Accessed 27 May 2000
Sierra Leone: Boys taught to torture and
JOHN SWEENEY reports from Freetown on the sickening reality of the conflict in Sierra Leone which is turning children as young as nine into bloodthirsty killers
The whites of his eyes fluttering like moths in their sockets, he
staggered forward and groaned softly but repeatedly, taking weaker and
weaker steps before he collapsed. Giggles all around.
Sierra Leone is a country not just of amputated limbs; nine years of war have left the children with amputated minds.
They called him Burn You - real name Sheku Jalloh - and he sat underneath the palm trees by the South Atlantic in what once must have been a very beautiful hotel, now run by two Catholic priests to give something back to the child soldiers. St Michael's rehab centre is half an hour south from Aberdeen, where the clatter from British Army Chinooks fills the sky and the car parks of the swankiest hotels are stuffed with white UN Land Cruisers, their chrome gleaming in the sun.
Burn You was with two friends - a boy they called Corporal Highway, 11, (real name Saidu Kargbo) and a girl called Small Rebel, 12, (real name Tity Gbayo). The rebels had burnt a tattoo, RUF, which stands for Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front, into her chest, but she was so ashamed she poured acid on the letters. The burns had corrugated the scar tissue, blurring the out line of the letters, but the pity of it was you could still make out RUF behind the scabs.
All three had been taken to fight at the age of nine. Small Rebel and Corporal Highway were with the RUF; Burn You had been with the old SLA, the Sierra Leone Army. All sides had Small Boy Units, they said, but people tell you the RUF were the worst. The New SLA - trained and now supported by the British - are the government forces. They won the election and now have the coast. The RUF have the bush and the diamond fields. The war will continue until the RUF takes the coast, or the government takes the diamond fields.
Corporal Highway demonstrated the trick of cutting off an adult's hands, if you belong to a Small Boy Unit. You force the man down on the ground and shove a gun barrel at the back of his neck. Lying prone, the subject is helpless. Then another boy takes the man's arm and rests it on a piece of wood, and then brings down the machete. Corporal Highway had done this many times.
He used an AK47, which would have been only a little smaller than him. Burn You's weapon of choice was an SMG, a sub-machine gun. Small Rebel said she had a pistol, but she looked a little embarrassed, as though she might not have been allowed to use it all the time. Small Rebel's commander had been a woman, 'Colonel Gaddafi's wife', a woman called Mammy, around 27 years old. Small Rebel insisted to the others that this woman was Libyan, not local. This may sound incredible, but Libya and Liberia's president, Charles Taylor, back the RUF. It is quite likely one of Gaddafi's famous female bodyguards may have fought for the cause in the bush.
Burn You showed how you cut down the rib cage and get at the liver, to eat it for 'main power'. Once you have chopped off a man's hands, you can do anything. Burn You ran through the options: you can cut off the ears and nose and lips, and give them to the victim to eat. You drink the blood from the back of the neck. If you slash the neck at the front, the blood spurts too fast and is wasted, he said.
Children around the world tell tall stories, but I didn't think these three were making much up. The detail was too precise.
Burn You's favourite torture was rubbing hot pepper into the eyes of a victim. Some of the peppers in West Africa are so ferocious they can burn your fingers when you touch them. Ordinary people were terribly afraid of the Small Boy Units, they said. They would enter villages to find everyone gone. Burn You said their name for dogs was Town Commandos, because when they appeared they were the only living things that had stayed on.
They all suffered flashbacks, though none of them was quite as bad as one poor boy, who went round the centre screaming: "I want to drink blood". For Small Rebel, the worst memory was the time the rebels came to her home. They poured petrol over the mother, father, two brothers and sister and set fire to them, watching as they ran around, burning alive. And then they took her.
That, and the times when the Small Boy Units caught a pregnant woman. "They'd argue whether there was a boy child or a girl child in the belly," she said. "To solve the argument, they would cut open the belly with machetes. I saw this many times." The British Army is here to secure the airport and evacuate any British nationals - that's the official line, which no one believes. The Paras and the Royal Marines out to sea and the SAS in the bush are here to try to put an end to the barbarity evidenced by these three children.
Brigadier David Richards hasn't had the opportunity to talk to the child soldiers. But he has seen their work at the amputee camps. "When I came out of there, my eyes were streaming," he said. He is not a sentimentalist, but sharp as mustard, bespectacled, tough. He needs to be for the game of three-dimensional chess ahead of him.
A Lebanese trader explained the problem of bringing peace to Sierra Leone: "The rebels have the diamond fields. They sell the diamonds to Liberia. This makes good money for Charles Taylor. He sells the rebels the weapons. So long as the rebels have the diamonds, they have more money than the government. The war will continue until the government takes the diamond fields."
But won't the rebels collapse, now that Foday Sankoh has been arrested? "Sankoh was just a card for Taylor," he said. He has many cards. There is a new one, Colonel Issay. The diamond fields are the key. If they remain in rebel hands, then this place is condemned to war, with the government on the coast and the RUF in the bush, just like Angola.
British military sources in Sierra Leone agree that the diamond fields in the east are the RUF's centre of gravity.
But the Parachute Regiment, which is securing Lungi airport, is bored out of its mind. In the ladies', a skinhead Para washed his face over and over again. Down the road in the police station a corporal read a two-week-old Sun, and yawned. A third, from Maghull, near Aintree, watched his mates snooze away: "I've been here two weeks and I've only seen the airport. We've come all this way, but it's like going on holiday and spending the entire time in Gatwick."
There is, of course, the United Nations. The 12 O'Clock follies, when the UN people strut their stuff, is straight from the Theatre of the Absurd. The spokesman made a plea for the rebels to release the 270-odd hostages, mainly Kenyan and Zambian troops, on humanitarian grounds. This plea was directed, remember, at the RUF, its troops zonked out of their minds on palm wine, the army which teaches its child soldiers how to cut off hands. The word on the streets of Freetown - not exactly Hansard - is that some of the UN hostages have been mutilated, and they will be disappear after being killed, because their wounds are evidence of how the RUF behaves; too grim ever to be shown to the wider world.
The UN's spokesman in New York, Fred Eckhart, has called for an immediate ceasefire. This would freeze the war where it is now, giving the rebels the diamond fields. The Lebanese trader believes that if this happens the war will start up again.
In the meantime, the war against the RUF is being carried out on the ground by the SLA. The bad news is that the SLA has run out of bullets.