I Was A Child Soldier: I Grew Up With Guns And Murder

Deadly boot camps and drug addiction before the age 16 -- life a child soldier is as horrifying as you imagined.
I Was A Child Soldier: I Grew Up With Guns And Murder

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In 1989, Charles Taylor kicked off the First Liberian Civil War when he led an insurgent force against the government of President Samuel Doe. Seven years later, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, made up of ethnic groups persecuted by Doe, emerged victorious, and Taylor was elected the new president. Here's where the story gets slightly less inspiring. Far from being scrappy, lovable underdogs, Taylor's NPFL committed numerous war crimes during the conflict. One of them: killing civilians, and then recruiting their orphaned kids as soldiers in the Small Boys Units (there had to be a better name for that). We spoke to one of these former soldiers, as well as the person who helped him put his life back together ...

Children Are Made Into Soldiers Because They're Easy To Manipulate

The National Patriotic Front of Liberia, and other Liberian rebel forces, "recruited" up to 15,000 youngsters during the civil war. Why? Because it was easy. "Puck," the former child soldier we spoke to, recalls the night he was taken by the NPFL:

"It all began in 1992, when the village I was seeking refuge in was attacked by the NPFL rebels. Lots of other kids were abducted along with me, and taken away from our parents. I was scared, I was screaming, shouting for help, but there was no one to help. I was fighting to hold firm, to protect me from being taken, but the more I fought, the more I was dragged, beaten, and threaten by the guy pulling me by my right hand ... I want to believe that the percentage of child soldiers was about 25 percent, and out of that, 20 percent were 15 or younger."

That's actually a bizarrely optimistic assessment, according to Human Rights Watch, which estimated that Liberian child soldiers could be as young as ten. That's because, as anyone who's ever interacted with a child for more than a few minutes knows, children don't fully understand the difference between right and wrong. Dr. Lucinda Woodward, assistant professor of Psychology and International Studies at Indiana University Southeast, explains further: "Children are the perfect frontline soldiers (this is where the term 'infantry' came from) because they take orders unquestioningly, they are easily recruited by force or mentoring, and because they do not possess full moral development, and so can be coerced or persuaded to perform atrocities that many adults would not consider."

And now you know why kids appear so often in both horror movies and warlord armies all over the world.

Child Soldiers Are Given Real Military Training (And Tons Of Drugs)

Because the NPFL used guns instead of human catapults, they needed skilled soldiers in their ranks. So during the first civil war, Puck and kids like him were given military training which was a mix between Marine boot camp and a Rambo movie. "I went through a one-week brutal period known as zero week. Zero week is like a testing of the soldier ability, some said 'taking the civilian behavior out of a person and putting a soldier or military mind in him/her.'"

Although in some cases, it was more about taking the life out of a soldier and putting gruesome death into them. A lot of kids didn't survive zero week, with some burning to death during rope drills over barrels of flaming petrol. And this level of brutality starts from minute one. "At the point of entering the place where you are to receive your basic training, you are received by a giant group with big, big whips/sticks, and you are being escorted by those guys while being whipped. Some people don't survive during this period ... We were in the bush for most of zero week, and we were feeding on wild fruits, cassava from old farms, palm nuts ..."

"There were girl child soldiers, too. The girls were forced for sex/rape purposes, but some became good fighters too. We were all given the same training. Some were taught on how to fire the gun, and small tactics." He's talking about girls like Mary, who during the first civil war commanded 30 people as an artillery commander. Some were kidnapped and forced to use their military expertise for the other side when the second civil war broke out. All that before turning 16.

Puck's training lasted about three months, during which time he learned ambush tactics, guard duty, patrolling, and guerrilla warfare. And if you're wondering how he got through all of this, the answer is: "We were given marijuana, and locally made cane juice, or some wild fruits from the forest that had the potential of making a man go crazy. I think the purpose of marijuana was to maybe make us brave. But I think it was just a habit to keep us together and keep our minds occupied."

The Children Were Given Nicknames To Strip Away Their Old Lives

West Africa has a long tradition of "identity magic." According to local beliefs, a person can gain new abilities / favor from the gods by changing their attire or any other identifying characteristic. Kind of like how shamans would put on elaborate masks to obtain mystical powers, or how NPFL soldiers would wear colorful dresses and wigs to battle during the First Liberian Civil War.

By putting on dresses, NPFL child soldiers would essentially assume two different identities, which was meant to "confuse enemy bullets" and keep them safe. Another powerful Liberian belief was that a person's behavior can be dictated by their name. And so, whenever the NPFL would finish training a child soldier, they renamed them, which is what happened to Puck.

