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Heart of darkness

Le Monde, December 1, 1999

Translated by Eric Beauchemin of Radio Netherlands

Abducted, forcibly enlisted by the army or the rebels, nearly 10,000 children took part in the war. They were trained to become killers, using weapons, drugs and even human blood. "Share Blood", one of the blood thirsty, became a general at the age of 14. Now, he is in search of a new identity.

Ibrahim is a "savage". Horrifying. He is 16. His life has been moulded by war. This is a descent into hell. "In Liberia, in 1991, I was captured, and I became a fighter. I was eight years old." Ibrahim Barry Junior fought with three Liberian factions, then with two factions in Sierra Leone. At the age of 14, he became a "general", the commander of a Small Boys Unit. An abducted kid who became a kidnapper himself, a killer, a great fighter. Ibrahim Barry Jr. lost his identity to become "Share Blood", and then "General Share Blood", a man of the jungle, the leader of a battalion.

"They gave me that name because I had a tradition: every morning I drank human blood." Ibrahim is now in a child soldier rehabilitation programme run by Father Momoh and his group, Children Associated with War. Ibrahim is waiting for his daily food ration. He might get to see a psychiatrist today, tomorrow or some time in the future. He would like to find a school that would accept him. He hasn't been to school since he was 7.

There are about 10,000 children in Sierra Leone who have lived in servitude, who have fought with the army, the rebels or the Kamajors: soldiers, rebels and sometimes 'sobels' as people call them: soldiers during the day, rebels at night, uncontrollable, without any roots.

"The ULIMO-K initiated me in Liberia and then Charles Taylor's NPFL. I remember my first weeks of training. A Liberian officer showed us how to use a Kalachnikov and a Guinean witch doctor made us drink blood and eat prisoners' hearts." After an intermezzo with Sierra Leone's Civil Defence Forces, Ibrahim joined the Revolutionary United Front, the RUF. "Among the CDF, the Kamajors, who were fighting for the government, there was a certain discipline," he says. The Kamajors, traditional hunters, initially created the Civil Defence Forces and then established auto-defence militias before actively fighting for power after the military coup. Despite their mystical beliefs, their dress and customs such as cannibalism, the Kamajors remained fairly disciplined, loyal to their chief, Sam Inga Norma. "I wanted to find freedom again, the anarchy I had known in Liberia," says Ibrahim. "So I joined the RUF rebels."

Ibrahim led 50 child soldiers in the Zebra Battalion Small Boys Unit. There Ibrahim enjoyed freedom and power. He put into practice what he had been taught. "My men knew I had to drink human blood every morning. If we had a prisoner, I would kill him myself. I would cut his head off with a machete. Otherwise, I would send my boys out to find a prisoner or to capture a civilian. Then I would mix my drugs in the blood. That was my daily ceremony. It gave my courage and vision. That's why I was the best fighter." Share Blood never reveals the details of his crimes. "I killed many people. I cut many people's hands off. I burnt many houses." But he likes to speak about life in the bush. "I had a wife, named Sia Musi. She led a small girls unit. "Her name was Queen Cut Hands because her speciality was cutting the arms and hands off of prisoners. She was our queen. When I went on military operations upcountry, of course I raped girls. But when I was back at the base, I was always loyal to Sia."

Queen Cut Hands died in a battle last year. "It's the only time I cried during the eight years of war. That night, I killed three of my boys to punish them. They should have died instead of Sia. I was sad." Share Blood doesn't hide the fact that he ruled his unit by terror. "If one of the boys committed a crime, if he refused to obey an order, I would put a burning leaf on his eyes. It would blind him. And if one of my boys tried to escape and was caught, my fighters would murder him themselves, because they knew it would be even worse if they brought him to me."

Ibrahim Barry Junior believes that if you're in the bush with a gun, blood and drugs, you're a king. "There's freedom in the bush". War, drugs, videos and music. "My favourite film is Rambo," he says. The rebels often showed American action films to the children before sending them into battle. Rambo waging a brutal war for a just cause.

