The tragedy of Liberia’s ex-girl soldiers


By  
Source: The Nation

A girl soldier patrols the streets of Monrovia 
with fellow child soldiers

Some scenic night in Sinkor, the rain will pour down “like mad.” Cold to Lucia’s hopes and her secret hurt, it will fall to soak her already drenched corpse. Lucia, 23, would love to drown in Golden Beach at 2nd Sinkor. She would like to go while the rain falls heavily and the city sleeps. It seems a fantastic way to go for the “general contractor” and former girl soldier. “Bullet don’t kill me. See, they shoot me in the war…three times. I got four shots on my back, one on my thigh. I didn’t die ‘cos I fight like a man. I fear nobody. You can ask around,” said Lucia proudly showing off her scars.

That Lucia a.k.a Commander Fine-trap, could not be felled by any bullet when she was a “fearless” 14-year-old was as much a stroke of luck as it was a frill of fate. At age 12, she was made to watch as ethnic militia loyal to the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) decapitated her parents and split her pregnant sister’s belly with a battle axe. “Tatiana (her sister) got six months baby (pregnancy) and they rape her; eight of them. They cut her belly open to bring out the child. They say she carrying enemy child (sic). They said my pa was LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development) rebel but he wasn’t. They say my ma was LURD spy, so they killed ‘em both (sic). They rape my ma and shoot her in the neck. They shoot pa in the neck and cut his head with machete,” recollected Lucia.


Thoroughly shaken and eyes glazed over, Lucia recounted scenes she would rather forget like one seeking desperately to rediscover innocence and her true nature in the depths and darkness that has become her past. Eventually, Lucia was taken into captivity by the men who killed her family. Like most other girls captured from Lofa County, she was serially raped and kept as a “bush wife” (sex slave) by government forces in a military base not far from Voinjama. At the base, she was forced to do a lot of chores for the soldiers, including general laundry and cooking. She said:  “I was very afraid but I got nowhere to run. I spend one year and seven months as bush wife before I escape (sic).” Lucia escaped with Taegbae, a fellow “bush wife” while they were sent to the frontlines with reinforcements to tote medicine for the government forces.


While they escaped, they were captured by rebels from the LURD army. The latter took them back to their base where they gang-raped them continuously for two days until Taegbae asphyxiated to death. The scene was a gory one for Lucia who watched her friend and newly adopted sister choke and bleed to death during the rampant sex with LURD soldiers. “Right there, I decided to carry gun,” said Lucia.


In two months, Lucia became the “Queen-girl” and “Number One” (an Alpha concubine of sort) of a fearsome LURD commandant. Two weeks later, she was decorated a commander after she led a very ruthless squad of 20 teenage girls to rescue an ambushed LURD regiment. “We started D-Angels (Death Angels). Only four of us died during the war. They died because they broke the law (girl soldier oath). They break it when nobody know. That is why flying bullet kill them,” said Lucia stressing the danger in flouting their “law” which among other things demanded total loyalty to the group and the whims of the squadron leader.


It gets more interesting: it was an abomination for a D-Angel to date two soldiers at a time or take a fellow soldier’s “bush husband for loving.” It was also an abomination for a D-Angel to sleep with the enemy (government soldier) except she was sent on such mission by her commander. If a Death Angel is raped by the enemy, she must do everything within her power to get killed or take her own life. The idea is to prevent any such soldier from betraying or becoming the weak link of the fearsome regiment.


As a LURD commander, Lucia’s weapon of choice was a “60”; that was an automatic weapon and she wore the ammunition around her chest. Before she became commander, no girl soldier was paid for fighting but members of her elite squad particularly soon received $300 Liberian dollars like every boy soldier.


During her time as commander, Lucia made sure young captive girls didn’t get guns or fight unless they wanted to. According to her, their servitude was restricted to toting supplies and spying for the group. The rest stayed back at the base to do the chores and cook. They, however, suffered the misfortune of being randomly abused as sex slaves by LURD soldiers, particularly from the lower ranks.


Joining LURD as a fighter, no doubt, accorded Lucia leverage, putting her in vantage position to stave off sexual attacks and slavery. More importantly, it afforded her opportunity to hunt the men who murdered her family and held her as a sex slave for almost two years. Although she never found them, Lucia claimed to have killed “more than enough” government soldiers to pacify her lust for revenge.


