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Liberia's uncivil war of babes in arms

The boy soldiers of Liberia are often shorter than their rifles, yet they man roadblocks and fight gunbattles against grown men in the various rebel groups that quarrel for terrain in the war-torn West African nation.

Not only is the civil war that broke out in 1989 a particularly nasty and pointless conflict, but it also has brutalized the children.

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that out of 60,000 Liberians under arms, more than 10 percent are younger than 15. Another 20 percent are only 15 to 17 years old.

"They have had no normal life, no chance to go to school or to play as ordinary children. . . . These children have been programed to kill," said Human Rights Watch, a private group, in a recent report.

According to the Human Rights Watch report:

T.L. was 13 when he became a rebel fighter. He joined because he was forced to watch as enemy militiamen chopped his father's head off. T.L. joined up to get revenge.

F.E. joined a rebel group at the age of 10. He was starving and figured he would get something to eat when the rebels went looting.

F.W., 15, was forced to become a rebel against his will. Armed men took him away. They later held a knife to him and forced him to murder one of their prisoners. Then they put him in camp for military training.

Under international law, nobody under the age of 15 is allowed to be employed as a soldier. But practically all the parties to the Liberian civil war have boy soldiers in their ranks. The boys aren't just there as scouts or porters but are used as front-line troops. Some are even employed in execution squads.

"Some children were the most vicious, brutal fighters of all," a social worker said in the UNICEF report. "I once saw a nine-year-old kill someone at a checkpoint. Children learn by imitation. They saw killings and then, when their commanding officers ordered them to kill, they did."

Human Rights Watch believes the rebels prefer to recruit children because they're more easily inveigled to fight. An adult usually only joins a militia for some clear reason. But children are obedient and rarely question what they are told to do.

Often children don't have any understanding of dangers and are therefore easier to manipulate. In many cases, the boy soldiers are made even more pliant by being beaten or given drugs.