Children as Killers


By Corinne Dufka

The Krahn militiamen, about two hundred of them, were advancing up Broad Street. Armed with AK-47s, machetes, fishing harpoons, and kitchen utensils, their objective was to take over the posh seaside neighborhood of Mamba Point from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia. It was April 1996 and Monrovia, the Liberian capital, had plummeted into urban chaos, leaving hundreds dead and causing tens of thousands to flee the city in panic.

A commander heard a stirring within a building. “What’s that?” the soldiers yelled excitedly. An unarmed man was pulled out from his hiding place on the second floor. We knew him as the caretaker, surely trying to stay out of harm’s way. For the Krahn, he was the enemy.

Within minutes he was being chased like an animal by a group of ten soldiers. They ran him around in circles stabbing him with bayonets until, bleeding profusely, he was too tired to resist. The caretaker, a gentle but strapping man, did not last long. He was soon shot in the back with a pistol, and as he lay dying some of the soldiers took turns stabbing him in the back with a six-inch-long butcher knife.

Perhaps the last image he had before slipping into death was of Double Trouble, a nine-year-old boy soldier dressed in an oversize, faded, purple T-shirt and flip-flops, grabbing the knife and having his turn at plunging it in and out between the shoulders. He then grabbed an empty Coke bottle, which like a tira de gracia was broken over the dying man’s head. Double Trouble stood up and looked around for the approval of his mates. Like he had just hit a home run. The score, 1–0. They slapped him on the back and cheered.

“Where’s your mama?” I asked him after the battle. He had a soft, childish face that hardened between the eyes as he responded. “She dead.” “And your daddy?” “He dead too. Everybody dead.” “How old are you?” I asked. “Old enough to kill a man,” he replied.

Double Trouble. One of thousands of child soldiers in Liberia. Most have experienced more loss and pain before the age of eight than the rest of us do in a lifetime. Many watched their parents killed in front of them, or worse, were forced to kill their loved ones as some sort of perverse initiation rite. But every child needs a family and soon the militia became theirs.

A few days later, a brief cease-fire between the two warring sides was agreed upon. The fighters relaxed. Boys will be boys, I thought, as I came upon a group of five NPFL child soldiers, the eldest not more than twelve, playing soccer on one of the most heavily contested corners of the urban war. I saw their rifles discarded on the street below a rain-soaked Liberian flag, and only then did it become clear that the white “ball” they maneuvered was a human skull. The decaying body lay some twenty meters away.

They kicked the “ball” over the debris of war—spent cartridges, old wallets, clothes dropped by fleeing civilians, and old photographs—and squealed with delight as it entered the goal posts marked by two rusting sardine cans. A glimpse of childhood and they were back behind the barricades the next morning. “Hey, white woman,” a boy of about eleven with oversize tennis shoes, a looted hat with yellow flowers, and an AK-47 half his height yelled at me from behind a bullet-pocked wall. “No school today. Nope. Today we gunna kill da Krahn.”

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