“So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didn’t dare cry out loud.“ These are the words of a child soldier – one voice in an estimated 300,000 children in armed conflict today.
Text by Maureen McGregor
Kabba Williams is a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. He fought for six months with the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and for some three years with the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). In 1994 he was rescued by UNICEF. Today he is studying literature and linguistics at Njala University. This is his story.
The Day He Lost His Mother
In 1991, Kabba was about seven years old and lived with his mother in Waima village in Sierra Leone – a country where a brutal civil war had just begun. One hot dry day his mother sent him to sell uncooked rice in nearby villages. Kabba was at Sembehun when he heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of his village.
He was very scared and raced home to look for his mother. At Waima, the air was full of smoke; people of all ages, including women with babies on their backs, were fleeing the village in terror. Dead bodies lined the road. In Waima, he was met with a complete and very frightening silence. Kabba crept into his house calling softly “mama, mama”, but no one answered. His mother was not there and Kabba has never seen her again.
Under the Sway of Rebels
Suddenly, rebels entered his home shouting and pointing guns at him, demanding food. The frightened little boy showed them the place under the bed where his mother stored rice. The rebels forced him to carry the rice and to go with them, together with some other captured children.
After walking for some time they met a Commander named “Kaka Scatter” who told them to join a larger group of children, some of whom were crying. Commander “Kaka Scatter” told the abducted children that they had just been liberated and should now join the rebels to help liberate the motherland. He said the RUF would give jobs to their fathers and the children would be able to go to school; Kabba had never been to school.
Taught to Kill in School
Then the children were taken back to Waima and at the school field they were given “war training” for one day – using sticks for guns. The following day, the children were force-marched through the bush to the RUF base at Bunumbu where they delivered looted village items they had been compelled to carry. They returned the same day through the bush to Waima.
More “war training” followed on the school field and in the evening the children were given drugs. Kabba said the drugs made him “mad” and “fearless”. The drugs were crushed and mixed with cooked rice – a meal the rebels called “the Last Supper”. After one week of training, Kabba was given an AK-47 rifle and was sent to the RUF base at Bunumbu to begin fighting with the rebels.
A Child Killing Machine
One of the tasks given to child soldiers was “food finding”. Most of the villages the children entered on such missions were deserted except for dead bodies. They did not know who had done the killings – RUF rebels or SLA soldiers.
On one mission, they were ambushed by SLA soldiers. Six rebels, including four of the recently recruited child soldiers, were killed. In the skirmish, Kabba sustained a wound on his forehead – the scar remains to this day. That was also the first time Kabba killed – he shot a government soldier before running away.
During this period as a rebel child soldier, Kabba was exposed to incredibly extreme brutality and was forced to commit acts of unimaginable violence, including the murder and mutilation of civilians. When the rebels attacked villages, they killed many, but those left alive had their lips, ears, hands, arms, feet or legs chopped off.
The victim – man, woman or child – was forced to place a limb on the overturned village mortar (normally used for pounding rice) and asked “left or right? Long-sleeves or short sleeves?” and their arms or hands were chopped or hacked off by a child soldier wielding an often blunt axe or a machete.
Forced to Rape at the Age of Seven
Sexual violence was rife, and the rebels thought it hilarious when Commander “Kaka Scatter” told the young Kabba to rape a little girl. To the sound of the rebels’ laughter the sexually immature Kabba dropped his pants and put his penis against the girl and committed his first “rape”.
After six months, Kabba managed to escape the rebels and was captured by SLA soldiers who tied him up, beat him and threatened to kill him. He was taken to their base camp at Tongo-field where he did menial and domestic tasks such as fetching water and firewood, and laundering clothes.
Being a „Soldier“
After some time, he was trained as a “vigilante” soldier – an unpaid “soldier” with no official army ID. From 1992 to 1994, Kabba fought with the SLA against the RUF rebels.
In 1994, Kabba was in Freetown with three others selling looted goods when he was approached by a UNICEF representative. Through this contact, the children were eventually helped by a charity called Children Associated with War, and over time went through the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process.
The Hard Way Back
Kabba was one of the many child soldiers who had learned violence and destructive behaviour as the norm, and the reintegration of these children into the community was a difficult process. Many of the children, particularly the former girl combatants, feared the disgrace of denouncement by their communities and were thus discouraged from taking part in the reintegration process.
Families that did accept child soldiers back into the fold were not educated in the handling of these children. No follow-up visits were made to those families by those who had entrusted the former child soldiers to their care. On completion of the DDR process, the small amount of support and financial assistance the families had received dried up. Many children suffered further in such circumstances.
Fighting for a Future
In January 2002, the civil war was officially over. Kabba, however, knows first hand that even during peaceful times, former child combatants continue to suffer the devastating physical and psychological effects of their experiences. Many were not reintegrated into their families or communities and were left living on the streets, as unemployed, drug-addicted criminals.
Eventually, Kabba, along with four other former child soldiers Alhaji Sawaneh, Bashiru Conteh, Veronica Sumana and Hassan Massaquoi, established the African Reformation War Child Advocacy Network (ARWCAN). Through ARWCAN, Kabba has visited several countries to speak on behalf of child victims of conflict.
Speaking up for Children’s Rights
Kabba was appointed the Sierra Leone spokesperson for Kids Can Free the Children (KCFTC), a Canadian children’s rights advocate group. Moreover, he has worked with the Children’s Forum Network (CFN) and in December 2003, took part in the first General Children’s Parliament in Sierra Leone. He also helped to coordinate a child friendly booklet for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has contributed to the work of Amnesty International on children’s rights. Presently, Kabba is writing a book about his horrifying experiences as a child soldier.
15 years have passed since Kabba was forced to torture, mutilate, beat and enslave his fellow citizens, as well as to force others to commit such crimes. He does not seek to be excused from his crimes, but seeks understanding that he was as much a victim as a perpetrator and witness. Had he not committed these acts, he would have been murdered.
His story is not solely his. Thousands of children were forced to join the armed conflict as child soldiers in his country. Kabba says his ultimate goal is to help other children have productive lives by overcoming their past.
He wants to see countries adopt national laws to criminalize the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. He wants to see drug addiction eradicated, and the use of children as a labour force abolished. In the words of his people he says “What you give to young people is what they give to the country in return”.
If you want to contact Kabba, his email address is:
kabbawilliams [at] hotmail.com
This article is written by Maureen McGregor and will be published in a shorter version in the magazine GLOBAL VIEW 04/2009 (end of December 2009).