Sierra Leone, many children carry out heavy domestic chores, some children work on
farms, and some are street sellers. I once met a young boy, approximately ten years old, who runs a
shop annex bar on his own and it is not uncommon to see young children do their own shopping on
the Congo Makit in Freetown. Sierra Leonean children are, in general, more independent than Dutch
children, but this does not mean that childhood in Sierra Leone does not exist at all. Officially,
childhood lasts until a person reaches the age of eighteen, then he moves on to the youth category,
which ends at thirty-five. During the war, the boundary between childhood and youth was set at

Childhood does exist in Sierra Leone. Not just on a piece of paper, but in daily life as well. Although
children in Sierra Leone are not regarded as vulnerable (or better: not as vulnerable as they are
considered to be in, for example, Holland), they are regarded as children, “incomplete” (not fully
grown) social beings who still need to be socialized into society. Children typically have a low position
in society and in their own families. As soon as they have enough physical strength, children are the
ones who have to do hard jobs like fetching water and firewood. The Sierra Leonean society is very
hierarchical and status conscious, children are on the bottom rung of the social ladder, they have to
obey without questioning. Obedience and respect for elders are important values children learn during
their early childhood. Many children work, but in between chores and going to school they have
enough time to be carefree and play, sing and dance. Children in Sierra Leone are capable of reasoning
and making decisions for themselves, but this takes place in a very limited framework. The differences
between children and adults‟ capacities and knowledge are observable in one glance. There are
differences between the different age groups of course; a fifteen year old youth (or child) has more
(common) knowledge and has a better understanding of complex societal structures than a six year
old child.

In Sierra Leone, participation in the war was extraordinary for all children and (most) youths involved.
On one hand because they did not (fully) understand their own actions and on the other hand because
war is simply not a normal state of existence. Even if children were used to doing hard work, there is a
stark difference between having to fetch water to take a bath in the safe compound of their houses
and having to fetch water with a gun pointed at their heads, just like killing a chicken for dinner is
something entirely different from killing a human being in combat. In Sierra Leone participation in
armed conflict was an abnormality for everyone involved, regardless their individual motivations. The
war was a time of extremes. Children‟s participation in armed forces occurred in this abnormal context,
not in a (national) cultural context. In Sierra Leone children were used, by all armed forces involved,
exactly because they were children. The use of cultural explanations to rationalize an extreme
phenomenon is in effect a way of „exoticizing‟ the phenomenon of child soldiering. It does not explain
their motives, their behavior and their capacities in any way.

59 | A Mind To Kill
Ordinary Boys

According to the child combatants themselves, the most important reason for their complicity with
their captors was obedience. Most of them were afraid to be harshly punished or killed by their
superiors if they did not carry out orders. For the RUF combatants this fear was largely well-grounded
since they witnessed this kind of punishment on many occasions. The Kamajors, however, did not use
this kind of rigid discipline, but still, Kamajor child combatants felt that they had no choice but to obey.
Although most child combatants carried a gun and could easily take out their oppressors, say, during
battle, they never attempted to free themselves. They obeyed mostly because they genuinely believed
in the authority of the leadership and the movement.

Another important reason for their behavior was conformity to peer pressure. They lived in a culture of
machismo, where keeping oneself aloof from committing violence could easily be interpreted as
cowardice; a failure to do one‟s share or even (misplaced) superiority. Being a coward put the
individual in a weak position vis-à-vis his colleagues. As Amadu explained: “Being bad was good
somehow”. Being dangerous meant protection against vengeance, indispensableness to their
colleagues and access to privileges or a chance to get promoted. No one wanted to be called a coward.
In the first place because they wanted to be seen as men, not as small boys, and in the second place
because cowards were unpopular in the movement; they stood the chance of being harassed and
molested by their colleagues and they risked isolation from the group, which was especially
frightening in a situation in which one‟s own safety in battle largely depended on his colleagues.

It is often argued that children are more violence-prone than adults and this is commonly pointed out
as the main reason for their behavior as combatants. Supposedly, child combatants typically develop
into „callous killers capable of the most terrible acts of cruelty and brutality‟32, „obedient killers, willing
to carry out the most dangerous and horrifying assignments‟33 and „easily “programmed” to feel little
fear or revulsion for the massacres which they carry out with greater enthusiasm and brutality than
adults‟34, because they are brainwashed, physically and/or sexually abused and forced to take drugs,
but mostly because they are perceived to be irrational 35. In these kinds of explanations, the behavior
of child combatants is something exceptional; it is something that „normal‟ human beings could never
do because of their rationality. But the behavior of child combatants can hardly be called unique; adult
fighters all over the world display the same kind of brutality and fierceness as child combatants. The
behavior and motivation of child combatants with the RUF and the Kamajors, for example, bears much
resemblance to that of the „ordinary men‟ who carried out the Nazi‟s Final Solution in Poland during
World War II36. The (adult) members of the reserve police battalion who were appointed to do the mass
execution of unarmed Jewish civilians seem equally to have been motivated by conformity, peer
pressure, deference to authority and ambition37. Just like the child combatants, the policemen were

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 60

not selected because of specific qualities, character traits or talents, they were a group of randomly
selected, ordinary men who could be turned into willing executioners38. It must therefore be
questioned if child combatants behaved the way they did because they were irrational or because they
supposedly had a limited understanding of the consequences of their acts. It is more tenable that their
behavior and motivation emanated from a common human repertoire, a repertoire that can turn any
ordinary person into a killer if the circumstances demand it. In Sierra Leone, it was the existence, the
context and the (terroristic) character of the civil war that provided the necessary circumstances to turn
children into killers.


Drugs are the leading thread running through the experiences of almost all ex-child combatants. Most
of them see drugs as the main cause for their brutality during the war; drugs gave them “the mind to
kill”, or as Edward said, “they gave us drugs to kill ourselves, and gave us the mind to kill instead.” In the
case of the RUF, child soldiers were forced to take drugs by their leaders, so many of them feel that it
was not their own fault that they developed “a violent character”. The Kamajors, however, were
officially forbidden to take drugs, they were only given a mixture of herbs and leaves, yet they
developed the same “mind to kill”;

“We don‟t use drugs, but we use natural herb, from the bush, which they [the Kamajor leaders] use which are
given to them by their ancestors, by the initiators. …It gives you more enthusiasm or power, to facing the
enemy bullets. Whenever you hear bullet sounds you will be ignited to go there, that is how the power works,
that is what the power gives you. It will ignite you to go wherever there is firing, where there is enemy firing.
It protects you from bullets. Then it gives you power, enthusiasm and knowledge as to how to fight against
your enemy.”
(Anonymous, ex-child combatant Kamajors, interview 12/14/2006)

The fact of the matter is that most child combatants, both Kamajors and RUF, took drugs willingly,
because it helped them to get the courage to fight and kill. Palmer, for example, explained that the
RUF initially forced him to take drugs, but that he was able to refuse the intake of drugs after some

“I proved to them [the RUF leadership] that I could be brave without taking them….drugs….. I was a strong
fighter, I could fight without the drugs, so they would not make me to take it. Most of my colleagues they
take these drugs so they can fight and kill people, but I wanted to keep my mind, I did not want to just kill
people, I did not want to go crazy, so I refused to take drugs. Even with the Kamajors, there was a lot of
drugs, but I never take them. Drugs can make a person to ”
(Palmer, ex-child combatant RUF/Kamajors, interview 03/02/2007)

Some child combatants got addicted to drugs, but most of them took drugs as a functional means to
get prepared for battle. Sometimes they completely lost their minds when they were high on drugs,

61 | A Mind To Kill
but usually it just helped them to concentrate on the fighting. The drugs made it possible for them to
ban out disturbing thoughts that could prevent them from being ruthless.