"Fuck Cat was one of my nicknames," he told us, as we summoned every last bit of our willpower to try to remain professional. "Some of those names were given to me because of the way I used to perform in carrying on my duties. Our enemies/adversaries were considered cats, and I used to fuck them up, so the name Fuck Cat came about. At another location/operation, I was known as Alligator Baby. Alligator was the name of one of my late generals, and since I used to behave and perform in some ways like him, I was called Alligator Baby."

Other popular names among reborn child soldiers included "Buck Naked," "Human Eater," "Dirty Ways," and, of course, "Rambo." They were supposed to make the soldiers forget about their past lives and live up to their tough guy images. After all, a guy named "Rambo" doesn't wanna be seen laying down arms and hugging things out. But there was another reason for the new names. Dr. Woodward explains: "Child soldiers are given nicknames to protect their true identities ... There is always fear of reprisal when the conflict is over, and any action that enables the soldiers to hide their identities and possible war crimes is helpful."

Many Child Soldiers Willingly Reenlist, Because Fighting Is All They Know

After Taylor took over in Liberia in 1997, it took less than two years for his government's rampant corruption, torture, murder of dissidents, and other crimes to spark the Second Liberian Civil War, this time with rebels fighting against him. By then, Puck had already been released from military duty, and had no obligation to involve himself in any of the fighting. But that's precisely what he did, willingly joining Liberia's Armed Forces, led by the man whose militia kidnapped and abused him a few years prior. Either Liberia has the greatest GI Bill in history, or something else was at play here.

"At first I did hate the NPFL, but gradually, as months, years passed by, I got adjusted and focused on how to survive. My hate started to grow for the enemies. I reenlisted because the rebel groups that were attacking the government were all our former enemies, and there's this saying: once an enemy, always an enemy ... On many occasions, I was attacked by members of other units, and my crew usually came in swiftly to rescue me. And I felt obligated to do the same when called upon."

But more than that, Puck's decision to reenlist was simply a matter of not having that many career options, what with a huge CV gap that just read: Trust me, you don't want to know. "I mainly reenlisted for my own protection. I knew no other skill to survive on. I needed some kind of protection/security, and reenlisting into the service could have provided those needs. I believe if I had a skill, or a kind of payable job to keep me busy, I wouldn't have reenlisted. But all I knew was fighting, because I was a child when this whole fighting business was introduced to me. And up to the time of election, before the fighting began the second time, I had no other means of livelihood, and fighting was a kind of employment."

Unfortunately, there's not much of a retirement plan.

It's Difficult For Former Child Soldiers To Return To A Normal Life

In 2003, the Second Civil War ended, bringing an end to Taylor's rule and over 14 years of conflict, which claimed nearly a million Liberian lives. But what should have been a time of celebration was instead a period of great fear and uncertainty for Puck: "I left the army in 2003. My weapons were voluntarily turned over to the UN ... The aftermath was sad and disappointing for us at that point, but since we wanted peace, we accepted the results, and tried to find our ways in different locations, with little or no hope for the future."

According to Dr. Woodward, because of their stunted educational and emotional development, few former child soldiers will be able to reenter society without major intervention: "Most likely, fewer than 25 percent will return to a semblance of a normal life ... There are very limited resources for former child soldiers. Internationally, UNICEF provides rehabilitative services for those who are still children. For adults, Doctors Without Borders provides medical services to the best of their ability, as does the Mercy Ship and UNESCO (the United Nations)."

But the problem is getting the soldiers to ask for that help in the first place. Despite most of them wanting to continue their education, many worry that if they sign up for help, they will be tried and sentenced for the things they did during the war. This makes it difficult for them to receive the few benefits and training programs that are available to them. As for Puck, he managed to avoid that fate with help from Dr. Woodward:

"Since I a soldier, I relocated into Ghana, and there I met Dr. Lucinda in 2007. At that encounter, she became a great help in helping me put all my broken pieces together, and also became my counselor and instructor. From that point, I started doing some community volunteering services in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, later I continue providing my voluntary service back home in Liberia as a social worker. Since then, I've just been working in different social-work-related fields, and in different locations, for NGOs and INGOs in Liberia and Ghana."

But what best helped Puck get back on his feet, working with victims of civil wars, came to him by pure luck. He was one of only 30 people chosen for the counselor project headed by Dr. Woodward, while there are still thousands of former child soldiers in need of help with nowhere to turn. Sadly, this often includes their own families, who are too afraid to take them back in. See, this is why action movies cut off right after the fighting ends: Nobody wants to hear about Fuck Cat struggling to live with his past in a world that would rather forget him.

Lucinda Woodward, PhD is assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana. Her teaching encompasses social, personality, and clinical psychology, and her research interests include the interpersonal circumplex, pets and personality, child soldiers, and PTSD. A veteran of international fieldwork herself, as an instructor, Dr. Woodward is dedicated to encouraging her students to explore the boundaries of their world beyond the classroom. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at c.j.strusiewicz@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter.

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