UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
FREETOWN, 14 July 1999 (IRIN) - The boy with the AK 47 who stopped a team of relief workers at a checkpoint in Romeni Curve village, some 110 km north of Freetown, told IRIN he was 11, had been captured four months before and would have been killed had he not gone with his captors.
However, according to UNICEF's child protection officer in Freetown, not all minors classified as child soldiers or "children associated with fighting forces" actually fight or carry weapons. In fact, many do not.
It takes time for children to be trained and they have to demonstrate aptitude in "cock-and-load" exercises before they are given weapons. The majority will be used as porters, food growers or "wives", UNICEF's child protection officer told IRIN.
Some 3,900 children have been registered by their parents as missing from Freetown since the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded in January and were subsequently driven out by ECOMOG. As some 3,100 have still not been found, it is assumed that most are still with the RUF and that they were abducted as extra pairs of hands by the retreating rebels.
The Family Homes Movement, supported by UNICEF, is running a programme on the Freetown peninsula for children associated with the fighting forces, which includes those who have escaped from the rebels, those handed over by the rebels as a goodwill gesture and those found by ECOMOG.
The programme, in which 300 children are now enrolled, has been running for four years. Cooperazione Internazionale, an Italian NGO, has been part of it since January.
Once enrolled in the programme the children are cared for until they are reunified with their families. According to UNICEF, the youngest child registered as a released abductee is four years old. She was taken by the rebels to the Occra Hills, an RUF camp some 50 km from Freetown, and was one of a group of 50 handed back by the rebels.
The Lome peace accord signed on 7 July states that the "Government shall accord particular attention to the issue of child soldiers" and that particular attention needs to be paid to the "special needs" of these children in the existing disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process.
UNICEF says there are approximately 5,000 children associated with Sierra Leone's various armed groups, including the Kamajors, the militia of hunters loyal to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and the RUF.
Another 10,000 children have been registered as being separated from their families. This includes those forced to flee to Guinea and Liberia. UNICEF provides them with interim care in centres and in foster families, through family-tracing networks, community and family sensitisation and community reintegration programmes.
These programmes are implemented through partnerships with national and international organisations.
Child rights groups have been demanding that the RUF and the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), which include the Kamajors, release all children in their ranks now that the peace agreement has been signed.
Particular concern has been expressed over the high proportion of abducted girls who have been sexually abused.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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