By Edmund Zar-Zar Bargblor
Since its inception in December of 1989, the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003) has been blamed for everything that is bad about the country including, but not limited to: the disruption of food supplies; the destruction of crops and agricultural infrastructure; the disintegration of families and communities; the displacement of populations; the destruction of educational and health services and of water and sanitation systems; and a corrupt and morally bankrupt security sector and judiciary. Regardless, none of these destructions can in no way compare to the seriousness of the damage and heavy toll the war had on the minds of Liberian children, who lived through and witnessed various forms of atrocities during the war. The wounds inflicted by the civil war on children – physical injury, gender-based violence, psychosocial distress, are affronts that would have a lasting impact on the present and future human resource development of Liberia. Armed conflict indeed affects all aspects of child development, such as physical, mental and emotional components.
The war in Liberia has exacted a terrible toll on our children. They and their families have suffered as refugees, as displaced people within their own national borders, or as civilians remaining at home in or outside of war zones. The wars have affected children’s physical and mental health, their day-to-day life, and hopes for the future. The wars have also extracted a heavy toll on the healthcare system through the loss of facilities and infrastructure, supplies and equipment, and of physicians and nurses, while the economic hardships of war have resulted in fewer resources for healthcare. Before the war, reportedly, there were several medical doctors within the country. The number of doctors decreased gradually as the war years progressed.
Graça Machel, an Expert of the Secretary General of the United Nations, stated in his report on child soldiers that, when children experience traumatic or other events in times of war, they may suffer from increased anxiety about being separated from their families, or they may have nightmares or trouble sleeping. He emphasized that children may cease playing and laughing, lose their appetites and withdraw from contact. And that younger children may have difficulty concentrating in school. Older children and adolescents may become anxious or depress, feel hopeless about the future or develop aggressive behavior.
Those in the professions of education and behavioral sciences have realized that infants and toddlers who witnessed violence either in their homes or in their community show excessive irritability, immature behavior, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fears of being alone, and regression in toileting and language. Exposure to trauma, especially violence in the immediate environment, interferes with a child’s normal development of trust and later exploratory behaviors, which lead to the development of autonomy. Despite the limited research in this area, however, much can still be gleaned from existing studies about the effects of children’s exposure to violence.
Dr. Osofksy, Professor of Public Health, Psychiatry, & Pediatrics at Louisiana State University Health Science Center, outlined in his research on family violence, identified the adverse effects on children’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Other studies on the effects of exposure to violence on children also indicate an increase in negative behaviors. The professor made a parallel between children growing up in inner cities in the United States and those living in war zones in places like Liberia and other countries, whose populations have suffered from civil wars. In fact, findings from several studies show post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in children living in urban war zones to be similar to the symptoms of children living in actual war zones.
Most of the children who participated in the activities of the various Liberian armed groups were from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds or separated from their families. While on the other hand, children from wealthier and more educated families left the country before the war escalated, while others were discouraged by their parents from participating in rebel activities.
Child soldiers were recruited in many different ways. In many instances, recruits were arbitrarily seized from their homes, the streets, or even from schools and orphanages, when armed militia, police or army cadres roamed the streets, picking up anyone they encountered. During the war, hunger and poverty drove some parents to offer their children for service; and encourage their daughters to become wives of rebel commanders and fighters. During the war years, children became soldiers simply to survive. The various rebel groups provided refuge, serving as surrogate families for the kids. Children sometimes joined one of the rebel groups to guarantee simple regular meals.
Even the Brookings Institute pointed out the following observations: “Throughout its history, Liberia has been plagued by conflict, usurpation of power, class-based domination and ethnic hostilities, all of which culminated in a devastating 14-year civil war between 1989 and 2003. By the time this war was ended in 2003, over 250,000 people of the country’s three million people had died. Abductions, torture, rape and other human rights abuses had been committed on a massive scale. Estimates were that at least one child in ten had been abducted and forced into service as a child soldier or sex slave. The country’s infrastructure had been destroyed” (brookings.edu).