Although it is clear that the use of drugs played an important role, it did not turn child combatants into
remote controlled robots. Only some of them were continuously forced to take drugs, most child
soldiers chose to use it themselves. For most of them, drugs were not the cause for brutal behaviour
but a catalyst. It helped them to develop the right mindset to carry out their tasks, or to be brutal, but
most of all, it prevented them from thinking. Now, as civilians, they use it to achieve the exact opposite
frame of mind; abstinence from violence and concentration on their studies and it still helps them to
stop thinking.

Cooks & Clerks


Not all children who participated in the armed forces fought; many of them functioned as cooks,
administrative clerks, carriers, spies, porters or messengers. They were soldiers but not fighters. The
experiences of non-combatants are quite different from the experiences of the fighters. In general,
child soldiers did not have weapons, so during battles or confrontations with the enemy, they were
completely dependent on the combatants for their safety and survival. Both the RUF and the Kamajors
were largely comprised of illiterates, child soldiers who could carry out administrative tasks were
therefore regarded as indispensible and more important to the movement than most combatants.
Many children were used as spies because they would not as easily be suspected of belonging to one
of the armed forces as adults would. Spies probably held one of the most dangerous and at the same
time most desirable positions in the movements. Most of them were cherished and pampered
because, after all, they were sent to enemy camps. If they were unhappy, they could easily turn into
traitors. Their loyalty to the movement was therefore absolutely essential. Cooks, porters, messengers,
laborers and carriers were the lowest in rank and regard. Most of them complain that they were often
bullied and molested by their colleagues, while they had no means to defend themselves. They had to
take abuse and misdemeanors directed against them, which made most of them feel powerless and
inferior. In contrast to the fighters, most non-combatants identify the exposure to violence as the most
upsetting aspect of their participation. Many of them feel that, during their participation, they were
never completely in control of their lives.


Child combatants, the ones who did fight, are usually consistently treated as a homogenous group
with specific characteristics. The very term „child combatant‟ has virtually become synonymous for
„unscrupulous killer‟. In debates about child soldiering mutual differences are commonly overlooked; a
combatant is a combatant. In reality, however, no two child combatants are the same. There are vast

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 62

differences between them, not only between combatants of different armed forces but also between
combatants in the same armed force. Some combatants (again like the policemen in World War II)
turned into eager killers who developed initiatives, sought opportunities to kill and were proud of their
acts39. Some combatants only killed if they were given specific orders, and some combatants tried to
avoid the use of violence as much as they could. Cruelty is not an intrinsic feature of the child
combatant, but rather a developmental process for some of them. Not every child combatant is cruel,
and not every child combatant turns into a callous killer. Into what kind of child combatants children
ultimately develop is dependent on their personal situations, their personalities and their natural

Civilians Again

Because of the eleven-year prolongation of the war, it is unknown how many child soldiers
participated in the war, but it is certain that they largely exceed the 6.845 who went through DDR
programsxxiv. Many child soldiers stopped fighting during the war when there were no DDR programs
in place, others did not want to apply for a DDR program out of fear of prosecution or stigmatization. A
considerable part of the ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone reintegrated without the support of DDR
programs and although it is clear that the Sierra Leonean society still has to deal with some deviant,
homeless or criminal ex-child soldiers, the majority of them have reintegrated into mainstream society
and live pacified lives. Most (but not all) ex-child soldiers wanted to stop fighting and were dedicated
to the peace process. The (at first glance) successful reintegration of ex-child soldiers in postwar Sierra
Leone is due to a combination of the efforts of the ex-child soldiers themselves, civilians, and
(inter)national institutions like the Sierra Leonean government and the UN which worked hard to
sensitize the population to embrace ex-child soldiers back in their midst.

On the surface, reintegration of ex-child soldiers can indeed be called successful, the perception of the
ex-child soldiers themselves, however, is much different. Most ex-child soldiers feel that they are
marginalized in society. Their acceptance in society is, for them, more an abstraction than a reality; they
still have to hide their pasts as child soldiers out of fear for moral judgment and ill-treatment by (other)
civilians. Their problems concentrate on everyday problems, giving meaning to their lives and
rebuilding their personalities. Many of them (especially in Freetown) find themselves in a position of
social isolation. Most of them don‟t have a (sufficient) social security network to get financial or mental
support and many ex-child soldiers don‟t have anyone who can socialize them into societal norms and
values. The ex-child soldiers who made their way to the school system find their socialization in the
overfilled classrooms and workers find socialization in the workplace, but ex-child soldiers typically lack

xxiv European Commission: Support to humanitarian operations in the West Africa Coastal Region.

63 | A Mind To Kill
economic, cognitive, political and affinitive ties with other people, what makes their socialization into
mainstream society difficult.

In the case of Sierra Leone, it were not only the child soldiers who had to reintegrate, but society as a
whole had been ravaged by the civil war and needed to be redefined and rebuilt. In present day Sierra
Leone, the effects of the war are still noticeable. The situation in the country is rapidly improving, but
poverty is still prevalent. Many people still lack access to basic facilities like clean (drinking) water and
sanitary facilities, and illiteracy and unemployment rates are still very highxxv. In short, ex-child soldiers
are not the only ones who have to rebuild their lives and objectively speaking, their situation does not
differ that much from that of many of their peers whose social development, for whatever reasons, got
halted during the war. Most ex-RUF child soldiers accept this and relate their own situation to that of
the broader society, but the Kamajors feel that they need to get benefits for their participation in the
war. They gave up years of their lives. While their peers progressed, the Kamajors were in ambushes to
give them free passage to go to school. They want to be recognized and rewarded but society now
sees them (in their own perception) as „deviant bush monkeys‟.

One of the hardest challenges ex-child soldiers are confronted with is coming to terms with their own
pasts. The youths (approximately fifteen and older) who participated in the war, mostly had a good
understanding of the war and their participation in it. The young children however, just fought
because they were told to fight and they were rewarded for violent behavior. They lived in an upside
down world; what is considered to be bad behavior in mainstream society was regarded as good
behavior in the armed forces40. Especially those ex-child soldiers who ultimately came to believe in the
ideology of their movement feel cheated and misused. The Kamajors genuinely thought that they
were doing a “good thing”, and they were once admired and encouraged by civilians to fight for the
good cause, now these same civilians tell them that they did a “bad thing”, it is hard to take in. For
many of them it is difficult to determine what is true and what is not.

