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'I was a child soldier'

Osman Bah
22 January 2004

“I can’t remember anything until I was five years old. Then what I noticed was war. My mother and father and I were running away.” A Liberian teenager recalls a childhood of war.

I am from Liberia in West Africa. My town is Lofacounte, in the north. I have spent all my life fleeing. When I was a child, we had to move from my town and take refuge in neighbouring villages. That went on for years.

The morning the fighting started I was selling kolanut for my father in another part of town. I rushed back home to check on my mother. She normally prepared food with my sister and brought it to us where we worked. She was lying there dead, with bullets all over the walls. I went back to my father, who had been selling in the station. He was lying dead with the money from his pocket ripped out and two shots in his chest. I learned later that after killing my mother, they took my sister, who died after being raped.

My parents were not involved in politics. They were just local people. My father was from Guinea, my mother Liberian. He was a Muslim, she was a Christian. I am a Christian.

Seeing my family dead in front of me was the worst time of my life. I still do not know who killed them.

Growing up in war

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Camp life

I went home to find my documents, so that I could leave town. From our family business, I knew that I had to present my Liberian passport wherever we travelled. I took some money we had saved as well. I came out of the house and there were around seventeen guys. Some of them had dreadlocks. They stopped and checked me. Definitely, I was thinking, they will kill me. But they didn’t. Instead they stole everything and took me with them.

They gave me some boxes of ammunition to carry. I carried them for seven hours, walking to their camp in the forest. When we arrived, they started to screen us – five boys and two girls. They asked us: “Who do you want to fight for? Do you want to fight for the government, or to liberate the people of Liberia?” One boy was doubtful – they shot him in front of us. I had no option.

From that time, it wasn’t possible to get away. For a week, they trained us, showing us simple moves. They gave us rifles and taught us how to shoot. Then, about ten days later, they trained us to kill. A week later, they started moving us out on missions to big and small towns.

They put gunpowder from the shells into our food. It makes you feel on top of the world – you can do anything and you don’t care about anybody. It hardens you, makes you feel high, and cold in your mind. Some of us had soft minds, soft spirits and sympathies. But when you take these drugs you don’t have any regrets. You kill a person like killing a small chicken. And you don’t have any choice anyway. If you refuse they will definitely shoot you down, kill you or worse.

There were a thousand people in this filthy, dirty, cold camp. It was about a mile wide, with a lookout to spy on enemy movements. Many children, orphans, were adopted into makeshift families. The girls were always pregnant. There were no good doctors. Everyone stayed together in a circle of tents.

There was a lot of killing and brutality inside the camp.

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After a 'mission'

In that sort of camp, you sleep with your boots on and your rifle on your chest. Sometimes you have combat trousers, mixed with a civilian top. Your only exercise is when you go out on a mission. Then you might be running for ten or fifteen miles. We killed lots of people on those missions. Many were civilians. We kept on the move. We didn’t stay anywhere for long. We never felt safe.

The boys on these missions include small kids sent out in advance who are so skinny that they can get through enemy territory unsuspected. They manoeuvre through the bushes to get information and take it back.

On one of those missions, I was shot. My colleagues didn’t leave me. One of them carried me through the forest to our camp. I was stuck there until I could use a stick to get around. I couldn’t go out to get food. I was on my own.

After three months, the commanders gave me the job of disciplining those boys who were misbehaving. I had to beat them up.

The commanders captured one boy and were maltreating him. He was made to have sex. He finally got mad and drew a gun on the commander, who executed him on the spot. They would come to me with an assignment, saying: “This boy stole something from the camp house – we have to kill him”. I’d say: “OK, I’ll do it”. I hoped that I would not have to.

I realised that for those kids, I was just the same as the leaders. Given the chance, they would have shot me like that themselves. I felt my life was not safe.

Escape to Conakry

The rebel troops I was with started making incursions across the border into Guinea. The government there was angry. It threatened to destroy any border towns that harboured the rebels. Its forces dropped parachutists behind our lines. After two days of intense fighting, I was captured, tied up and beaten. I was thrown into the back of a truck, trussed up, naked, my hands tied behind my back with bootlaces. All I could see was other people’s boots. I lay there for hours.

