A French language version of this story was featured in the September-October issue of Polka Magazine.
Looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean from United Nations Drive, pillars of smoke rise up above the walled compounds of Monrovia’s beach-front properties—high walls that shield foreign executives and Liberia’s elite from the tin shacks that house the city's poorest and line the beach from where the smoke curls up into the sky. The beach is a "no-go" area for most Liberians.
Quita, 25, lives in one of the shacks in Trench Town, as the beach slum is called. At first glance, in pink jeans and skimpy orange shirt, she looks younger than her years. But her eyes betray a hardness that reflects her brutal upbringing. Further investigation reveals that she doesn’t really know how old she is. She only knows she was very small when the rebel group United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) swept through her village and called her to its ranks. She was given an AK47 — a big gun for a small girl. “I was dragging it with me everywhere because when I leave it behind I will be dead.”
In pidgin English she explains how she became a child soldier following the disappearance of her parents: “I had to be a fighter to survive because I don’t want for man to rape me. So I got to take gun too to secure myself — save myself.” Quita was one of at least 15,000 child soldiers fighting in Liberia’s civil war, a conflict that has continued to shape a generation. Her lips start to tremble, she squints her eyes against the sun reflecting off the white sand outside the shack. “They made me kill people.”
Many child soldiers were killed, but innocent victims they were not. They were trained killers. Emboldened by narcotics and sadistic commanders, they committed horrific acts of violence. “We had to do bad things in our communities because we were given orders to do by our commanders,” one former child soldier said. “We did whole lot of killings, massacre, because if you couldn’t do that as an order given to you, you would have been kill also. We can’t go back in to our community because of the bad we did to immediate friends, people that we grow up together with. Rape and other things were done and now they count that against us.”
Quita, and thousands like her, can’t go home either. Shunned by the civilian population around them, they formed their own communities. They continue to call each other by their war names, and respect the rank each held in conflict — a conflict the rest of Liberia is trying hard to forget.
Ten years on, many former soldiers now have children of their own. The children are raised in communities where drugs and violence are commonplace, exposing a generation born into relative peace to the scars and trauma suffered by their elders. Their parents carry permanent reminders — scars, shrapnel still lodged in flesh, limbs amputated.
Moses lost his left leg in a mortar attack. Two of his childhood friends were killed instantly. Each day he must struggle up and down the bank outside his shack to wash down by the beach. Unlike other members of his community, he cannot work as a security guard nor can he dig sand as a construction worker. He spends his day outside the supermarket begging alongside others with disabilities.
While they cannot escape the trauma of their past, many former soldiers crave the respect they once commanded. Wielding violent weapons, money, food and women were easily attained. Moses, like many former child soldiers, has gone from being feared, to then despised. Today, he's just a vagrant and an addict.
Drugs are as much a way of life for Moses and his contemporaries today as they were in the days of fighting in the "Small Boy Units". Groups of young men and a few women sit around smoking large marijuana joints, often laced with heroin. In town, others sit in the dark shells of burnt-out buildings, faces illuminated by the flash of a lit match under tin foil as heroin is heated. Many children became addicted during the war, and afterwards, severely traumatized and without support, many turned to drugs as a form of self-medication. “If you retrospect about the past you may probably go insane or do something out of the way,” a child soldier told me. “So that’s why we take drugs, just to calm down, move our minds from the pains we are undergoing.”
Janice Cooper leads a mental health project for the Carter Center in Liberia, one of the few organizations trying to tackle mental health in Liberia. She left Monrovia with her family during the war, but has returned to do what she can to help the country heal. No small feat in a nation of so many.
“One of the things it is easy to forget is that many of the perpetrators of violence were themselves victims," she said. "Many young people were forced to fight and to commit very hideous crimes. Along the way they were often given drugs to make them do some hideous things and so they suffer trauma as a result of what they did as well as a result of what they saw. They suffer trauma also because they have flashbacks of what happen to them as well as the danger, torture, and the physical violence that they perpetrated on others.”
Liberia, thanks to the Carter Center, has an established mental health policy. Due to the withdrawal of state funds however, most programs have failed.
“I would definitely say mental health is often the hardest thing to get donor funding for,” said Cooper, “It’s the first thing that gets dropped. There is, I think, still not an understanding that comprehensive health means mental health as well. And it is not easy to be able to show outcomes in mental health as in say malaria vaccination. It is very easy to say how many malaria vaccines were given out or how many bed nets were given out and you can tick off that box and say we’ve done it. I think that is why it is not sexy for donors to fund.”
In a country with many challenges, the welfare of drug addicts guilty of wartime atrocities is not high on a long list of competing priorities. Unfortunately though, ignoring their suffering is not solving the problem. Time alone will not heal their scars.
“As for me sitting down here,” Quita says outside her shack on the beach, “I could not find no one to come to my aid. So I just decided to start taking drugs. Sometimes it make me fine. Sometimes I just feel like I am not a real human being because no one to tend to us — no one to hear our cry. No one.”