Some ex-child soldiers (especially the non-combatants) regularly have bad memories about violence
and killings, some still heavily rely on drugs to stop thinking about it, but most of them have left their
war memories behind. None of the ex-child soldiers I worked with feel that they will be helped by
counseling. Their psyche is not what is bothering them most. They did what they did because it was
war, the only one they have to answer to is God. What they need most is stability and reliabilities, but
most of them still live a life of insecurity; they never even know if they will have a meal for the next day.
Most of them were lied to many times and they find it difficult to put their trust in anyone. How can
they be sure that they get the truth this time? They want a fair chance to rebuild their lives, without
having to depend on others and they want to be in control over their own lives. If they have the means
to provide for themselves, they can (re)build their own social networks.

xxv UNDP 2006 Human Development Report (See

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 64

According to the dominant view on child soldiering (commonly called the humanitarian view), child
soldiers have a high tendency of developing into unscrupulous killers. Supposedly, they are
desensitized to human suffering and they supposedly have a lack of respect for human life. Child
soldiers, therefore, run the risk of internalizing violent behavior and to end up in a cycle of violence,
even after their demobilization. In reports, media representations and anti-child soldiering campaigns,
child soldiers are typically portrayed as vulnerable victims, forced into armed factions through
abduction or external circumstances beyond their control. The focus on their innocence on one hand
and their violent acts on the other, leads to the representation of child soldiers as having a single, fixed
identity: that of the innocent victim compelled to kill. Child soldiers allegedly have „…no socialization
of any higher ethic other than that of violent exploitation to satisfy the dictates of short-term
gratification of instinctual drives‟41. The main rationale behind this belief is that participation of
children in armed conflict disrupts their psychological and moral development. „The practice plunges
them into a system where killing is sanctioned, inculcating a culture of impunity hard to reverse‟42.
Supposedly, child soldiers are unavoidably psychologically traumatized by their experiences43. Because
of developmental impairment and the psychological effects child soldiers suffer, they risk involvement
in continuing cycles of violence44; ‟[v]iolence becomes a way of life – a “drug” to cure feelings of grief
and hopelessness‟45. In the humanitarian vision the child soldier is nothing but his gun and violence.
Supposedly, their identity formation takes place in a vacuum of fighting, terror, anarchy, abuse and
fear. The violent acts they commit are generalized onto their whole persona.

Opponents of the humanitarian vision argue that the very concept of trauma refers not to a universal
condition but is, instead, a Western invention. These opponents plea for a more cultural approach to
the phenomenon of child soldiering46: They challenge existing notions of childhood, youth,
vulnerability and trauma. By explaining the differences in cultural notions of childhood and trauma,
they show that participation of young people in armed conflict may not be as harmful as
humanitarians take it to be. In different cultural contexts, children can be competent beings and
rational actors, who in many cases are capable of exercising influence on their own situations or who
can rationally decide to voluntarily take up arms. In this latter view, children and youths are strong and
resilient and psychological trauma is practically non-existent. Although there is some recognition that
participation in armed conflict might be harmful, these studies focus on the empowering effects of

The latter vision (that I like to call the cultural-relativistic vision) in contrast to the humanitarian view, is
not based on moral condemnation of child soldiering and it approaches the child soldier as a human
being rather than a killing machine. In addition, this vision shows that the world of child soldiers is not
all black and white, as it tries to explain the different shades of gray within the phenomenon. But this

65 | A Mind To Kill
vision has its own shortcomings. First of all, the focus lies on youths who participated in wars
voluntarily. Secondly, this vision does not adequately take into consideration the fact that child
soldiers sometimes in fact were regarded or regarded themselves as children, not as adults and that
they may have had a limited understanding of the war, or even their own actions.

In principal, although both schools of thought claim to be addressing the same issues, they address
two different aspects, but both schools tend to give all-encompassing explanations. While
humanitarian research mostly makes use of the experiences of psychologically damaged, abducted,
young children to make their case, cultural relativists concentrate mostly on voluntary youths. It is not
hard to imagine that there must be vast differences between the two „groups‟. Much of the findings of
both types of research, however, come from the field, and therefore there must at least be some
salience to both types of explanations. In the case of Sierra Leone, both types of child soldiers existed.
Young children were forced into the armed forces, while many youths joined voluntarily. Some ex-
child soldiers are heavily traumatized from their experiences, some ended up in a cycle of violence and
yet some were able to rebuild their lives as civilians in a pacified and (to them) satisfactory way. There
are in fact as many different child soldiers as there are different human beings. It is therefore necessary
to find out what the differences and similarities between the different types of child soldiers are,
instead of taking the category of the child soldier for granted.

My case study of Sierra Leone shows that even within the same country, the same cultural setting, the
same war and even within the same armed force, the concept of the child soldier is highly problematic.
There is a big difference between those who fought and those who did supportive tasks. It is my
assertion that age does have a big influence on the experiences of young participants in armed
conflict, if only because their superiors treat them differently. It were actually the young children who
were sent out first to combat the enemy, it were the young children who were en masse abducted or
forced into the fighting forces and It were the young children who were injected with drugs to invest
in them „the mind to kill‟.

Their reasons for participation is an important aspect of the experiences of ex-child soldiers, but it does
not determine their development into soldiers or combatants, or their growth as human beings. The
roles they played, the extent of their autonomy, how they grew into their tasks, and the character and
organizational structure of the armed force turn out to be of as much, if not more, influence. Their
experiences are strongly connected to the conditions within the armed forces and units in which they
participated and the way these armed forces were, and still are, appreciated in the wider society.
Fighting for „the good guys‟, for example, will give a different meaning to the individual‟s own
interpretation of his or her behavior. No matter if people think that the reasons for the war were
genuine, the RUF is generally seen as the reason for the destruction of the country. The Kamajors on
the other hand, are largely considered as the liberators of the people. Therefore, there is a big

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 66

difference between having been a combatant with the RUF and having been a Kamajor. Not only in
the eyes of the people around them, but also in their own reflections on themselves as ex-child

Next to age, reasons for participation, the objective of the armed force and militaristic functions, the
living conditions, autonomy , the (hierarchical) structure of the armed force, the tactics applied and the
context of war play an important role in the development of young people into combatants or soldiers.
Child soldiers are more than the violent acts they committed. The capability of committing extreme
acts of violence is part of the human behavioral repertoire, and it is evidently part of the behavioral
repertoire of children and young people. It has nothing to do with cultural conditions or a perceived
pre-rational state of mind belonging to the phase of childhood. Violent acts are committed in a certain
context and they are coupled with circumstance. If the circumstances change, the participant‟s
willingness to commit violent acts will change. Even „General Shed Blood‟, who was once virtually the
embodiment of „evil‟, decided one day that he was tired of fighting and could not be enticed to fight
again. He is now a proud father who tries to take care of his own son and although he faces many
hardships, he is determined to stay far away from fighting or criminality.

