The children of the conflict
Earlier this week Minister for Development Joe Costello and a delegation from Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ international-assistance programme, travelled to the Caritas headquarters in the city of Makeni to see the impact Irish funding is having.
“I find it very difficult to talk about the war,” Hassanatu says. “But I want to talk about Caritas. They took me in and taught me how to cook, and now I have my own business and I have money for myself.” She points to the gold jewellery around her neck and on her hands and arms. “I bought this for myself. I can do what I want now.”
Kumba Moore is another former child soldier. She and her family fled a rebel advance on the city of Bo in the latter stages of the war. For nine months they ran, but they were eventually taken. The rebel leader demanded that she become his bush wife and threatened to slaughter her family unless she agreed. She had no option. Weeks later her mother died. And then her brother died after being fed an overdose of heroin by the rebels, who routinely pumped child fighters with cocktails of heroin, marijuana and gunpowder to better manipulate them. During one particularly bloody battle she and her two sisters took advantage of the mayhem and fled the camp. Her father fell behind and was killed.
“Before I was trained by Caritas I was troubled,” she says. “My community would point at me and stare because they knew I had been captured by the rebels. For years I never left my house; I always lived indoors and was troubled in my mind.” A sense of pride has replaced the sense of shame she shared with many women caught up in the conflict.
The former boy soldiers are equally troubled. Abdul Rahman Tholley runs a welding shop in Makeni. He was captured by the RUF in 1995, when he was 17, and forced to join a Small Boys Unit. He was made to fight for nine months before escaping and hiding in the bush with little or no food to eat. He came close to death but pulled through and eventually tracked down an uncle who put him in touch with Caritas. He trained as a welder and now employs six people.
David Sesay was 12 when he was captured. “I was on my way to school when the rebels came. The 52 houses in my village were all burned down, including my parents’ house. I could not find them anywhere. I never saw them again. After three days on the run with nothing to eat I went into a village, but the rebels came again, and me and my sister ran again. She went one way and I went the other, but I went the wrong way, and I was captured.”
The rebel commander, who had christened himself Rambo, took David under his wing. “He loved me, and had me doing domestic chores, but then he told me the time had come for me to joins a Small Boys Unit. I was afraid and did not want to go. I was drugged and indoctrinated and made to fight.”
He lifts his shirt to show the scars left by the syringes used to shoot heroin into his unwilling body. “When we passed through Makeni our attack was foiled, and I managed to escape. I fell in with an old man who took me to Freetown to his family, but they were frightened of me because of my past. Eventually the old man enrolled me in the Caritas programme.”