Now that the war has ended and Liberia struggles to rebuild, Lucia doesn’t think much of the ongoing transition process. “They say the war is over. Tell me, how? Many people are still carrying gun. They’re  robbing poor people to survive. Can’t blame them…you know. Some of my sisters (D-Angels) agreed to learn tailoring, some start petty business with disarmament dollars. It’s not working, you know. The money ain’t ever enough. Things are very tough now but me, I’m just very lucky. I run good business. I supply everything to bars, restaurants, filling stations and hotels,” said Lucia.


“I’m really tired,” she went on, “I’ve seen many, many bad things a child shouldn’t see but I see it. So I grow up very tough. People say me and my girls bad (sic). Yes we bad but I say we just toughing it up (sic). Good girls die. Good girls don’t live. Good girl die during the war. I know someday, I will die but if I wanna go (die), I go in the beach. Golden beach, you know. Very peaceful…Sometimes, I feel very hot in the head. I see many bad things like nightmare even when I don’t sleep. Makes my head very hot. Makes my body hot too. Makes me wanna jump in the sea, you know, sink peacefully,” said Lucia.


But first she will take care of some personal business: “I got this daughter. I am going to raise her to be very good lady. I put her in school in our former place in Congo Town but there are too many bad boys there. The girls there are bad like the boys. They drink and smoke and sleep around. They fight and cause trouble a lot. They got no work, they don’t go to school…they just love to do nothing. Don’t want my daughter to be like that. Don’t want her to be like me,” said Lucia with the certitude of one who knows that suicidal yearnings may be delayed for very important reasons, like an innocent child.


There is magic in Lucia’s love for her child. It belies her vanity and cold pretence for every other kind of love which makes her “gonna do anything for her.”


The same can hardly be said for Beatrice P. a.k.a Ball-breaker. Beatrice recently gave up her daughter for adoption. The 23-year-old claimed it had become too difficult to provide for herself and her seven-year-old daughter. According to her, the child is a product of her eight-month relationship with two of her childhood friends and bush husbands while they served with the AFL. Beatrice was picked up by the AFL during a raid in Bushrod Island to forcefully recruit children to fight on the side of the AFL during the war.


“They grabbed me at Point 4 junction. I was running errand for my ma. I tried to run but they picked me up and throw me in the truck. They said I must join them to fight and protect Monrovia from the baboons (rebel forces). After one week, one of my street friends in Bushrod (an AFL soldier) come to tell me that my pa and sister was dead (sic) and nobody see my ma. He said LURD army attacked our place and killed them. So I decided to fight and get revenge,” said Beatrice.


Beatrice was trained alongside 200 girls and boys by the LURD army. Commenting on the fabled abilities of their girl counterparts, Albert, a former child soldier, said: “These girls who fight, they are big, 16 and older, and they fight just like men. They are strong. When the fighting is rough, they move right in because they have juju (magic). They are special. They don’t move in on the frontline, but they go ahead when there’s a problem, we would retreat and the ‘wives’ would go forward.”


The lure of service with the black diamond group, among other things, lured Elaine to abscond from home and pitch her tent with the group. Elaine left without saying a word to her family at 13. The former girl soldier and native of Grand Gedeh disclosed that she absconded from their house in Congo town because life became unbearable living with her family. “I didn’t want to keep on suffering. My father was jobless and he drank a lot. He was even too scared to fight. Maybe if he at least fought for or against the government, he might be paid some money but he didn’t. He simply drank and hit us all. Every time he got drunk, he came to our room and climbed upon me while my younger ones are sleeping. He started acting like I am his wife. Whenever I refused, he beat me. I couldn’t let him continue beating me and forcing himself on me. So I ran away to join my boyfriend. He was a LURD fighter and a hero. He taught me everything I know about survival today,” disclosed Elaine stressing that she had never had cause to regret her action.


But Letla regrets every moment she spent as an AFL fighter. The former AFL soldier particularly rues her involvement in the forced recruitment and enslavement of innocent girls during the war. According to her, she was returning home from school when she was captured and forcibly conscripted into the AFL by child soldiers fighting for the AFL. “They raped me in the truck on the way to the base. At the base, I was made to do many chores. I fetched water, cleaned guns and washed the senior officers’ uniforms. When I realised that I was going to be raped every day, I offered to become the “bush wife” of one of their most ruthless soldiers. In return, I was protected and nobody else attempted to rape me henceforth. When her “bush husband” got killed on a mission, Letla decided to fight. Soon, she became very popular for her ability to capture and recruit minors, particularly young teenage girls. “I would line them up and supervise their initiation – which involved painful whipping and rape by multiple soldiers. The idea was to break and toughen them up.