The opinion of other people is one of the major determinants of how child soldiers reflect on their own
participation, and eventually give meaning to it. After the conclusion of the war, Sierra Leoneans in
general and ex-child soldiers in particular came up with their own explanations for the war, and in their
reconstructions of the past, they developed viewpoints that enabled them to come to terms with the
past and that will enable them to build their futures. These reconstructions don‟t take place in the
seclusion of one‟s head, but are given meaning in the wider society, just like past experiences are
constantly given new meanings. The explanations ex-child soldiers give for their own motivation to
fight and their behavior during their participation, often changes concordantly with the opinions and
viewpoints of others, which gives an important impetus to their experiences and the way they
interpret their pasts. Because ex-child soldiers readjust their own understandings about their
participation in relationships with others, it is important to realize that every depiction of child soldiers
(if it is in their own family, village, town, city, society or even in the rest of the world) plays a role in their
experiences. Considering someone to be a vulnerable victim, or the opposite, a senseless killing
machine, might well become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Most of the ex-combatants assert that the „trauma‟ came after the war – the trauma they refer to is
social, economic, cognitive and political rather than psychological. Most ex-combatants have stated
that they lived more comfortable lives in their armed forces than they do now in postwar society.
Almost all of the combatants used violence for functional reasons, either to stay alive, out of
obedience, conformity to the group, or to get a promotion in order to have access to privileges. Only
some of them went completely overboard and killed out of some sort of addictive feeling or a

67 | A Mind To Kill
permanent delirious state. In this respect they do not differ much from other „killers‟ like, for example,
the German (adult) reservists who carried out mass executions on Jewish civilians in the Second World

Although war experiences may not be the most pressing issue in their postwar lives, it does influence
their self-image and the makeup of their postwar lives. Some (mostly ex-RUF members) regret their
involvement, others (mostly members of the Kamajors) are proud of their participation in the war, but
without exception they all regret the war in itself. They feel that the war was “just a waste of time” and
a time of “pure destruction and evil”; not so much because they feel damaged by their own use of
violence, but because it did not provide them any lasting benefits.

One of the central questions in this study is how ex-child soldiers develop into their roles as civilians in
the postwar society. I found that ex-child soldiers do not differ much from other members of their
respective generations. In Sierra Leone, many young people are involved in a daily struggle of survival.
This is especially true for those who cannot depend on support from family or other social groups, a
situation that is prevalent for many ex-child soldiers. Some ex-combatants have stated that “idleness of
the mind makes them to think or do bad things”, while non-combatants declared to have disturbing
memories of the violence they witnessed when their “brain goes idle”. Typically they refer to this as
frustrations that come out of the hardships they undergo in everyday life in the postwar society. They
feel that when they have a fair chance to rebuild their lives, they will not be troubled by their memories

The way in which ex-child soldiers develop into their positions as civilians in a postwar situation is not
only dependent on their wartime experiences it is also, and in fact even more, dependent on the
preconditions in the postwar society. Most ex-child soldiers want to become respected members of
society, but it is debatable if this stems from their participation in the civil war. It could well be that this
need “to be somebody” is nested in societal ideals. It is however clear that those who had respectable
positions in the armed forces, are more motivated to achieve respectability and material wealth in the
postwar society. Some of them are highly motivated to undergo great hardships to reach their goals,
while others are easily discouraged by the lack of prospects in society and seek salvation in criminal
life. The will to succeed in life and to remain pacified is clearly present in almost all ex-child soldiers, but
without exception they admitted that they could still “be dangerous if they had no other option“. This
does not mean that they are ticking time bombs. Their ability to “still be dangerous” is not the result of
a psychological trauma or an internalized wickedness that can spark off at any time. The capability of
committing extreme acts of violence has become part of their human repertoire; it is something they
can use to achieve their goals. Most of them are perfectly capable of making a distinction between
wartime and peacetime. Although their participation in armed conflict determines how they develop
into combatants or soldiers, it does not determine how they develop into human beings. They

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 68

developed “the mind to kill” under extreme circumstances. In fact, most of them had to use drugs to
achieve that state of mind. Now that the war is over they don‟t, to put it in „CO. Cut Neck‟s‟ words,
“have the mind anymore”.

If ex-combatants do not manage to embed themselves into postwar society and reintegrate in social
economic, cognitive and political sense, some of them might be easily enticed to commit violent acts
or to take up arms again. For others, the lesson that violence was just destruction and ultimately left
them empty handed, is still fresh in their memories. They understand the negative effects of war on
their lives better than anyone and they stay as far from violence as possible.

69 | A Mind To Kill
Appendix I

RUF Anthem

RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

RUF is fighting to save our people
RUF is fighting to save our country
RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

Chorus: Go and tell the President, Sierra Leone is my home

Go and tell my parents, they may see me no more
When fighting in the battlefield I’m fighting forever
Every Sierra Leonean is fighting for his land

Where are our diamonds, Mr. President?

Where is our gold, NPRC?
RUF is hungry to know where they are
RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

Chorus: Go and tell the President, Sierra Leone is my home

Go and tell my parents, they may see me no more
When fighting in the battlefield I’m fighting forever
Every Sierra Leonean is fighting for his land

Our people are suffering without means of survival

All our minerals have gone to foreign lands
RUF is hungry to know where they are
RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

Chorus: Go and tell the President, Sierra Leone is my home

Go and tell my parents, they may see me no more
When fighting in the battlefield I’m fighting forever
Every Sierra Leonean is fighting for his land

Sierra Leone is ready to utilise her own

All our minerals will be accounted for
The people will enjoy in their land
RUF is the saviour we need right now

Chorus: Go and tell the President, Sierra Leone is my home

Go and tell my parents, they may see me no more
When fighting in the battlefield I’m fighting forever
Every Sierra Leonean is fighting for his land

RUF is fighting to save Sierra Leone

RUF is fighting to save our people
RUF is fighting to save our country

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 70

Appendix II
RUF Apology to the Nation
June 18, 1997

Fellow Countrymen,

For the past six years or so, we have been living in an environment of hatred and divisiveness. We
looked at our brothers and killed them in cold blood, we removed our sisters from their hiding places
to undo their feminity, we slaughtered our mothers and butchered our fathers. It was really a
gruesome experience which has left a terrible landmark in our history. But the atrocities that occured
must not be taken in the context of a personal vendetta. They were the result of the rottenness of a
system which could not be uprooted except by brutal means. We did not take to the bush because we
wanted to be barbarians, not because we wanted to be inhuman, but because we wanted to state our
humanhood to a society so deep that had the RUF not emerged, we wonder if we would not have still
been under the yoke of that wretched regime.

In the process of cleaning the system, however, we have wronged the great majority of our
countrymen. We have sinned both in the sight of our Sierra Leonean brothers and sisters, for all the
terror and the mayhem we unleashed on you in our bid to make Sierra Leone a country that all Sierra
Leoneans would be proud of.

Today, we have rejoined you. We have come back as prodigal sons, brothers and sisters, to meet our
families in our different homes, so that we all can sit in our houses in peace and tell tales to our young
ones of how Sierra Leone was once cleansed of the mess that unpatriotic politicians brought to her in
yonder years. Let the farmers take their tools and go to their farms in peace, let the young women go
to the stream and swim in peace, let them sing to their loved ones under the moonshine in peace, let
Sierra Leoneans walk in peace, let us talk in peace, let us travel in peace, and just let us live in peace. We
have finally discovered the right atmosphere for a peaceful co-existence.

