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Koinange: Friend gunned down by child soldiers

Story Highlights

• Jeff Koinange left Sierra Leone convoy shortly before it was attacked in 1999
• Child soldiers shot and killed Koinange's friend, cameraman Myles Tierney
• Since then, Koinange has met child soldiers across Africa
• It's as if the kids went to the same killing kindergarten, he says
By Jeff Koinange
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, CNN Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange describes his first encounter with child soldiers.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- I still get chills when I think about my first encounter with child soldiers. It came only minutes before my cameraman burst into my room -- blood splattered on his shirt and tears in his eyes.

"Myles is dead! Myles is dead!" he shouted, wailing uncontrollably.

Myles Tierney was a journalist and friend who had been covering the brutal and intense fighting in Sierra Leone in 1999. He was killed when child soldiers opened fire on the vehicle he was traveling in. I had been in the same convoy. But about five minutes before that fateful moment I had gone back to my hotel room to transmit pictures to Reuters Television headquarters in London. (Audio Slide Show: My first deadly encounter with child soldiers)

I'm haunted by questions I've never been able to answer: What if I'd been there? What would I have done? Would I be alive today?

That day, January 10, 1999, had started off as a gorgeous day in the capital of Freetown. I had been there for four days covering some of the most brutal and intensive fighting I had ever seen. But on this day, the sun was beaming, the sky was an unusual blue, not a cloud was in sight. It provided an eerie, tranquil contrast to what I had witnessed in the days before.

"It's the kind of day one would wish to die in," a colleague had said, not knowing how ominous that statement would be in hindsight.

Death firsthand

Rebels had stormed Freetown in the days before and, in a scorched earth policy, set the capital on fire. Many of the buildings were ablaze: churches, mosques, schools, even the U.N. regional headquarters downtown.

For four days all we could do was film the billowing, dark smoke from our hotel rooms, which were in a part of town the rebels had not yet reached. That day would be our first in the streets since the violence began. We were a little scared but eager to go.

We'd convinced the West African peacekeepers to take us -- ourselves and our competition, Associated Press Television, for which Myles was working -- to see the death of a city firsthand.

We set out sandwiched in the middle of a huge convoy of military vehicles carrying two dozen soldiers.

Bodies of men, women and even children littered street after street. Vultures, and stray dogs and cats preyed on the rotting corpses. One dog picking at a trash can came away with a human arm, from elbow to fingers.

Once in a while we'd pass a checkpoint "manned" by very young soldiers. I remember remarking how young they were.

"Child soldiers," said one of the peacekeepers. "The rebels use them as their first line of fire."

"Aren't you afraid they'll shoot at you?" I replied.

"We're the men; they're merely children. Even in war, they have to respect that," the peacekeeper said.

Children opened fire

Eventually, I decided I needed to head back to transmit what I thought were some pretty amazing pictures. I told my cameraman to continue with the convoy.

The next thing I remember was that moment when my cameraman burst into the room telling me of the horrible ambush. They were driving down one of the streets soon after I'd left them and came upon a checkpoint manned by child soldiers.

Most of the peacekeepers had passed without incident, but the child soldiers opened fire on Myles and his television crew. My cameraman was in the car behind the other crew and saw it all unfold. When it happened, my cameraman's driver braked, threw the car into reverse and got out of there as fast as he could.

After some time had passed, they stopped. No one spoke. Then, a peacekeeper vehicle appeared. They asked about the other crew and were told one of them had been killed, another had a bullet in his head and had been driven to the military hospital, and the third had come through unscathed.

All of the child soldiers were killed by the peacekeepers.

My cameraman asked to be taken back to the checkpoint, where he filmed the scene. There, still sitting in the back seat, was Myles. Half his head was blown away. My cameraman couldn't film anymore. He insisted on pulling out his dead colleague and getting him to a morgue to avoid the swarming vultures.

They put Myles into one of the military vehicles, and my cameraman raced back to the hotel to tell me the news.

That day taught each of us what a child soldier is capable of.

They're victims too

I was in the early days of my journalism career back then. Since that time, I've seen the same images from the Small Boys Unit in Liberia, Les Petits in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, the Kadogos in Congo and in Somalia. Different countries, similar scenes. It's as if all the child soldiers went to the same kindergarten. (Where children are forced to fight)

Each time I was around them I felt one step away from death. One wrong move and they can turn from innocent-looking children to killers.

I've seen some as young as 8 years old, calling themselves "General Cool Runnings" or "Colonel Rambo" or "Brigadier Chop Them Up." The saddest part is we adults had to address them as such. Otherwise, you just never knew what would happen.

At the end of the day, these children are victims of older soldiers, forced into war out of personal circumstances or peer pressure. Some are seeking revenge after seeing their families slaughtered. Once they're given an AK-47 and drugs, their innocence is lost, replaced by a killer instinct.

Killing becomes second nature and doesn't stop until the killer is stopped. And that's how many child soldiers end up -- dead and mostly forgotten.

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Myles Tierney was shot and killed by child soldiers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1999.

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