 “Today Letla struggles with recurrent bouts of depression and nightmares as she keeps seeing gory images from her past. However, asides their personal demons, many girl soldiers or combatants during Liberia’s 14-year-war have to contend with scorn and hostility from families, friends and other members of their immediate community thus making a sham of the much touted Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) efforts.


The phenomenon of young mothers, or girls who are pregnant, returning from armed groups remains largely unacknowledged. These young mothers, sometimes termed the most vulnerable of all returnees, hardly benefit from formal disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) efforts. Basically, they are invisible in the eyes of those who fund, design and implement DDR programmes. This invisibility stems from several factors particularly sexism, whereby boys and men are privileged, policy priorities that emphasize giving up guns as a pre-requisite for help, and the fact that girl mothers are often not perceived as soldiers. Rather, their involvement with fighting forces is typically dismissed by the act of describing them as the “wives” of soldiers.


Life as a social outcast


In relation to their reintegration experiences, the majority of former girl soldiers and mothers disclosed that they had initially experienced support from their parents when they returned home, with parents giving help with cleansing rites, babysitting, obtaining food and clothing, and accessing the health clinic. However, tensions arose when some girls received a payment of about $300 US as part of their formal demobilisation. These tensions arose because the girl mothers and their parents had differing plans for use of the money. For example, some girls had made plans for how to use the money with their ex-combatant boyfriends. Parents, instead, expected the money to be used for purposes such as for paying debts, school fees and petty trading. Because of these differences of opinion, the level of family acceptance and care for the girls and their children decreased – even when girls agreed to contribute to financial costs such as meals, medication and clothing for themselves.


Another issue of concern was that some girls who had started small businesses were unable to continue running them either because they needed to take care of their babies themselves, or because business proceeds were used to contribute to the family instead of being re-invested into the business. When the girls were less able to contribute to family finances, and if their boyfriends did not help to support their babies, the girls’ families insulted them and referred to both them and their children as “rebels.” The result, according to the girls, was that many girl mothers moved out of their family homes to live with their ex-combatant partners. Within the larger community, parents often did not support their children’s friendships with any girls who had previously been associated with fighting forces, but especially with other girl mothers.


In many Liberian communities, former girl soldiers are believed to be sexually active, drug addicted, violent, and unpredictable. Therefore, they are considered useless. Parents in the larger community consequently fear that their own children will adopt these habits and were reported to make remarks such as “What do you expect of a rebel girl?” “You know they are used to seeing blood,” and “It is better to avoid these rebel girls; otherwise they could wound you.” As a result, many girl mothers could make friends only with other girls who had been associated with fighting forces. 


Girl mothers and their children often face community judgment, stigmatisation, and social distancing upon their return from fighting forces – especially when their “bush husbands” continue to be part of their lives. Their psychological trauma is compounded by the sexual violence that most have encountered, which may include physical injury to their genitals and reproductive organs as well as sexually-transmitted diseases. Also, the girls often experience a sense of shame due to the violation of community norms through their forced involvement in sexual relations outside of the traditional bounds of marriage. At the same time, community members may also feel shame as a result of their inability to protect the girls from these violations.


Adding motherhood to this equation makes reintegration much more difficult for girl mothers than for other girls or boys. Consequently, some girl mothers do not desire reunification with family members, and, instead, seek new living arrangements. The non-traditional living situations of girl mothers in war-affected countries are thus altering household patterns and kinship arrangements in many Liberian communities.


Why girls?


In Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers use suicide bombing as a vital war tactic, girls are recruited because it easier for them to evade government security. This reason also applies to armed opposition groups not necessarily using suicide bombing as a war tactic elsewhere, including many African countries currently or recently embroiled in conflict.


It is important to consider another dimension. Just as in the wider society, men are seeking younger sexual partners in order to avoid HIV/AIDS infection; rebels are recruiting younger girls for the same reasons. This further emphasizes the view that many wartime practices reflect the attitudes and practices of peacetime society. 