We must accomodate each other if we want to live in peace, and that is the miracle that has occurred
in Sierra Leone throught the coming of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). We have
accepted to join forces with this government because it is the first to demonstrate a genuine feeling of
brotherhood for us - it is the government that has seen us as Sierra Leoneans who came together to
stand for a cause for the general good. We want to assure everybody that we are sincerely and
genuinely committed to the maintenance and sustenance of this miraculously achieved long-awaited
peace. We have not come to terrorize you, our brothers and sisters, we have come to embrace you in
love and harmony.
Our members are not involved in the recent spate of armed attacks on residents of Freetown. No RUF
member has so far been caught looting or behaving in any indisciplinary manner. Perhaps what has
delayed the wholesome practicality of this long-cherished peace is this threat of a Nigerian invasion.
But the moment that chapter is closed, we are prepared to disarm and melt into the civilian populace
and the regular army, because we are fully convinced that the foundation for lasting peace and true
democracy has been laid.

We have all along been most willing to end this crisis peacefully, but the past governments proved
insincere and unfaithful to their words. The NPRC did not come with the desired reformation, and the
SLPP made mockery of the Abidjan Peace Accord. Instead of integrating us into the society as
promised, the SLPP only tried to bring divisiveness in our camp by selling our leader Corporal Foday
Saybana Sankoh to the Nigerians and staging a coup against him. This was a blatant disregard of the
articles of the Peace Accord. Even when some of our members surrendered, they were still ostricized
and treated as the dregs of society. And further still, even though we were abiding by the dictates of
the cease-fire agreement, Hinga Norman directed the Kamajors to attack our bases. This clearly

71 | A Mind To Kill
showed that the SLPP was not ready for PEACE, and so we prepared for the worst. But we must give
bountiful thanks to the Almighty for the refreshing fact that instead of the worst, it is the best that has
come through the concrete unbelievable peace that has been attained through the AFRC.

We have not therefore denounced attempts at bringing back Tejan Kabbah because we hate him, but
it is because he is not willing to accept us as his fellow Sierra Leoneans. Ex-President Kabbah
disappointed us gravely, and we can never trust him again. We were prepared for peace, but the SLPP
was not. We are therefore appealing to the International Community, and all those that love Sierra
Leone, to critically examine the Sierra Leonean problem before any unwarranted action is taken. For six
years, we have lived in blood-bath, let us now have fresh baths in our streams, swimming pools and

We assure the International Community and all Sierra Leoneans of the RUF's total and unflinching
commitment to lasting peace. All that we need now is for the United Nations to take the lead in
assisting the AFRC in demobilising and re-integrating our combatants into the society for the ultimate
achievement of true democracy through free and fair elections that will be conducted in the whole
country in peace. At least we can today sleep in peace in the thought that Sierra Leone has finally
achieved its nationhood by being bold enough to tell the whole world that we are capable of solving
our own problems. The People's Army has come to stay.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 72

Appendix III

RUF/AFRC Apology to the Nation

October 3, 1999



We herald the dawn of a new era. The war has ended. The era of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation
has come.

We stand before you today to ask for forgiveness and a spirit of reconciliation across the country.

We offer hands of kindred understanding and love to all those who we have wronged. You, who we
have wronged, you have every human right to feel bitter and unforgiving but we plead with you for

Those who have died; those who are grieving for the loss of their loved ones; those who have been
disabled; those whose property have been destroyed; those traumatized - the children, the youth, the
women and the old aged - we ask for their forgiveness.
We ask for forgiveness from the displaced and refugees.
We also ask for forgiveness and a spirit of reconciliation from the relatives and governments of all
those foreign troops who lost their lives and suffered casualties in their tour of duty in Sierra Leone.

We ask for forgiveness and a spirit of reconciliation from members of the international community
whose good will has been frustrated by this war. We ask of the same from non-governmental
organisations, journalists and civil society groups both local and foreign.
We will like to repeat that the war has ended. To this effect, all prisoners of war are to be released. All
roads are opened. To complement this, we call on the government to release all political prisoners and
prisoners of war.

We are no longer in a state of war. We are in a state of peace and our presence here today is a
testimony to our commitment to the full implementation of the Lome Peace Accord.
We have come to stay and to help consolidate the peace. We want all fears to be removed from our
society starting from today. We are now in an era of peace. We are in an era of absolute respect for
human rights.

All fears must be removed from our society. The state of emergency must be lifted immediately as we
are no longer in a state of war. We have a responsibility now to remove all signals of mistrust, fear and
war. The curfew must be lifted. All so-called collaborators are freed of their charges and we welcome
them back into our society. Let know one be intimidated or live in fear in the new Sierra Leone we are
about to create.

We are happy to announce to the nation today that the reason that brought together the
Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council still remains. We came
together to end the war. We shall remain together to consolidate the peace. Nothing will divide us as
our union or alliance is with the blessing of the Almighty Allah/God and our glorious ancestors. Our
alliance is for peace! Our alliance is for peace! Our alliance is for peace.
With peace comes politics. The RUF/AFRC alliance will enter into politics. By this, therefore, the
RUF/AFRC alliance is to be transformed from a military alliance to a political alliance in accordance with
the Lomé Peace Accord.

73 | A Mind To Kill
To further demonstrate our abiding commitment to peace, we the leadership and high command of
the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council are happy to announce
today the transformation of the RUF/AFRC alliance into a political movement. We usher in a vibrant
political movement for peace. The RUF/AFRC alliance is now the ALLIANCE FOR PEACE (AFP)!

Very soon we will announce the symbol and flag of the Alliance for Peace (AFP). Our chosen symbol
will be that of peace, goodwill and respect for human rights. Our chosen flag will reflect the strength
and pride of our Pan-African heritage. We shall strive for the empowerment of our people so that the
root causes of the civil war shall be removed from our society forever. Our rallying call shall be "Power
to the People". Our Alliance is for Peace and we are here to sustain the peace and contribute to the
creation of a new Sierra Leone of equal opportunity, freedom and justice for all.

We have come home to stay! We have come home to build! We have come home to remove fear,
intimidation and mistrust from our society.
We embrace you, our people, in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Our dear nation has suffered enough but at long last peace is now at hand. All the fighting forces of
this country will be mobilised to rebuild this country. We will transform ourselves into builders of
homes, schools, hospitals, markets, roads, bridges, airfields and dams to provide electricity. We shall
make farms, fish ponds and raise livestock. We will be the motivating force behind the regeneration of
our mining industry. We will transform the motivation on the battlefield to the fields of construction
and development. This is the challenge we have put before us. Our movement for peace is also a
movement for reconstruction and development.
Fellow Sierra Leoneans, join us in expressing our profound gratitude to all those who have patiently
assisted us on this our footpath to peace and democracy. We thank the Heads of State of the ECOWAS
Authority, their governments and people for helping us to achieve peace at last. We thank the United
Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Union and the Commonwealth for listening to
the cries of Sierra Leoneans for peace and helping the nation to focus on the benefits of peace. We
thank the NGO community, journalists and the civil society groups who constantly reminded the
warring factions of their human rights obligations. To them and the international community who
supported them we reaffirm our commitment to the observance of human rights. Let their collective
voice continue to ring in our ears and remind us of our human rights obligations to the rest of society.

