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Thousands of former child soldiers tread an uneasy middle ground in Liberia, a country torn between learning from its past or forgetting it in trying to build a future amid utter ruin.

The Liberian civil war killed more than 200,000 people and displaced half the population.

Fighters wore wedding gowns, Halloween masks and outlandish wigs. Some went into battle naked, saying that magic would protect them from bullets. Drunk on cane juice and palm wine or high on drugs, they gave themselves names like Rambo and Chuck Norris and put guns into the hands of thousands of children. Fighters young and old raped and looted, cut open the bellies of pregnant women and carved out and ate their enemies' organs.

One morning this spring, four years after the war ended, I visited a former child-soldier named William Flomo in a slum on the outskirts of Liberia's second-biggest city. The sun had been up for about an hour, and a breeze blew between tin and stucco houses, sweeping away the odor of garbage and human waste. Women carried buckets of well-water and children crouched in the dirt, rubbing detergent into soiled clothes. William stood in front of his house, gazing down at a sheet of physics problems: Calculate the upthrust acting on a body that weighs 450N in air and 400N in water ...

He was tall and lean with a man's muscular arms, but his jaw was softly rounded, and a pale scar arched beneath his right eye like a thumbprint in wet clay. He didn't know the year of his birth, and anyone who would have known was far away by now, or dead. He thought he was 23.

The relationship between density and upthrust perplexed him, but he knew more than most 10th-graders about the way force acts on a body. Force had transformed him from a grade school student to a soldier whose skill at setting ambushes earned him the nom de guerre Death Squad. Kidnapped from school in the early 1990s, he was drafted into Charles Taylor's rebel army, and fought on and off until the war ended in 2003.

"I was a man that was very bad. Bad on enemy, not on innocent," William told me one night, seated on his bedroom floor beneath posters of Taylor and Jesus Christ. "I was a good, good soldier."

In June, Taylor went on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia. Taylor, a former Liberian president, is accused of supplying guns to Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for diamonds. He is charged with 11 crimes, including rape, murder and the conscription of child soldiers.

In Liberia, where warlords have been elected to Parliament, there is no war crimes court, no neutral judge. A fledgling truth and reconciliation commission is the first step in a process that Sierra Leone has partially completed (Sierra Leone's war ended earlier, and its truth commission completed a final report in 2004).

"Not an inch of Liberian territory was untouched by the conflict," said Jerome Verdier, chairman of the Liberian truth commission. "In South Africa for example, the issue was clear-cut: apartheid - whites one side, blacks one side, that's it. Liberia is different. It's a small country, 3-million persons, almost everybody knows each other. And yet we have this devastating conflict."

The commission can recommend prosecutions, but it must first convince people to admit their wrongs and seek forgiveness from those they hurt. In a place where killers live within sight of their victims' families, many find that forgetting is easier.

"People just want to wish that the past would disappear," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told me. "It's an ugly past. Nobody wants to be reminded of their ugly past. There's too much of it, you know. And once you start to let yourself slip into all the atrocities of the past, then you can't see anything because you get filled once again with hate and with vengeance, and people are trying their best to walk away from it.

"There are those who will say, 'Well you can't walk away from it. Justice means that somebody must pay for what they did.' But you know, Liberian people are struggling with, 'Will this justice bring us peace?' ... Because what they want more than anything else is peace, peace and safety and security, to be able to start their life anew. Will justice get that for them? I can't answer that."

For William Flomo, the answer seems to be no. He studies as if the accumulation of knowledge could stave off memory and, with it, responsibility. But like everyone else in his country, he is facing a paradox: In a place like this, the past can devour you, but the future doesn't exist without it.

He and other former child soldiers occupy an uneasy middle ground, viewed by the international community as victims, but branded by at least some of their neighbors as killers. School is the nation's gift to them, so long withheld from all but the wealthiest. School, with little prospect of a job because the unemployment rate is 85 percent and for thousands of Liberians, a Western Union transfer from America is still the most reliable way to get by. But William isn't arguing.

"People fought war because we were not educated," he said. "We killed our brothers. We killed our fathers."

Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, lured by the promise of black sovereignty and encouraged by slave owners who feared revolt. But the settlers brought America's inequalities with them. Their letters speak of "uncivilized" indigenous people who stole their belongings. They named their communities after slave-holding states - Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia - and set out to convert Africans to Christianity. Their leaders wore top hats and suits despite the tropical heat, and smoked cigars.

The settlers married indigenous Liberians and raised and educated indigenous children, but they retained a firm grip on money and power. In the countryside, people stayed poor and sent their children to "bush school": secret societies that perform circumcisions and tattoo the skin of boys and girls with tiny incisions, marking them for life.