According to Nancy Meboh, a Monrovia based missionary and aid worker, many rebel groups are forcibly recruiting young girls with no minimum age of recruitment. Once a girl shows emerging breasts, she is considered ripe for recruitment and for being handed over to a rebel as a wife. The recruitment of young girls is often a deliberate attempt to provide ‘wives’ free from HIV infection, thus the criteria used for ‘marrying’ girls to rebel men seems to be a sign of puberty,” she said.


The importance of girls to armed opposition groups is glaring. Sierra Leone, a country currently in the process of building peace and reconstructing its society, is a good case study to consider. Between 1992 and 1996 the majority of inhabitants of RUF camps in Sierra Leone were girls. In fact, whilst it was estimated that up to 80 per cent of all RUF forces were children between the ages of seven and 14, 30 per cent of that figure were girls According to Chris Robertson, the head of Save the Children’s Fund (SCF) in Sierra Leone, “negotiating the release of girls is a lot harder than boys.” 


Whilst boy combatants are of little value in the post-war period because they performed largely combatant roles, armed groups are reluctant to release girls, despite the fact that the fighting has terminated. The RUF continues to use abducted girls as domestic workers and ‘wives.’ Sometimes RUF commanders formed ‘strong’ bonds with their female captives, telling child protection agents that they wanted to marry them. In turn, some of the girls in RUF camps claimed to be in love with their captors and did not want to return home.


In the case of Liberia, girl combatants consisted of only one per cent of all child soldiers demobilised further emphasizing the fact that the DDR process in the country still has its shortcomings.


Methods of recruitment


Methods used to recruit girls into various armed factions are numerous. The participation of girls may be the result of compulsory military service (for example, Cuba and the Philippines); abduction or gang-pressing (for example, Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Colombia); being born into or adopted by an armed opposition group (for example, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Uganda); being sold or given to armed forces by a parent as a form of a ‘tax’ payment or due to social rejection (for example, Colombia and Cambodia); ‘volunteerism’ because of a desire for protection, survival, to earn an income, further career options, including those relating to the government or military, or because of state violence against families and communities.


In the last decade, girls have become the targets of active recruitment by armed groups in many countries afflicted by conflicts. In Mozambique, RENAMO promised study-abroad scholarships in order to attract adolescent girls and boys into its forces but very few of these scholarships ever materialized.


Uganda provides more recent and better-known examples: On 10th October 1996, 139 girls were abducted from St. Mary’s College at Aboke in Apac District, northern Uganda by members of the LRA. International attention became focused on this case when the Italian deputy headmistress of the school, Sister Rachel, followed the abductors and managed to secure the release of the majority of the girls.


Like their male peers, many girls make an active decision to participate in conflict and ‘volunteer’ with an armed group, for numerous reasons, including the fact that having a gun is likely to provide greater protection against rape and other abuses.


Consequences of girl soldiering 


In addition to suffering the same consequences of armed conflict as boy soldiers and other children generally, girl combatants face further challenges due to their combined role as girls and fighters and thus, have specific needs that need to be considered in demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. These are notably pregnancy and its possible birth complications, made worse by the widespread practice of female genital infibulations in many African countries.


Other factors include abortions (a decision in which the mother often has no say) and its own associated complications. This situation is compounded by the lack of health facilities and medical infrastructure in many war-torn countries.


In addition to emphasising the public health problems mentioned above, the use of girls as sex slaves and ‘wives’ leads to a high incidence of STDs including HIV/AIDs. In fact, nearly 80 per cent of girl abductees who fought and served with government forces and rebel groups in Liberia are said to have sexually transmitted infections. Girls who have been raped and forced into sexual servitude suffer from abdominal pains, cervical tearing, bleeding and infections, which can result in the increased risk of STDs. This, in turn, can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. As infectious diseases can often be passed onto the offspring of the girls during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, the physical effects of their abuse are passed on to the next generation. In addition, adolescent girl soldiers frequently suffer from loss of menstruation due to malnutrition and trauma.


Psychological effects of conflict on girls are said to differ from those on boys to an extent. Girls who have experienced sexual violence also suffer from shock, shame, low self-esteem, poor concentration, persistent nightmares and depression.