We hold our Alliance for Peace sacred and therefore our commitment to peace and our desire to see to
the implementation of the Lomé Peace Accord in full.
We are at home and there is no turning back. We have come to help build a new Sierra Leone. May the
Almighty Allah/God and our glorious ancestors continue to guide and bless us all.

Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone | 74

1 Edward Zwick in „Commentary with Director Edward Zwick‟, Blood Diamond, DVD 2007, Warner Bros.
Entertainment Inc.
2 “War is no child‟s play” is a UNICEF campaign slogan.
3 Albright 1996
4 See for example Peter Singer: 2005. I take Peter Singer‟s work to represent the dominant (humanitarian) view
on child soldiering because his work is one of the, if not the, most influential works in the field. His (literature)
studies are instrumental in policies and programs of NGO‟s and the UN. The UN, for example, has developed
a lesson program for students worldwide. Through the program, „students will identify the physical and
emotional challenges that child soldiers face. Students will study the efforts by the international community
to eliminate children from armed conflict and strategies they are using to integrate children back into their
communities. The UN program teaches that „[c]hildren are used as soldiers because they are easily
manipulated and are too young to understand their actions‟ and that „[c]hildren are the victims of conflict
after witnessing or participating in murder and rape, becoming disabled, homeless or psychologically
traumatized.‟ These views are based on Singer‟s book Children at War (2005). Peter Singer is the National
Security Fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Policy Towards the
Islamic World. The aim of Singer‟s book is “to show how the U.S. government and the international
community must face the reality of modern warfare, how those who benefit from the recruitment of children
as soldiers must be held accountable, how Western militias must be prepared to face children in battle, and
how rehabilitation programs can undo this horrific phenomenon and turn child soldiers back into children”
(quotation from Pantheon Books).
5 See for example Singer 2005: 194-195; Hill & Langholz 2003; ILO 2004: 39
6 Singer 2005: 109
7 Macksoud quoted in Gray 2003: 36
8 Ibid.
9 The Civil Defence Forces (CDF) is the collective noun for the different civil defence initiatives that had arisen
throughout the country and were united in a central coordination system in 1996, under the coordination of
then Deputy Minister of Defence and Kamajor leader, Samuel Hinga Norman. These civil defence initiatives
had come into being from 1992 onwards, in reaction to the government‟s army‟s failure to adequately
protect civilians from RUF violence and the emerging threat of sobels (soldier by day, rebel by night); groups
of discontented soldiers from the national army (RSLAF) who started collaborating with the RUF for their
personal gain (McIntyre et al. 2002; Silberfein 2004; Keen 2002; Keen 2005; Gberie 2005). In 1992, the army
was rapidly expanded from 3,000 soldiers in 1992 to 20,000 soldiers in 1994. President Joseph Momoh from
the APC government expanded the national army (then referred to as SLA) to a total of 6,000 soldiers, to
increase its muscle to contest the RUF. The Momoh government had inherited a badly organized and poorly
equipped army from former President Siaka Stevens (APC government), who had downsized the army (out of
fear for an army coup and a loss of power) in favour of his personal army of loyalists, formed around (mostly)
criminal and disadvantaged youths from the Freetown slums. To be able to combat the RUF, Joseph Momoh
had to expand the national army, but simultaneous with the growth of the army, discontent among military
personnel increased (Gberie 2005: 32-35, 64-69).

On April 29th, junior officers from the SLA Tiger Unit led by Valentine Strasser (a 25 year old army captain),
abandoned their positions on the eastern front and moved to Freetown to complain about poor conditions
and a hold off of their salary payments for three months. By then, the morale of the SLA troops had drastically
reduced. The group of officers was able to stage a coup by taking over the Statehouse. The mutinying
soldiers formed a junta, which they called the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). President Momoh
fled to Guinea and Valentine Strasser was appointed the new head of state. The new NPRC government
suspended the constitution and abolished the planned elections – the first free elections since the ruling APC
had established a one-party state in 1973 – and it vowed to end the war rapidly. The NPRC expanded the
national army (now referred to as the RSLAF) rapidly, drawing heavily from disadvantaged groups in society.
Unemployed young people from war affected areas were mobilized to form a „youth volunteer force‟. Many
orphaned children and former RUF abductees were asked to join the army. The new recruits received one or
two weeks training before they were sent out to the battlefront to confront the RUF (Gberie 2005: 76; Peters
2004: 10).

But like the Momoh government, Strasser was not capable of managing his army adequately. Many soldiers
started scheming with the RUF in terrorizing citizens, and some even went over to the RUF or collaborated
with them (McIntyre et al. 2002; Silberfein 2004; Keen 2002; Keen 2005; Gberie 2005). In the backdrop of this
chaos, even groups of civilians started to imitate rebel tactics to loot. In 1993 the national army was able to

75 | A Mind To Kill
push back the RUF, but instead of strengthening its position, it reversed it. „Sierra Leoneans began to talk of
the war as a “sell-game”, a reference to football matches where bribery fixes the result in advance‟ (Keen
2005: 119). „Conceding government-held towns and government arms to the rebels provided a further
pretext for looting. A common pattern was for the government forces to leave arms and ammunition in a
particular town for rebel groups…. [T]he rebels would then pick up the arms, extract loot from the
townspeople… and then [they] themselves [would] retreat, perhaps also capturing some young people; at
this point the government forces would reoccupy the town and engage in their own looting‟ (ibid.: 121).

In response to the threat of both rebels and sobels, civilians started to form civil defence groups. At the end
of 1992 two important groups had emerged: the Tamaboros in the north and the Kamajoisia in the east. Their
main role was to guard checkpoints (Smith et al. 2004: 52), but they were also used by the NPRC as trackers
and guides in the bush because of their superior knowledge of the terrain (Ferme & Hoffman 2003: 75; Gberie
2004: 151). Because they proved to be effective, the NPRC formally announced that vigilante groups were to
be formed in every locality. Next to the Tamaboros and the Kamajoisia, other regional groupings arose; the
Gbethis and Kapras in Temne areas in the North, and the Donsos in the Kono District. The vigilante groups
came to be referred to as the Civil Defence Units (CDU), but they were not officially absorbed into the
national army. The CDU‟s were mainly comprised of experienced hunters and well-known community
people, appointed by traditional authorities. A few hundred vigilantes received formal military training and
were deployed as Border Guard‟s (BG‟s), with a monthly allowance. The Tamaboros fell under the patronage
of Lieutenant Komba Kambo, a senior NPRC officer, who believed in their supernatural powers. The other civil
defense groups remained to be vigilantes (Smith et al. 2004: 52, TRC 2003; Gberie 2004: 151; Gberie 2005; 82).
The reason why the NPRC was unable to claim victory over the RUF remains to be unclear. According to
some, it was not in the NPRC leadership‟s personal interest to end the war at that point in time (Richards
2004: 117), others claim that the problem was caused by soldiers of the national army fearing demobilization
and punishment (Gberie 2004: 146).

