Liberian fighters swap AKs for ABCs

The first of two wars to ravage Liberia erupted before Malinda Lakome was even born. But now the 13-year-old soldier in the Liberian national army is ready to trade his weapon for a driver’s licence to help steer the west African state towards peace.

“When I grow up I want to be a driver,” he said, his eyes shining as they peer out from under a drooping fisherman’s hat tattered by years of use.

Under the terms of a landmark UN disarmament programme, Malinda, like an estimated 40 000 other former combatants, will be provided with a $300 stipend, psychological counseling and vocational training or schooling—even driving lessons.

But whether the $50-million (42-million euros) the UN mission in Liberia has allocated for disarmament will be enough to ensure the young fighters trade their weapons for schoolbooks remains to be seen.

The programme was announced with great fanfare on December 1 and launched on Sunday as part of a key component of the peace plan agreed after leader Charles Taylor fled into exile in August.

Already, those soldiers who have disarmed talk of broken promises, empty bellies and discontent rising among their ranks sitting idly in the Scheffling military barracks just outside the capital, Monrovia.

The UN’s World Food Program last week began distributing food rations to 51 disarmed soldiers at Scheffling but said that logistical problems had caused a delay in feeding the other 250 young soldiers who have been at Scheffling since mid-November.

UN humanitarian worker Ahunna Eziakonwa said there was quite a “ways to go” to prepare camps for the hoped-for influx of disarmed combatants.

“I was an armed forces of Liberia soldier, I was working for the country,” said 20-year-old Aposo Maxwell, as he stood in front of the empty room at Scheffling that he shared with nine other former soldiers.

“I came in and gave them my weapons, and Unmil gave me a paper,” he said, referring to the acronym for the UN mission in Liberia.

“And I have the piece of paper, but that is all I have.”

Combatants under 18 make up 40% of the 40 000-strong fighting forces of three warring factions conscripted to wage the second of two ruinous civil wars that pulverised the west African state of 3,3-million since 1989.

Drugged, beaten and armed to the teeth with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, the armies of young people killed some 200 000 people during the 14-year campaign of rape and violence that also displaced one in five of their countrymen either within Liberia or beyond its borders.

But since a fragile peace took hold in the Atlantic coastal state in mid-August following Taylor’s departure and the signing of a peace pact, the young soldiers say they are eager to begin life as civilians.

“I want to go to school, to learn, and to see my family,” said Olmed Molbah, who became a government soldier in 1998 after his brother and sister were killed.

“I was fighting since I was 14 and now I want to do something for me.”

Whether Liberia’s civil society, already hammered by an 85% unemployment rate, will welcome the children who terrorised them also remains in doubt.

Hundreds of thousands of Liberians still shelter in displacement camps, too afraid to return to their home villages and what might await them.

Reports of civilian harassment continue to filter into Monrovia, as do stories of clashes between the former government militias and rebel movements in the east and north.

With just 5 000 peacekeepers on the ground, a dreadfully-overmatched Unmil has since October only been able to secure the capital Monrovia.

A UN Security Council mandate has foreseen the deployment of 15 000 troops by early next year, but UN special envoy Jacques Klein acknowledged in an interview UN peacekeepers have yet to deploy outside the capital and rebel soldiers remain committed to carrying weapons until disputes with the transitional government of leader Gyude Bryant are resolved.

Momo Vigay Jallah, known as “Good Finish” when he shouldered his weapon, is still optimistic that he will have a chance to lay down his weapon and fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor.

“I will take care of anybody,” he said when asked whether he would treat only his comrades at his for-now fantasy medical clinic.

“There is peace in Liberia now. We are all brothers and sisters.” - Sapa-AFP

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