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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Hostage to the events of the week

It's a matter of interpretation

G8 a virtual affair

Silly season at the G8

A bizarre ambassador for African aid

The Irish in U.S. altruism

The wonderful world of globo-wonkery: It's all in the acronyms

It's the money, dummy

And this guy's on our side

'This isn't my child . . . it's a 12-year-old monster'

By STEPHANIE NOLE, The Globe and Mail

The young men live in a Freetown ghetto, their home a tiny three-walled shantytown house with old grain sacks hung to keep out the sun.

At night, they sleep on the dank concrete floor, and by day, they sit around a plank of wood that passes for a table, throwing dice and rolling joints as thick as a carrot.

Their former commander, a man of 30, is still in charge, and strict gang hierarchy prevails: It is a scene from an African Lord of the Flies.

All sides in Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war employed child soldiers. The Civilian Defence Force armed boys and girls to protect their villages, and let them enforce youth rule with their weapons.

The Revolutionary United Front abducted children at gunpoint, shooting parents who resisted. They took the kids into the bush: The smallest ones were put to work as bearers and dishwashers, the girls as sex slaves.

The boys were hooked on drugs including heroin and "brown brown," a variation of crack cocaine, indoctrinated, and terrorized. A few who disobeyed were shot or hacked to death to teach the others a lesson. Such tactics were remarkably successful, said Ngolo Kata, director of an agency now trying to help the young former combatants rejoin society.

The RUF's child warriors were savage to the extreme. They forced young men to rape their mothers; placed bets on the gender of a pregnant woman's fetus and then sliced open her belly to see who had won; gang-raped teenaged girls, then fired guns into their vaginas; and tossed frail elderly women down village wells. Through it all, they appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Some child soldiers have given up their guns and gone home, but plenty more live in the ghetto. In this house, they all have the same last name -- Kamare, after their home village in the north.

The oldest, Osman, is 24; the youngest, Sully, is 17, and they don't mind talking about the war. "There was so much evil," Sully said -- then laughed. "There was raping, there was killing."

Only a morose 19-year-old named Alusin Ila neither smirked nor joked. At 9, he was seized by the rebels after school one day, and watched as they shot his father, then his mother. Then they made him march away with them. "The worst thing I did," he recalled, staring at the scuffed black plastic shoes he has slashed open to let his toes poke through, "was lighting the houses on fire and burning the mothers and the children inside."

He has had no contact with the rest of his family since the day he was kidnapped. Now, he thinks he would like to go to school, learn to read and be a judge -- "to judge the wicked." Instead, he stays in this dank room, sleeping on the floor open to the rain, with these boys, his adopted family. The young men say they haven't gone home because they don't have the $14 it costs. And yet, almost that much is changing hands across the gambling table, and there is a fine market in the neighbourhood for their newspaper-rolled joints. Lack of money isn't what keeps them in Freetown.

"When the kids go home, the parents say, 'This isn't my child,' because this isn't the six-year-old who left; it's a 12-year-old monster," explained Frances Fortune, a Canadian who has worked in Sierra Leone for almost 15 years. "And it's hard when you've been in charge of deciding life and death to go home and be someone's kid again."

Mr. Kata, the counsellor, offered one more reason: "Some of them can't go home -- because they killed their own families."

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