Liberia's child soldiers struggle to rebuild lives
MONROVIA, Liberia (Reuters) -- Dried blood marks the swollen entry and exit wounds where a bullet struck Michael Wolotoh's right foot and his left leg is scarred by shrapnel, but he has not given up his childhood dream.
"I want to be a footballer and play abroad," says the 16-year-old, echoing the dream of a generation of youngsters to follow in the footsteps of Liberian soccer legend George Weah.
"I don't want to fight no more."
Wolotoh was wounded on July 26 while fighting to repel rebels from the capital Monrovia.
Red Cross doctors alerted child protection workers and he is now one of 35 child soldiers recovering at the Don Bosco Homes, a Catholic group that runs four such centres in the city.
Aid workers estimate up to 20,000 child soldiers, some as young as seven or eight, were recruited by both government and rebel forces during Liberia's latest war.
Cradling assault rifles nearly as tall as themselves or stretching to reach the steering wheels of stolen pick ups, they are an all too familiar sight at the frontline.
Often drugged up, they are sought after because they are cheap and carry out orders without asking questions.
Disarming and demobilising fighters is a key pillar of a peace deal signed in mid-August and designed to end nearly 14 years of strife in the crumbling West African country.
Humanitarian workers warn that fighters not successfully reintegrated into society, sent to school or given jobs will return to the battlefield at the first opportunity.
Lack of opportunity aids recruiting
Many children were recruited by force but for others it seemed their best chance in a country with an average income of under $1 a day and 85 percent unemployment.
"Poverty is a major factor. A child who eats three meals a day, goes to school and has toys to play with will not normally be recruited," said David Ntambara, an emergency child protection worker with United Nations children's agency UNICEF.
Wolotoh ended up with the army's Small Boys Unit aged 14 because at home he often ended up "sleeping hungry."
"My friends convinced me. They said I would get money, food and other things. They said I would be driving in cars and people would not take advantage of me," he said.
Once at the front, commanders -- or "the big people," as he refers to them -- gave him bags of looted sugar and rice as well as marijuana and opium "to stay awake at night and be brave."
Yet Wolotoh, whose war nickname was "Twister Round" -- an exploding bullet -- needed little convincing to give up his gun.
"It wasn't fun. A lot of my friends got hit and died. Fighting is not good for children, for young boys like us."
Paul Najue, director of the Don Bosco Homes in Liberia, says taking child soldiers off the battlefield is the easy part. Making sure they stay away from guns once they have left the rehabilitation centres is much harder.
He says 20 fighters at Don Bosco Homes are products of a failed rehabilitation after a previous civil war in the 1990s.
Less than a third of the 15,000 child soldiers from that war were hastily demobilised and many later returned to the front.
"We need to learn from the mistakes of the past," said Ntambara. "That means that together with disarmament and demobilisation, the international community must help revamp Liberia's economy with big investments over a sustained period of time. That's the major challenge."
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