Former child soldiers feel forgotten before election

Sunday, 08 October 2017, 07:18:25 PM. Victims remember the gruesome details of working for Charles Taylor as they struggle through life with little help.

Monrovia, Liberia - Tucked deep in Monrovia's impoverished Red Light District, Sugar Hill Community is a slum within a slum.

Set against a sprawling rubbish tip, its corrugated iron shacks lean and sag against a grey sky. A group of its residents are taking shelter from the rain, slugging "King Juice", a high-proof spirit, from clear plastic bags.

These men are the pariahs of Liberian society, former child soldiers who live a hand-to-mouth existence, stealing to survive.

"We are not human beings. We are not recognised in society," says Winston Graham, who is 39 years old.

For him, upcoming elections on October 10, widely viewed as a test of Liberia's hard-won, fragile stability, mean nothing. "I'm not interested. Nobody will help us," he says.

It is estimated that as many as 20,000 child soldiers fought in Liberia's 14-year civil war, two back-to-back conflicts. The war ended in 2003, having killed about 250,000 people - or about a quarter of the population.

Today, thousands of former child soldiers live in the slums of Monrovia, shunned by society as they struggle with PTSD, addiction and extreme poverty.

Most of the men at Sugar Hill fought with Charles Taylor, the mercurial rebel leader-turned-president, whose forces invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast in 1989. Within a year, his army had split into factions battling for control of territory and resources, raping, maiming and massacring as they went.

Having controlled much of the bush throughout the 1990s, Taylor eventually became president in 1997 under the infamous slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him."

Now, "Papay", or "the old man", as the men of Sugar Hill once called him, is in a British prison, serving a 50-year sentence for aiding and abetting rebels who committed atrocities in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone war.

Taylor had fuelled that conflict with arms, enriching himself with the country's "blood diamonds". He has never been held criminally responsible for conduct he oversaw in the Liberian conflict.

"He is still our father!" shouts one of the men, a sentiment everyone agrees with.

The men, who were coerced and manipulated into joining Taylor's army, still look up to him.

Painful memories

In Sugar Hill, life is a daily battle for survival.

"We steal to generate money. If we saw you in the street, we would take your chain and your mobile phone," says Graham. "But we are good people. If we can survive for just one day, we thank God.

"We are self-employed," he says.

Many of the men carry bullets in their bodies.

"Feel my leg," says Graham, undoing his tracksuit bottoms to reveal scarring on his right thigh. "One doctor wanted to cut my leg open, but I said no. So, now I just get tetanus injections."

former-child-soldiers-feel-forgotten-before-election photo 1 Winston Graham, 39, worked as a cook for Charles Taylor's army [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

Other men come forward, lifting items of clothing to show their bullets and scars.

But it's the memories that cause the most pain.

Graham worked as a cook for Charles Taylor's special forces from the age of 15.

He describes how one commander would get a kick out of opening the stomachs of pregnant women, just to see if they were carrying a male or female baby. After witnessing such acts, the boy would hide away in the bush to calm his mind. He fled to Ivory Coast in the mid-1990s, returning to Liberia in 2011 in the hope of finding a better life.

"There is no rest in my mind," he says. "If you are not strong, you will go out of your mind."

former-child-soldiers-feel-forgotten-before-election photo 4

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