In Freetown, Ibrahim made his way to the Saint Anthony Church. "Every Sunday, I join the choir in singing gospel songs. If no school wants to have me, maybe I'll become a reverend. I'll help unfortunate children?" Otherwise, he might became a criminal investigator. "After all, I have 8 years of experience of crime!" He chuckles and orders another Fanta.

But this teenager wants to build a new identity. "Here at Father Momoh's, some of the boys still call me general. I tell them, no, my name is Ibrahim." But he can't go back home. "My mother came to see me in Freetown. She told me I can't return to my village in the south." The rebel attacks always had a name. 'Operation Pay Yourself', 'Operation No Living Thing'. "We attacked Filor during 'Operation No Living Thing'. The only thing we didn't kill were plants. Fortunately the people from my family had already fled into the bush. But I killed my mother's neighbours. I even burnt my grandfather's house? I can't go back to the south."

In Freetown, there's just poverty. "In the bush, I had 50 boys at my beck and call. I had food, drugs, girls. In Freetown, I'm hungry and bored. When we killed and burnt down villages, politicians refused to talk to us. When we came here, in their capital, they suddenly feared for their children and their privileges. They said they wanted to negotiate. Are people in the bush less human than those in the city?" In Freetown, Ibrahim has had unexpected encounters. "A week after I arrived here, a guy who was missing a hand stopped me in the street. He grabbed my arm. He said he recognised me: I was the one who cut his hand off. I was laughing because I was still drugged. I shouted, 'Asshole. The only reason you are able to stop me is because I didn't cut off your other hand.' He was yelling. People brought petrol to burn me alive. I laughed because I knew that when I came back to Freetown, I ran the risk of being identified and murdered. But in the end, Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers saved me."

Some days when he's talked too much, Ibrahim Barry Jr. pleads to see the doctor. "My head hurts so much. Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy." He believes he's got over his drug addiction. But in the morning, he feels "strange without his blood".

But there are new feelings too. "After meeting so many outsiders and telling them about the war, I'm beginning to feel guilty. I regret my crimes. It was wrong."

Wrong? "We are talking about progress, about liberating the people. I am a revolutionary!" asserts Foday Sankoh, the head of the Revolutionary United Front. The man who launched the war in 1991, with a handful of combatants from Liberia and young peasants, refuses to accept any "lies" which might tarnish his "revolution". 62-year-old Foday Sabana Sankoh is the key to the cease-fire and the reconciliation process. During the three years he spent in prison, he handed the reigns of the RUF over to Sam Bockarie, a.k.a. Mosquito because he moved so quickly in the bush. "I am the master of peace, the man called on by the people," he declares. "If I am not in Freetown, there will be war," adds this former British Army corporal, who's become an admirer of Libya's Colonel Khadaffi and a 'brother' of warlord Charles Taylor, now the president of Liberia.

Wrong? "Me, responsible for atrocities?" When we mention the testimony of the amputees at the Murray Town Camp, he becomes aggressive and says, "the amputees are lying. The government is skewing the facts!" But then Foday Sankoh backtracks. "It was war. We are all responsible: the ut education or understanding of democracy."

"Sankoh plunged this nation into chaos", believes a Sierra Leonean journalist. "Man's savagery accomplished the rest. Human beings can become animals. Children were forced to perpetrate crimes. They learned to enjoy this savage pleasure. They like to instil fear in civilians, and yet they respect their leaders. As a child, I read Joseph Conrad. Sierra Leone's war is something out of 'The Heart of Darkness'."

Last paragraph of the third article In the 19th century, Krios called Freetown "West Africa's Athens". The first freed slaves of the British Empire founded the city in 1850. Today it anxiously awaits the next step in the peace process. Every day, its inhabitants discuss the thousand and one stories of the war and the post-war era. The other day, when a fighter who had just come back from the jungle went to his parents' home, he discovered that both his sisters' hands had been amputated. The welcome was icy. He pleaded with his parents to forgive him for having fought with the rebels. But he soon understood that his family's hostility was not only because he had been among those who had sown terror in Freetown in January. They accused him of having himself cut off his sisters' hands, together with his murderous gang in a night of drunkenness and insanity. The man placed his gold and diamonds on the dining room table without saying a word. He went out into the compound. He loaded his gun and shot himself.

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