Under successive governments, economic inequality grew to stunning proportions. In 1926, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. secured a favorable lease on 1,600 square miles of jungle outside the capital, Monrovia, lining the pockets of some members of the wealthy elite in return for control of a vast rubber plantation where workers are still paid only a few dollars a day.

In 1980, after riots broke out over the price of rice, a group of soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe broke into the executive mansion and disemboweled President William Tolbert. Doe became the first Liberian of indigenous descent to lead the country, and his first act after the coup was to gun down 13 members of Tolbert's Cabinet on the beach. His ascension sparked a backlash against Americo-Liberians, as the settlers' descendants were known, and many fled.

Over time, Doe's government grew increasingly corrupt, and his popular appeal faded. His militia began terrorizing civilians. In 1989, Charles Taylor invaded with a small band of Libyan-trained fighters, sparking a 14-year war that devolved into a struggle for Liberia's timber forests and Sierra Leone's diamond mines.

Today, the Liberian police have been stripped of their weapons and a 14,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force patrols the country. Years of fighting have broken bridges, destroyed the electric grid and reduced most roads to ribbons of fine dirt.

The average life expectancy is 47. Half the men and three-quarters of the women are illiterate. Nearly 80 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

Liberia has parallel justice systems, one of barely functional courts and a traditional system in which the accused may be forced to eat the bark of a poisoned tree to determine his guilt (if he survives, he's innocent). Until two weeks before I arrived this spring, I was told, there was not a single complete set of the Liberian law code in the country.

Driving the potholed, red dirt roads of Liberia, I got the sense of a society trying to remember what it means to be a society, as if people were piecing together the idea from scraps left on the floor. The women with plastic buckets doing laundry and the children in dresses and neckties filing out of decaying school buildings seemed to be going through the motions of ordinary life without believing in its permanence, as if any second they could drop the buckets and school books and run.

Along with its historic ties, the United States has a stake in Liberia's recovery. Liberia is seen as a linchpin of peace in West Africa, the country that, if it can be stabilized, will anchor its neighbors. In one of its 2008 funding requests, the Bush administration groups Liberia with Iraq and Afghanistan as "states that, without progress, will have a negative impact on regional stability and national security." The lion's share of U.S. funding for Africa comes from the president's global AIDS initiative, but if you look at other forms of development funding, the administration is proposing to give more aid to Liberia next year than to any African country except Sudan. The United States helped rebuild Liberia's defense department, and is training a new Liberian army and advising the police.

When the war ended, the absence of a working justice system and the intimacy of the violence made the truth and reconciliation commission an attractive first step, and one to which the warlords, some of whom remain in powerful positions, did not object. Johnson Sirleaf, a 68-year-old Harvard-educated economist who is Africa's first democratically elected female head of state, said the country was looking for a way to deal with thousands of young people who fought, often under duress.

"Many times, they were drugged, they had been put on drink," she said. "We've got to find a process short of prosecution for those people."

There was also the problem of finding an arbiter with clean hands in a place where war seems to have tarnished nearly everyone. One afternoon this spring, I drove down a narrow dirt road along the St. Paul River to the village of Clay-Ashland, established by some of Liberia's earliest settlers and named to honor Henry Clay, the Kentucky slave owner and U.S. senator who supported resettling freed slaves in Africa.

The town lay quiet and empty under the sun. Off the main road sat a ruined two-story house, overgrown with flowering vines. Someone had scrawled graffiti across the front.

"Pray for me and pray for you," it said. "Who are you to judge me?"

William came from a middle-class family. His father, a doctor, owned a house in Gbarnga (pronounced banga) and a large farm in the country, where he grew plums and oranges. William raised a chicken and kept it as a pet. It had red feathers and came when he clicked his tongue.

The war started in 1989, but it took a few years to reach his village. One day, a group of fighters stole William's chicken. He chased them, but they just sent him home.

Soon afterward, a truck pulled up in front of his school. Fighters climbed out and rounded up dozens of children, including his sister. William was so small that they didn't take him immediately.

"Why are you carrying our friends?" he asked one of the fighters.

"You talk plenty," the man said, and bundled him into the truck.

They took him to a base in the north. Fighters cut his hair short and jagged with a broken bottle and called him "recruit." They made him do 50 pushups every morning.

"Fifty because I was a little boy," he said. "Some people were doing 150."

They beat him, 25 lashes across the backside every day. He learned to take an AK-47 apart and put it together blindfolded.

They had taken his sister, Korto, to a different base. She was a little girl, but she had light skin, hair on her arms and a body that was beginning to look like a woman's. After a few months, William heard that a soldier of 40 had tried to make her his wife.