However, according to Dyan Mazurana, Associate Professor and Research Director for Gender, Youth, and Community, Feinstein International Center, girls tend to withdraw more than boys who are more likely to behave with aggression. Girls who have been abducted by armed groups and sexually abused during conflict are often rejected by their communities and find no support there.


True, many families don’t want a rebel child. The fact that they were forced into service often appears to be immaterial. Counsellors at World Vision for instance, related experiences of fathers rejecting their daughters because they had been ‘tainted’ by their abusers and as a result, it was believed that they had definitely lost all prospects for marriage.


With nowhere to turn, these children often become sex workers. What future do these girls and their children have without family or societal support? The psyche of girl combatants is further assaulted by stigmatisation and taunts in which they are referred to as ‘used goods’ that have lost their taste.


Their children, who have been born as a result of rape, are often branded as ‘children of hate’ or ‘children of bad memories’and suffer from stigmatisation and rejection similar to that experienced by their teenage mothers.


In some cases, these children are then spurned by their own mothers. According to counselors and social workers in Liberia, the increase in street children in the capital, Monrovia, could partly be due to abandoned children born to girls used as sex slaves.


Additionally, girls who participate in conflicts as active combatants also confront severe challenges reintegrating into family and society. Many young women, whose identities were forged in combat, may have to conceal the role they played in conflict and, for fear of total rejection by their husband’s family, must pretend to be the gentle, soft-spoken and submissive woman that their civilian counterpart is.


Furthermore, it has been argued that the participation of girls and women in conflict can have some positive consequences in the post-war period. In Sierra Leone, the war is seen to have brought opportunities to this group; more women are heads of households as a result of the conflict and a change in gender relations, whereby women can negotiate more effectively, has been noted.


Therefore, it is important to bear in mind the findings of a recent report produced by the Quaker UN Office entitled, ‘The Voices of Girl Soldiers’: These girls exhibited a strong sense of self or they would not have survived. They often felt broken and alone but ultimately not severed from some fundamental sense of who they were or who they could become. Even when stripped of the outward signs of their identity and forced to participate in abusive relationships they were able to maintain some sense of self. They often acted fearless when terrified, and stood up for themselves in the face of brutal treatment and consequences.


They lived with contradictions and intense feelings of ambivalence about supporting the movement and being recognized for their accomplishments and at the same time being perpetrators of violence. They wanted to be someone and they longed to be valued. The girls continue to pursue life recognising that once others knew that they had served in armed movements, even when it was against their will, they would be viewed as untrustworthy and generally diminished in the minds of others.


Just as child soldiering is not a newly developed phenomenon neither is girl soldiering. Mazurana and colleagues for instance, refer to Joan of Arc as the best-known Western girl combatant in history. In 1429 sixteen year-old Joan led an army of 4,000 against the English and successfully expelled them from Orleans.


However, her victory was short-lived as the following year she was captured by Burgundian soldiers and sold to the English who proceeded to burn her at the stake. During the First World War 14-year-old Marina Yurlova found herself at the front lines of battle as a private in the Cossack army, which was used by the Western front in Europe against Germany and Austro-Hungary. Around the same time thousands of miles away another 14-year-old girl, Jesusa Palancares, joined her father to spy for the federales during the Mexican revolution.


In the same vein, African history yields tales of girl fighters; the most intriguing being the female army from the African kingdom of Dahomey, now present-day Benin. During the 18th and 19th centuries the people of Dahomey were said to have regarded female warriors as superior to their male counterparts. Therefore, every three years fathers had to report to the king with daughters aged between nine and fifteen years in order for the fittest to be selected for military duty. In this way the strength of the royal female forces was maintained.


International discussions, peace accords, reports, studies and demobilisation and rehabilitation programmes all use the generic term ‘child soldiers’ to describe children involved in armed conflicts and then proceed to focus primarily on boys as combatants. Girls are usually largely forgotten, ignored or dismissed. If lucky, they will be acknowledged as an appendage, an after-thought in a concluding paragraph or an appendix in the deepest recesses of a book or report.


There is little awareness of the dimensions of the suffering inflicted on girls, or of the many unpalatable roles they are forced to play during conflict. Nobody really cares about them and their war-babies.


Hence most girl combatants are still very much out of the picture; if child soldiers are arguably invisible, then girl soldiers simply disappear from plain sight.

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