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‘Taylor said children were small, swift and smart’

‘Child soldiers were not a Charles Taylor invention,’ bellows Courtenay Griffiths, the defence lawyer for the former Liberian President. Griffiths and his team are trying to get Taylor off on 11 counts of crimes against humanity. I am in a screening room at The Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, watching the Taylor trial live from The Hague. Like me, the 20-odd people in the room are bleary eyed. It’s 7.30 in the morning and we’re two hours behind European time. As Griffiths utters these words everyone snaps to attention and a murmur begins to Mexican wave around the room. Soon it turns into grunts and snickers. In Sierra Leone, Taylor has always been guilty.

I wonder what the former child soldiers in Sierra Leone will think of this. I am told none are at the court this morning. After some asking around I am introduced to Bashiru Conteh, a 21-year-old ex-combatant. When he heard Taylor deny involvement in his recruitment on CNN, it angered him. ‘Everyone knew that he was the head of state in Liberia and that he was supporting the rebels and supplying arms,’ says Bashiru. He remembers clearly the day he was abducted from Makeni, a town in central Sierra Leone. He was 13 then and forced by members of the Revolutionary United Front to carry heavy loads, find food and dose up on a cocktail of drugs. The terrible things he saw and was forced to do are not worth repeating again. 

Having lost one parent in the war he was more fortunate than others. He talks plaintively about his friend Alhaji who bounced around many foster homes because he had been orphaned. Now Bashiru is attending university and hopes to major in English and political science. He is part of an NGO that a group of 30 former child soldiers recently formed called African Reformation War Child Advocacy Network (ARCAN). One of their objectives is to update the official figures of ex child soldiers in Sierra Leone because they’re convinced of inaccuracies. 

We go back to discussing the trial and Bashiru suddenly remembers something Taylor had once announced. ‘He said that young children were small, swift and smart and good for combat situations,’ he says, and hate momentarily clouds his otherwise calm expression. ‘Even in his own country he was recruiting children,’ he adds. The prosecution has charged Taylor with setting up the Small Boys’ Unit as a rebel warlord in Liberia, which comprised children under the age of 11. His notorious campaign slogan ran: ‘He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.’ Bashiru is also shocked at Taylor’s other recent declaration.‘This never happened, not in a mayo jar, not in a coffee jar, not in anything, I never received diamonds from the RUF.’ ‘It was all about the diamonds,’ Bashiru quietly asserts.

I tell him he should go to the court and watch the screenings live; he mumbles that he might. Sometimes in a quiet moment he says it all comes back to him and he feels lucky to be alive. At the court I wondered why so few former victims had come to watch. Now I understand. Bashiru just wants to forget and get on with his life.

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