"She didn't want to," William said. "She was 12. They carried her along and they killed her."

This was his first lesson in impunity. The man who had killed Korto was his superior.

"He was a commander," William said. "I salute him, I submitted to him. I take all instructions from him. In the military, commander does no wrong."

By his account, he became a skilled fighter, and ultimately a commander himself in one of Taylor's Small Boys Units. He liked to creep into villages at night and lay ambushes. He fired a rocket-propelled grenade into a car full of fighters from another faction, engulfing it in flames.

"Why did they call you Death Squad?" I asked him.

"I don't know."

"Did you kill a lot of people?"

"No, I don't kill people. I don't kill people."

"You just told me that you killed people - enemy."

"Yes, enemy. I deal with enemy, I grab enemy."

I thought about this conversation later, when I was talking with an official at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. In her work with members of the Liberian government, the official said, she had found that language was often disconnected from meaning, especially when it came to holding people accountable. Liberians would stand up and talk "at the drop of a hat," she told me. But when she asked them, "Okay, now what is it that you really mean?" she often couldn't get a clear answer.

"Lots of words," she said. "Not much precision."

The Liberian truth commission is rooted in the idea that talking resolves conflict, a traditional concept embodied in the Liberian "palaver hut." Jerome Verdier, the commission's chairman, explained the palaver hut to me one afternoon in his office in Monrovia, drawing a simple peak-roofed structure on a sheet of yellow notebook paper.

When a crime is committed, Verdier said, the palaver hut is where the complainant and the accused meet to tell their stories to village elders. Each party speaks in turn. If the offense is especially grave, the perpetrator may have to pay a fine, but the process usually ends with an apology, including the exchange of kola nuts, washing of hands and the slaughter of a chicken, cow or sheep.

But talk doesn't necessarily yield clarity or accountability. There's a Liberian dish called palaver sauce, which Verdier said has a "slimy" consistency.

"Because people who like palaver, they talk plenty," he said. "And if your mouth is slippery, it means you talk too much."

Jewel Howard Taylor, Charles Taylor's ex-wife, was elected to the Liberian Senate in 2005. She is one of a handful of people forbidden by the United Nations from traveling outside the country because of their connections to Taylor.

"He didn't recruit children," she told me. "People joined. There were a lot of families that had been killed and children were left on the side. So people felt like this man was a father, and he was the only one who had given them hope. It wasn't a forced recruitment at all."

When the war ended, William returned to the farm, then moved to the city. His parents were gone. He learned that they had been taken hostage by one faction and shot by another.

Now, both child and parent, he piles plan on top of plan - computer training, an engineering degree, a stint at university in the United States - in an airy tower with no foundation in the world of the slum, where he shares a mattress with his girlfriend and son and combs his hair in a shard of broken mirror. He keeps his clothes in a dusty gray suitcase, ready to move anytime.

He's raising his three younger brothers and his infant son in a white stucco house his father built. He rents out three bedrooms to make money, and sometimes ferries passengers around on a motorcycle, the best way to travel the city's winding dirt roads. His brothers sell kerosene and palm oil in the market. William studies for a history exam, and wonders how long the bag of rice by the door will last.

Above his bed hangs a picture of Jesus, the man he says he wants to resemble. Sometimes he gets frustrated with his brothers and wants to beat them. He reads the Bible to calm himself down.

"I get with a man angry, bad, bad things can enter my head," he said. "I will go and look for a cutter and chop him. But the Bible says love your enemy. So I will start to like him."

Every week, he walks to a roadside church where, on a recent Sunday, he listened to a sermon on salvation and scribbled down chapter and verse. His prayer - whispered fervently, eyes squeezed shut - went like this: "Set us free, O God. We pray now, by the power of Jesus, O God, we should be clean. We should be saved. We have been committing so many sins in our lives. So we pray at this hour, God, save us from our sins. Forget our sins, O God. We will never turn back and look to our sin."

In his bedroom, two posters of Charles Taylor suggest his effort to understand what justice might look like if it were possible in this world.

The posters are collages of snapshots: a truckload of boys with AK-47s, a fighter with a kerchief on his head and an RPG on his shoulder, Taylor after his capture in Nigeria, being led away in handcuffs.

Charles Taylor Arrested, one says.

The evil that men do live with them not after them.

Taylor: What a show of shame.

"If I follow this way, that I want to become like him, I want to be the rebel leader, I want to go fight in another country, I want to go kill people - I may be like this tomorrow, and be arrested, and be handcuffed," William said. "So I have the paper to remind me continually I should not be like him."