My captors arrived and asked me for information about the whereabouts of our camp. They set about kicking me and hitting me on the shoulders with their rifles. I told them everything. I could not help myself. They put me in a prison cell with about twelve others. It was so small that you could not lie down. Then they took me out and beat me again.

After a while, one guy asked me how I came to be here. I told him about my parents being killed. He gave me something to eat. I couldn’t eat it. He then gave me a cup of tea. He gave me some trousers, because it was so cold. I saw that he pitied me.

I was in that prison for a few months. One night, a security guard opened the cell and took me out, saying that there was someone to see me. It was a military officer. He told me to jump into his car. He drove through the night back to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where he gave me some money and returned my passport.

I went to see an old friend whose house my father and I had once stayed in when we did business in Guinea. Luckily I remembered where it was. He told me he had been worrying about my family, and that I could stay for a while. The next day I went out to get some proper clothes. A man accosted me, and loudly accused me of killing his father. Soon, this attracted a crowd.

I had killed the man’s father. It was the first time they made me kill someone. For a long time I had avoided it. I shot this man with his family standing there. They made him run down the street and told me: “Come on, you have to do it, he’s a government spy.” They smiled and said: “Today’s your turn. You have to do it or we’ll shoot you.” I had seen them shoot boys before for refusing. I didn’t watch the man. I turned my face away. And I did it.

The crowd around his son were French-speakers and they did not really understand what was going on. I was so tiny that they couldn’t imagine why he was beating me up. Before the police could arrive, I ran away.

When I told my friend what had happened, he said that I had to stay inside his house. Guinea’s news media were announcing: “If you see any strangers, report them to the nearest police station.”

I stayed indoors for months. Then I left Conakry to go to Peta, my father’s village. I stayed with a good friend of my father’s who had owed my father money. He decided to ship me out of the country. He took me back to Conakry. There, a group of us met and arranged to go to one of the main ports. We passed through the main entrance without question. I think it was because there were so many soldiers around. We were all packed into a cabin at the back of a container ship.

Two and a half weeks later, I arrived in England.

Lost and found in Peckham

We arrived at night. We were bundled in the back of a van, which drove us across England.

We drove for a long time. Some people said they were going this way, others that way. Some had friends somewhere. I had no one, and nowhere to go. But I had made friends with one of the boys on the ship who said he was going to South London. I asked, “can I come with you?” He said, “I can’t invite you to my friend’s house because he can’t accommodate you”. I said “OK”.

It was the first time in my life I saw a red double-decker bus. We bought a bus ticket, changed buses and finally arrived in Peckham, a district of London. My new friend said, “Well, ciao – see you!”. I was left just like that. I didn’t know where to go. I sat in the bus station for a long time, wondering what to do. It was November, and really cold.

I spent the night there. Next morning, I wanted to see if there was anyone who could help me. I had twenty dollars and had found somewhere to exchange the money. I bought chicken and chips.

I found a shelter outside Peckham railway station. I picked up six cardboard cartons from outside the shops there, and made a place to sleep. Every day I would go out and beg. When I had five pounds, I would buy some food and still have some money left over to go to other places and look for help.

I was standing at a bus stop one Sunday morning. I heard a lady speaking my father’s language. I speak four languages. It was quite hard learning them all when I was growing up. She was so surprised when I talked to her. I was filthy, because I didn’t know about the places for homeless people where you can wash your clothes. She said, “What’s happened to you? How are you like this?”. I explained everything to her.

She said that she could accommodate me for a while, to help me get my life going. She took me home that day. She got me food and put the heater on and gave me a new towel and showed me how to use everything. I spent three hours washing because I felt like death before. When I came out, I was so fresh, I felt like sleeping. The moment I lay down on the floor, I fell asleep for hours. It could have been days.

The next day, the lady took me to the Refugee Legal Centre in Commercial Road. Here you are registered and can make your statements about what you have been through. You also collect an ID card. I was given a caseworker, Alex, and was sent to the Children’s Section in the Refugee Council in Brixton. But they denied me support because of a disagreement over my age.