Soldiers assaulting civilians and running over to the RUF became an emergent problem, leading to a
widespread mistrust of the national army. At the same time, separate small-scale civil defence groups in the
southern part of the country started to unify into a movement. Following a RUF invasion in Bonthe district in
the south, an herbalist (Allieu Kondewa) supposedly got secret knowledge on how to compose a concoction
to make fighters, now called Kamajors, invulnerable to bullets. In order to obtain the magic protection,
Kamajors had to undergo initiation rituals, which changed the character of the movement into a society
holding secret warrior knowledge. The Kamajor society proved to be successful in driving the RUF from their
territories. Membership through initiation quickly spread like an oil stain over the south and east. Their
growing popularity, however, lead to an increasing discontent among army soldiers, giving yet its own
dynamics to the war. In 1996, national elections were held and won by the SLPP. Because the new SLPP
government could not get full control over its army, they came to highly depend on the civil defence units to
pressure the RUF into signing a peace accord (Smith et al. 2004: 524; Keen 2005: 158).

Under the SLPP government the different civil defence groups were united (but not employed by the
government) under one central system, which lead to a rapid expansion of the ranks of the Kamajors. The
once exclusive and highly controlled Kamajor society now started absorbing all kinds of young fighters,
including former RUF fighters. Nomination through chiefs and elders of the chiefdoms was no longer a
prerequisite for membership, as it had been before their expansion in 1996 (Keen 2005: 276; My interviews
with RUF/CDF fighters in December 2006-March 2007). The territory the Kamajors had control over
increased. The Kamajors kept confronting the RUF, giving rise to a „collaborator hunt‟ among the civilian
population. In different areas, civilians were threatened and molested by members of the CDF on suspicion
of collaborating with the RUF. Accordingly, tensions between the CDF and the SLA grew, leading to armed
clashes between them all over the country (Smith et al. 2004: 30-31).

On 25 May 1997, a group of soldiers blasted open Pademba Road Prison in Freetown with grenades,
releasing more than 600 convicts, among them Johnny Paul Koroma, a former army major awaiting trial for a
planned coup. This group of disbanded soldiers and freed prisoners took over the Statehouse, forcing the
Kabbah government into exile in Guinea. The constitution was abolished and military rule established.
Koroma became the leader of a new junta, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) (Keen 2005: 208-209;
Gberie 2005: 94-96; Smith et al. 2004: 31-34). The AFRC enjoyed support from army soldiers who, according
to Koroma, were disgruntled at the Kabbah government because of low salaries and its support for the CDF
at their expense. Koroma quickly invited RUF leader Foday Sankoh to join the new government. Sankoh
accepted, from exile in Nigeria and became Deputy Chairman of the AFRC. Their main target was the CDF
(HRW 1999; Keen 2005: 208-209; Smith et al. 2004: 31-34) which had teamed up with SLA loyalists and
ECOMOG (A West African multilateral armed force of separate armies working together, established by
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States) troops to combat the People‟s Army – as the
combined forces of the RUF/AFRC alliance were named – in order to restore the democratically-elected
Kabbah government (Ibid.)

All armed forces involved in the conflict, but especially the RUF and the AFRC army, used terror against
civilians as a tactic. Occupied areas were sealed off civilians inhabiting these areas were hunted, beaten,
tortured or killed on suspicion of collaboration, forcing many to join whichever side would give them most
protection. The RUF‟s „food-finding missions‟ – hit-and-run attacks on towns and villages to steal food and
property that had been prevalent since 1992 – escalated into violent looting sprees by junta forces which
gave them names like „Operation from your hand to my hand, from your pocket to my pocket‟ and
„Operation Pay Yourself‟ (Smith et al. 2004: 34). With the government in exile, army personnel and
opportunist civilians collaborating with the RUF and increasing levels of violence towards civilians, the
population put all their faith in the Civil Defence Forces, which proved to be successful in combating the RUF.
Many Sierra Leoneans believe that if it had not been for the Kamajors (the biggest group within the CDF), the
country would still be wrapped up in civil war.
10 See for example ‘The Lion Campaign from the East’
11 See footnote 13.
12 Forgiveness in this sense refers to informal forgiveness among civilians. Those CDF members who
accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and
Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996, are being tried before
the Special Court for Sierra Leone. They are charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other
serious violations of international humanitarian law. Specifically, the charges include murder, rape,
extermination, acts of terror, enslavement, looting and burning, sexual slavery, conscription of children into
an armed force, and attacks on United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, among others.
There is no broad support for the indictment of the former CDF members among civilians. The CDF is still
regarded as liberation movement and its former coordinator, the late Sam Hinga Norman, was (in general)
considered a national hero. How widespread the resentment against the indictment of CDF members in
general and Sam Hinga Norman in particular is, became clear when he died from heart failure in February
2007, during my stay in Sierra Leone. All national newspaper responded with indignation. The country was in
shock. Not long after Hinga Norman‟s death, rumors spread about the Special Court and/or the Sierra
Leonean government‟s alleged involvement in his death. Although there were some Sierra Leoneans who
felt deprived of their right to see justice done, they were in the minority. Most Sierra Leoneans agreed that
Sam Hinga Norman died unnecessarily and in a shameful way.
13 The eleven years civil war in Sierra Leone can be characterized as a time of extremes. Five years after the
ending of the war, civilians, judiciaries, politicians and scholars alike still find it hard to come up with a
satisfactory explanation for what went on in the country between 1991 and 2002. The most popular
explanation among scholars is „greed‟; the war is understood to be instigated by Charles Taylor of Liberia. He
supposedly financed and capacitated the RUF to launch a civil war in Sierra Leone to get his hands on the
country‟s minerals to finance his own war in Liberia. In these speculations, the RUF is often considered a mere
extension to Charles Taylor‟s NPFL, without any other motivation than personal greed of its leaders. Even if
these allegations prove to be correct, this type of explanation for the civil war is a far cry from popular
understandings in the Sierra Leonean society. Many Sierra Leoneans believe the RUF‟s proclaimed motives to
start the war to have been genuine. The RUF always claimed to be fighting to oust the existing political
regime from power, to install democracy and establish a multiparty state. The RUF did have a political
ideology – expressed for example in their pamphlet „Footpaths to Democracy‟ (RUF/SL 1995) – and many
Sierra Leoneans believe that the RUF‟s proclaimed objectives were necessary. From 1973 until the NPRC coup
in 1992, Sierra Leone was under the autocratic rule of the APC government. The APC came to power in 1967,
after winning the elections from the ruling SLPP that had governed the country ever since its independence
from the British in 1961. A National Coalition Government with both APC and SLPP was established in 1968
after an army coup and one year of military rule by the National Reformation Council (NRC). As soon as Siaka
Stevens was sure that the army was no longer a threat to his power, he dismantled the coalition and reduced
SLPP membership in parliament. During the 1973 elections, the APC used action groups (groups of
disadvantaged youths, mainly from the urban dwellings) to eliminate all political opposition and intimidate
voters through violence (See for example Rosen 2005: 77). The only other political contender, the SLPP,
withdrew from the elections and Stevens established a one-party state right after the elections.
Until 1973, the Sierra Leonean state had known a system of decentralized rule and local administration by
Paramount Chiefs. To consolidate his power, Siaka Stevens restructured the state and centralized power in
Freetown. Local authority positions were maintained, but they were devoid of any real power. Local power
holders kept their authority over local populations (Gberie 2005: 20-27, 26-28, 41; Levin 2005: 13, 40, 41;
Rosen 2005: 77, 41; Keen 2005: 14, 17, 67, 68, 77). Stevens was able to buy the support of local power holders
by giving them the prospect of personal enrichment. He created a system of patrimonial rule based on
personal loyalty networks. In this system resources and privileges were distributed according to the personal
arbitrariness of local and national power holders (Peters 2004: 13). Ordinary citizens lost both the means to
oppose the government and the protection they traditionally enjoyed from local chiefs and big men. Strikes
were forbidden by law, protests were violently crushed and the press was heavily censored (Kandeh in Keen
2005: 17). Stevens personalized virtually all state institutions. Citizens who lacked the money to buy
themselves into the political system were completely dependent on local rulers for their survival. The poor,
youths and children were the main victims of this system.