Liberians residing in the Diaspora have seen for themselves or have heard about the negative behaviors of some newly arrivals, especially among the younger population. The lack of respect for their parents, inability to stay and complete high school, sexual improprieties, irresponsible attitudes and ill-mannered are attributes that continue to echo in various Liberian communities here in the United States. In Liberia, one hears about armed gangs roaming the streets of Monrovia at night conducting mayhem and other forms of violent acts on peaceful residents. The question that one needs to ask is: what can we do as Liberians to create a stable frame of mind for each of Liberia’s child of war?
The Report by Graca Machel, Expert of the Secretary-General of the United Nations identified recommendations on some of the solutions that have been discussed and put in place at the international level. Some recommendations for action as put forth by the United Nations are:
- Programmes at the national and local levels, should be designed to place special emphasis on providing appropriate educational and recreational activities for adolescents affected by armed conflicts.
- Special efforts should be made for demobilized adolescent soldiers, such as projects which offer alternative livelihoods and promote their reintegration into their communities. Human resources development, including youth education, employment and training schemes, should be promoted.
- Intergovernmental bodies, United Nations agencies and other organizations should support Governments in strengthening national legislative frameworks challenging any aspect of discrimination against women, girls and child-headed households with respect to custody, inheritance and property rights.
- United Nations bodies and NGOs are urged to give urgent attention to the situation of child-headed households and develop policy and program guidelines to ensure their protection and care.
The incoming administration following the 2017 presidential elections, needs to develop an education agenda that will put in place a comprehensive program oriented to providing adolescents a sense of meaning and purpose by involving them in developing and implementing programs in the varies counties. Adolescents have special needs and special strengths, and they should be survivors and active participants in creating solutions, not just as victims or problems. In order to ensure that their needs are met, young people should be involved in community-based relief, recovery and reconstruction programs. This can be achieved through, for example, vocational and a skill training that not only help to augment youth’s incomes, but also increases their sense of identity and self-worth in ways that enhance their psychosocial well-being ( childrenandarmedconflict.un.org).
Institutions like the Booker T. Washington Institute and other vocational intuitions of learning should be economically empowered, to provide the needed vocational training and skills to former school age combatants. All vocational schools, be it governmental or private initiatives, should operate under the guidelines of the Ministry of Education. A prescribed post war vocational curriculum needs to be put in place that would accommodate the effective molding of the minds of former child soldiers.
The extreme and often prolonged circumstances of armed conflict can interfere with identity development. As a result, many adolescents, especially those who have had severely distressing experiences, cannot foresee any future for themselves. They may view their lives very pessimistically, suffer from serious depression or even commit suicide. They may have lost their trust in people, and may not wish to seek help or support from adults. Sudden changes in family circumstances, such as the death or disappearance of parents, can leave young people without guidance, role models and sustenance.
The task of reintegration of Liberian children of war, is the responsibility of all Liberians, the government cannot do it alone. Proper reintegration program can also help to normalize life and to develop an identity separate from that of the soldier. A difficulty to be faced is the likelihood that former combatants may have fallen far behind in their schooling, and may be placed in classes with much younger children. Specific measures may be required, such as establishing special classes for former child soldiers, who can then be reintegrated into regular schools.
The process of reintegration in Liberia must help children establish new foundations in life. Re-establishing contact with the family and the community is important for former child soldiers who have grown up away from their families and who have been deprived of many of the normal opportunities for physical, emotional and intellectual development. Providing educational and vocational opportunities to former child combatants may prevent them from rejoining military units, and at the same time improve the economic security of their families. For a former child soldier, an education is more than a route to employment.
The success and durability of the Liberian democracy depends on the availability of an educated middle class. The greatest peril to stability in Liberia is illiteracy of Liberian youth. The 14 years of war have taught us the lesson of illiteracy. When eighty percent of a country’s population is uneducated, it is not a laughing matter; it is a time bomb waiting to explode.