Former Liberian soldiers now fight drug habit

Former combatant Marcus Weah says he was forced to smoke marijuana to make him brave in battle, and quit easily the day guns fell silent in Liberia, but he is rare.

For the thousands of ex-fighters who will find quitting a drug habit more difficult, there is little available help.

“The commanders came to my school, slapped my face, and took me into the bush to smoke grass,” says Weah, a Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model) fighter enrolled in the United Nations disarmament campaign in the eastern town of Zwedru.

“That’s how I joined Model and after that we smoked grass every day. They said it gave us magical powers to avoid the bullets and to be strong and brave.”

Commanders across the three factions are known to have doped their young charges throughout the war that raged in the West African state from 1999 until a peace deal was reached in August of last year.

Fighters from the rebel Model and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) also describe a potent and numbing combination of gunpowder and “cocaine” that was rubbed into open wounds.

Drug-taking was especially prevalent among the soldiers in the armies of former president Charles Taylor, who were plied with bales of marijuana culled from fields deep in the bush behind Palala, near Taylor’s farm in central Liberia.

Humanitarian agencies have reported that children as young as 10 are seriously drug-addicted from their time as a part of a fighting force, and suffer from drug-related paranoia and delusions.

But UN officials say there is not enough room in the $681-million Unmil (the UN mission in Liberia) budget for the fiscal year 2005 to offer drug screenings to the more than 87 000 people associated with the fighting factions who have gone through the disarmament phase of the campaign, which wraps up on Sunday.

“It’s a major concern, but we just do not have the money and we don’t have the time,” a senior UN official says.

The streets of Zwedru are teeming with former Model fighters, all of whom are waiting for the RR (rehabilitation and reintegration) programme to start. They sit heavy-lidded on street corners or amble between smoke shops that offer enough marijuana for two or three joints for five Liberian dollars (about R0,60).

“Of course I still smoke grass; what else am I going to do?” asks ex-Model combatant Mark Payne.

The use of marijuana is so prevalent in Zwedru that young children are asked no questions when they go into smoke shops to buy drugs—even one just behind the headquarters of the UN mission that is bathed in blue light from electricity stolen from the huge generators powering the UN compound.

Drug-addiction treatment is missing from the rehabilitation phase of the UN campaign.
This leaves the weighty problem to the national Health Ministry, which can barely open hospitals to serve the civilian population, let alone deal with psychosocial problems.

“We do not have the capacity in the RR programme and anyhow it is not a conducive environment for such things,” the UN official adds. “There is no environment better than a loving home and community to address this problem and respond to it.”

The UN official points to the results from the medical screening given to fighters as they enrolled in the five-day demobilisation exercise as evidence that the problem of mental illness, in which he presumably includes drug addiction, is not prevalent.

“There were very few people who were hospitalised after being cantoned and you see that there are no psychopaths or people who are mentally deranged walking around,” he says.—Sapa-AFP

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