Stevens downsized the national army because he feared another coup, and created a shadow army; the
Internal Security Unit (ISU), formed around (mostly) criminal and disadvantaged youths from the Freetown
slums. To disempower an emerging class of Sierra Leonean entrepreneurs, he consolidated control of the
diamond industry in the hands of the Lebanese. Stevens appointed Lebanese diamond trader Jamil Sahid
Mohammed co-owner and director of the state‟s diamond export company (NDMC), making himself and
Jamil the main beneficiaries of the diamond trade. The provinces were underdeveloped because of Stevens‟
fear of losing power. The country that was rich in resources like diamonds, gold and bauxite, and was
relatively well developed in the 1960´s, was on the brink of bankruptcy by 1985. The educational system of
Sierra Leone, once called the „Athens of West Africa‟ because of its excellent educational facilities, had almost
completely collapsed. Education was now only accessible to the country‟s elite. The rest of the population
lived in abject poverty (Rashid 2004 81-82; Richards 2004: 41; Gberie 2005: 32-35; McIntyre et al. 2002;
Conteh-Morgan & Dixon-Fyle 1999). Joseph Momoh, who took over power in 1985, was not capable of
turning the tide. By 1990 the country was dependent on the IMF. Under the pressure of international donors,
social unrest, a crumbling economy and a division within the APC party, Momoh agreed to a return to
democracy and multi-party politics. Elections were planned for 1991, a development that was greatly
welcomed by the population. But as elections grew nearer, there were indications that the government
intended to manipulate the elections. It was in this time that the RUF launched its rebellion (Rashid 2004).
“The country needed to be freed from the APC government.” A view that is still maintained by many Sierra
14 Richards 2004: 4; Keen 2005: 36
15 Richards 2004: 5; Gberie 2005: 59
16 Rashid 2004 81-82; Richards 2004: 41; Gberie 2005: 32-35; McIntyre et al. 2002;
Conteh-Morgan & Dixon-Fyle 1999
17 Keen 2003: 77; Keen 2005: 17; Davies 2002: 15; McIntyre & Thusi 2004: 73; Levin 2005: 48; Kpundeh 2004: 94
18 Richards 2004: 8; Gberie 2005: 64; Smith et al. 2004: 21, HRW 1999; Keen 2005: 107
19 Smith et al. 2004: 21
20 Gberie 1997: 113
21 Ibid.: 115
22 Smith et al. 2004: 52
23 Ferme & Hoffman 2003: 75; Gberie 2004: 151
24 McIntyre et al. 2002; Silberfein 2004; Keen 2002; Keen 2005; Gberie 2005
25 Kamoh Lahai Bangura, Kamoh Brima Bangura, Mama Munda, Kamoh Alie Sesay and
Kamoh Mohamed Mansaray.
26 Avondor, Born Naked, Death Squad, Mbolatae (cut neck), Yamotor (chew you softly), Banyamorli (don‟t ask
me), Bawotae (don‟t turn your back), and Kasillah (the name of the devil of Bonthe Island),
27 Next to these organized squads, other civilian initiatives arose that, although they bore the name Kamajors,
had no official ties with the broader movement. Local Muslim clerics were appointed to do initiation rituals,
often for a (relatively) large sum of money.
28 Humphreys & Weinstein 2004: 25
29 The analysis given here is resonant with Robert Merton‟s theory of anomie and the strain theory of deviant
motivation. Merton (1938) stated that when an individual lacks the opportunities to achieve societal or
culturally assigned goals and aspirations (both material and non-material) through societal acceptable
means, he might be tempted to achieve these goals through illegitimate means. The gap between goals
and means is the strain. According to Merton (1968), individuals can respond to strain in five different
ways (modes of individual adaptation); one, the individual sticks to the social acceptable means to
achieve the goals society sets for him (conformity); two, the individual rejects the social acceptable means
and uses innovative (illegitimate) means to achieve the goals society sets (innovation); three, the
individual accepts his current lifestyle and gives up ambitious goals but sticks to societal acceptable
means (ritualism); four, the individual rejects the culturally assigned goals as well as the societal
acceptable means (retreatism), five, the individual rejects both the goals and the means and finds ways to
replace them (rebellion).
30 See for example: Twum Danso 2004; Eyber & Ager 2004; Wessels 2000; Boyden 2000; Leão 2004;
Bennett 1998; Ebo 2004
31 See for example: Richards 2004; Shepler 2004a and 2004b; Peters & Richards 1998; Twum Danso 2003
and 2004; Veale 2003.
32 Singer 2005: X.
33 Ibid.: 80
34 Cohn & Goodwin-Gill cited in Gray 2002: 24-25
35 Singer 2005: 134
36 „Ordinary Men‟ is the name Christopher Browning (2001) uses for the members of the reserve police
battalion that carried out the mass murder of Jews in Poland during World War II.
37 Browning 2001: 159-223
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.: 215-216
40 This point is also made by David Keen (2005).
41 Pearn 2003: 169
42 Singer 2001
43 See for example Singer 2005: 194-195; Hill & Langholz 2003; ILO 2004: 39
44 Macksoud quoted in Gray 2003: 36
45 Ibid.
46 See for example: Richards 2004; Shepler 2004a and 2004b; Peters & Richards 1998; Twum Danso 2003
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2004 The Geopolitics of Conflict and Diamonds in Sierra Leone.
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Singer, P.W.
2005 Children at War. New York: Pantheon Books

Singer, P.W.
2001 Caution: Children at War. Parameters, Winter 2001-02, pp. 40-56.

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Smith, A., Gambette, C. & Longley, T.
2004 Conflict Mapping in Sierra Leone: Violations of International
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2003 Disarmament and Demobilisation.
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2003 Africa‟s Young Soldiers: The Co-option of Childhood. ISS (Institute for Security Studies):
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2004 The Political Child. In Angela McIntyre (ed): Invisible Stakeholders. ISS (Institute for Security
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2003 A Statement by his Excellency the President Ajhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah made
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Veale, A.
2003 From Child Soldier to Ex-Fighter: Female Fighters, Demobilisation and Reintegration in
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2000 How We Can Prevent Child Soldiering. Peace Review 12:3 (2000), pp. 407-413.

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