But sometimes he isn't so sure. He says that Taylor was a strong leader who kept the price of rice low, a good commander who is blamed for the misdeeds of his undisciplined troops. If Taylor was so bad, William wonders, how did he get elected president?

"People was there to educate us that what Charles Taylor done is bad, because he made us soldiers, and there was no benefit from it: Your parents die," William said. "There were people to educate us - but the same people went and voted for Charles Taylor."

In his bedroom before school, William pulls on his uniform and grabs his physics notes and composition books. When the war ended, thousands of demobilized fighters got $300 cash and scholarships for vocational training or three years of formal education. About 670 ended up at St. Peter's Episcopal School, a low complex of whitewashed buildings where students fill hot classrooms in several shifts.

The school has struggled to overcome a bad reputation. Its motto, "The rejected stone," comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says that the stone rejected by builders will become the cornerstone.

"Other schools refused to accept (ex-combatant) students because they threatened to burn the building," said St. Peter's principal, Edward Fayia. "If you saw what they did to this country - small, small children. Some parents were very skeptical about sending ordinary children here."

At first, ex-fighters didn't listen in class; they sat around smoking opium and arguing with teachers. In their previous lives, they had occasionally ordered adults to drop their pants and gleefully spanked them. Now, in an attempt to set things right, the teachers at St. Peter's resorted to corporal punishment.

"The stubborn ones, we give you a few lashes to say, 'You are no longer a child soldier. Now you are an ordinary child,' " the principal said.

In William's class, 46 students sit at desks packed so tightly it's impossible to walk between them. The room is hot and dim, with sunlight filtering through chinks in the concrete. Red dust coats the walls, and a light socket dangles from the ceiling, missing its bulb.

In classrooms like this across the country, Liberia's future is rising unsteadily from the ruins of its past. Among the men and women in blue polyester uniforms, whose knees do not fit beneath their child-sized wooden desks, are an 18-year-old who saw his father executed when he was 11; a 33-year-old whose mother was killed "right in my presence;" and a handful of people (including the 18-year-old and the 33-year-old) who probably killed. And there is William Flomo, leaning forward and staring at the blackboard, trying to make sense of what's written there.

On a recent afternoon in doctrine class, it is a question: "What are the Ten Commandments?"

The teacher explains: "The laws God give to Moses and the people of Israel."

"Not Liberia," a student says, and everyone laughs.

Vanessa Gezari traveled to Liberia this spring on an International Reporting Project fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Times photographer Kathleen Flynn joined her for part of the trip. Gezari can be reached at (727) 893-8803 or Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

Liberia at a glance

Capital: Monrovia

Area: Slightly larger than Tennessee.

Ethnic groups: indigenous African, 95 percent; Americo-Liberian, 2.5 percent (descendants of freed U.S. slaves); Congo People, 2.5 percent (descendants of former Caribbean slaves).

Religions: Christian, 40 percent; Muslim, 20 percent; indigenous beliefs, 40 percent.

Languages: English (official) and about 20 ethnic group languages.

The situation: One of the world's poorest countries. Electricity is scarce, as is running water. Just 26 doctors practice in the country.

Leaders, old and new

Samuel K. Doe

Born in 1951, Doe joined the army after the 11th grade. In 1980, a group of military men from the indigenous Liberian population killed President William Tolbert, took control of the government and installed Doe as president. Initially popular, he was faced with widespread rebellion by 1989, led by Charles Taylor. Doe was captured and killed in September 1990 by rebels loyal to Prince Johnson, another factional leader.

Charles Taylor

Born in 1948, Taylor was educated in the United States. In 1980, he joined Doe's administration. Accused of embezzlement, Taylor fled to the United States but later made his way back to Africa and began building an armed force. In 1989, he led it in a rebellion against Doe. A peace agreement and elections brought Taylor to the presidency in August 1997. In 2003, a U.N. tribunal indicted Taylor for war crimes. He went into exile and later was brought before a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone. His trial, moved to The Hague, Netherlands, began in June 2007.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Born in 1938, in Monrovia. In 1957, she married James Sirleaf, a Liberian business student. She received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. She served in the early 1970s as a finance minister for President William Tolbert. She fell out with Doe, who overthrew Tolbert, and spent most of the '80s outside the country in international banking. Johnson Sirleaf supported the 1989-90 coup by Charles Taylor, but soon opposed his autocratic rule. She was sworn in as Africa's first elected female president Jan. 16, 2006. Known to Liberians as Ma Ellen, the 68-year-old grandmother is an economist trying to turn around one of the world's most damaged nations with a fierceness that has earned her another nickname: the Iron Lady.

Sources: Information Please, Times wires, CIA World Factbook, World Book

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