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Pulitzer Center Update April 18, 2008

Children and war: Liberia and beyond

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Bethany Whitfield, Special to the Pulitzer Center

"It's hard to talk about, but at least when I talk about it, I get some relief," said Eric Gibson, a Liberian who survived the country's civil war during his youth by living behind rebel lines.

Gibson earned his keep during the conflict as an entertainer, performing rap songs for the rebel forces. Gibson, alongside journalist Ruthie Ackerman and Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, led a recent discussion at Georgetown University on the widespread use of child soldiers in armed combats throughout the world.

Gibson testified to the atrocities he witnessed as a young Liberian growing up in a war-torn country, experiences that include watching the brutal murder of a pregnant mother, getting shot in the leg and having to bury his best friend's body with his bare hands.

"You can't cry," at such times, Gibson said, lest the rebels perceive one as sympathizing with the other side. "You have to cry on the inside."

Gibson left home as a teenager in hope of finding protection and food among Liberian rebel forces. Like many struggling amidst the conflict, he saw this move as his best chance for survival. Joining the rebels helped ward off dangerous questions of loyalty Gibson said, and "over there they have all the resources – food, water."

Ackerman and Stohl emphasized that no children "volunteer" to join armed forces. "Child soldiers are a result not only of involuntary recruitment by those in power, but also a result of economic deprivation. When there's deep poverty children will be forced to do whatever it takes to survive," said Ackerman.

While Gibson's story is horrific, it is by no means uncommon. Stohl presented the Georgetown audience with some staggering figures: The U.N. estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 children under the age of 18 are currently involved in conflicts worldwide. A fact that proved equally disturbing to the audience: Several countries implicated in the use of child soldiers receive substantial U.S. military support.

"That means your tax dollars are directly funding the use of child soldiers," said Stohl.

When students pressed Stohl about U.S. involvement, she pointed them to The Child Soldiers Prevention Act (S1175), a bill currently garnering support from both parties in the Senate to prevent military funding for governments that use child soldiers.

Bridget O'Loughlin, who organized the event, said, "I think everyone saw that, once again, problems that seem far away have a very real and present connection to home."

Ackerman received a Pulitzer Center grant to report on the reintegration of child soldiers in Liberia itself as well as those Liberian refugees now living in Staten Island, NY. She considers the lack of a support system for these war-torn individuals a factor in perpetuating a cycle of violence in New York's communities – a fact Gibson recognizes all too well. When Gibson finally escaped the war and came to the U.S., he moved to Park Hill, one of Staten Island's most dangerous neighborhoods.

"He came to the U.S. seeking refuge, and like many other Liberians I've spoken to, he was highly disappointed," said Ackerman.

Tension quickly arose in Park Hill between the area's African American residents and the newly arrived Liberian refugees, establishing new battle lines within an area already plagued by high crime rates. "They brought me to another war zone," Gibson said.

The gangs, drugs and violence of the area only compounded Gibson's other financial problems – the educational training he was promised never came to fruition and employers were reluctant to hire him due to inexperience. Only recently was Gibson hired as a security officer, Ackerman announced to the Georgetown audience, which broke out in a round of applause at the news.

Those in the audience also offered their personal stories and thoughts. One student described his time as an intern in post-war Liberia while another audience member touched on his Congolese heritage and the particularly harsh difficulties faced by girl soldiers in the country's ongoing crisis.

As discussion extended well beyond the event's end time and moderator Jon Sawyer brought the event to a close, a student in the audience wrapped up the evening with this sentiment: Even in situations of tragedy and despair such as Gibson's, one should look for the light, the hope. The insight of the speakers and audience recognized the grim reality of child soldiers, but their willingness to share their stories and work toward solutions ultimately reflect that light.

Recent Developments on the Issue

2007 State Department Human Rights Reports on the Use of Child Soldiers, by Rachel Stohl