They sent me to the social services office in Camberwell Green. They also refused to support me. So I went back to Brixton and filed for support and was given another form to fill in. It would take a month to process before I could get a weekly allowance for food.

I started going to the Refugee Council on Tuesday evenings. There, young asylum-seekers and refugees meet to play games or do art and drama. One day, I met two people from a project called Pakhama, Tab and Yoyo, who were doing some juggling. They asked if any of us young people would like to join this project. I was the first to give my name. A week later they sent a letter to me, inviting me to come to their Saturday sessions.

The first day there, I was a bit shy to see so many people in a big room. There were girls and boys from Angola, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and India. By the end of the day I had become friendly with them. It was then that they told me all about Pakhama.

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Theatre life

Pakhama was started in South Africa. The group mixed dance, the arts and drawing. It began to collaborate with the London International Festival of Theatre and the Lewisham Theatre Group. This was a great success.

I joined the project in February. It was very good to meet people from every part of the world. Every Saturday we would come up with a fresh programme – a story, a drawing, or mime. We would make a drama by splitting into four groups and rehearsing, then would perform to each other. We also do drumming, singing and dancing. We learned a lot about acting and theatre.

In May, we presented a show in front of 200 people in Highbury Park. We added some new ideas, including Good Dream and Bad Dream rooms. I designed a room with a tree made out of bamboo stick, with false fruits hanging, and wrote some words on it.

I sat alone in the corner of a room with only one dim light hanging at the top. I was wearing African clothes and sitting in the corner with a piece of paper. I used this to tell my story. That was my first taste of performance.

Finding myself

I am worried that the Home Office may send me back to Liberia. I received a letter to say I had won a hearing to stay here. Alex, my caseworker, said that if the Home Office contested this, I would have to go to the next tribunal in the big court. Alex told me that the legal staff from the Refugee Legal Centre would represent me, but I said I wanted to be there to represent myself as well. Now, I am just waiting to see what happens.

I also have to settle my housing problem. The lady in Peckham needs the room I was sharing with her four-year old son. I know that she would have continued to give me help if she had more room. I will never forget her. I still need all the help I have got so far, to keep me on the right track. The National Asylum Support Service gave me a place in Earls Court to stay for a month, until they decide whether they can give me somewhere to live in London, or whether I have to live outside London.

Through the arts project, I met a boy called Mohammed, from Sierra Leone. We found that we had fought on the same border between Sierra Leone and Guinea. We found out that we had even crossed the river at the same place. I was asked to talk to him. I told him to think about his future. Don’t think you are a nobody, give yourself a chance, keep on thinking courageously.

The projects with the arts and theatre I have done have changed my life. They have made me see that with art you can bring people together. You can make people feel happy. You can make people think that they are important in the world, really important.

I have found myself here in London. I have the feeling that if I went back to Liberia, I would be beaten to death or executed, or I would be in prison for life.

I would like to go and say sorry to some of those people, but I would have to get the mind of God to be able to stand in front of that family and say it. I would not be happy to stay there. I would have to seek refuge in a neighbouring country where I can’t imagine a good life. It would not be like home.

This article is based on an interview with Osman Bah by Michael Rebehn

Who fought who in Liberia?

The West African state of Liberia – founded by freed American slaves in 1847 – exploded into a seven-year civil war in 1989, after the overthrow and brutal execution of its dictator, Samuel Doe.

Charles Taylor became the new ruler, but the fighting did not stop. The factions competing for control of the country’s resources (timber, iron ore, rubber) were identified with different ethnic groups. Doe had belonged to the Krahn people, Taylor and his associate “Prince” Johnson were members of the Gio.

The civil war was characterised by horrifying violence and brutality. Around 200,000 were killed and more than 1 million internally displaced or exiled.

Charles Taylor legitimised his regime via a tainted election in 1997. His attempts to destabilise neighbouring governments in Sierra Leone and Guinea provoked further conflict, and in August 2003 Charles Taylor resigned and left the country.

A new government under Gyude Bryant was installed, sanctioned by the presence of United States troops and a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

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