RPN 24 September 1997

3. Children uprooted by war Two case studies: Angola and Sierra Leone by Mary Diaz

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children recently sponsored assessment missions to two countries which together have produced close to 4 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). In both Angola and Sierra Leone, civil wars have had brutal consequences, with families ripped apart, and children raped, maimed and killed. Both countries have recently signed peace agreements and are now in the reconstruction phase. However, the future for the young people of Angola and Sierra Leone remains uncertain and will only be assured if their countries and the international community invest in education, health care and human rights.


A fact-finding mission from the Women's Commission travelled to Angola in December 1996. The mission focused on conditions facing women and children and the prospects for rebuilding communities in the wake of the Lusaka Peace Accord, signed in 1994. Between 5 and 6 million children (half of Angola's population) have been shot at, lost their homes or seen neighbours and members of their families killed during the 30-year conflict. The majority of Angola's 1.5 million displaced people are under 18 years of age. It is estimated that between 5 and 10 million landmines have been laid. Five thousand young people have become street children in the capital city of Luanda.

The international humanitarian community has responded by immunising children, rehabilitating hospitals and clinics, rebuilding schools, setting up emergency feeding centres and providing safe water and sanitation.

One widely-acclaimed programme is the Christian Children Fund's (CCF) effort to provide psychosocial assistance to war-affected children. CCF's goal is to promote appropriate understanding of children's needs by training teachers, care staff at institutions, parents, local village leaders and others directly involved in the children's lives. The organisation aims to train 4,000 adults in five provinces over a 3-year period, and expects to reach 320,000 children. The programme also includes an extensive research component and monitoring to measure its effectiveness.

One important finding of CCF is that training women to do more for their children may not be the best solution. As women are terribly overburdened and as most men do not see child care as their role, the CCF is starting to focus more on working with adolescents and older siblings who are proud to have additional responsibility and can act as teachers for younger children.

CCF is also one of the international NGOs responsible for the demobilisation of child soldiers. At the end of 1996, an estimated half of the approximately 5,000 child soldiers targeted for the first stage of the process under the peace agreement had been demobilised. However, there were multiple political and logistical difficulties: some child soldiers refuse to go home, others run away, either back to the army or to Luanda, and in some cases local villages were reluctant or afraid to receive the young ex-combatants.

Nevertheless, CCF has made a concerted effort to engage communities in the demobilisation process. After discussions with Angolans and local NGOs, it has enlisted the help of the Catholic Church and their countrywide network of catechism teachers (catecistas). The catecistas are working with families and communities to prepare them for the return of young men and boys who have been away fighting, in some cases for years. When the demobilised youth return to the villages, the catecistas assist them in starting small businesses, regaining land or locating family members, and with other help as needed.

The programmes run by CCF, Save the Children/UK and Norwegian People's Aid are, however, only scratching the surface of the problems facing young people in Angola today. Approximately 30,000 refugees will be returning to the country and 1.5 million internally displaced are hoping to go home. Yet there are few schools, health clinics and employment opportunities. There is a scarcity of skilled teachers and vocational programmes or apprenticeship opportunities to attract young men and women and give them a sense of future possibility.

Adolescents are among the most at risk in the country, yet many of their most pressing problems remain invisible to the international humanitarian community. This is particularly true of girls. Sexual violence and exploitation were rife during the war and have continued since the peace agreement but little attention is paid to this problem. Many Angolans speak of the phenomenon of 'little 14-year-old girls' (catorzinhas) who are traded by their families to men who can provide money or goods in exchange for sexual services.

Sierra Leone

The government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) signed a peace accord in November 1996 and, since that time, thousands of uprooted Sierra Leoneans have begun to return to their homes. The Women's Commission conducted an assessment mission in Sierra Leone in March-April 1997 which concluded that the needs of children are not well understood or addressed.

Marc Sommers, the consultant who conducted the study for the Women's Commission, found that those who made it to towns, fleeing rural areas where fighting was raging, became the primary recipients of humanitarian assistance and services. However, the serious problems facing people who hid in the bush and who are still in rural communities have not yet been tackled. Almost nothing is known about those Sierra Leoneans who took to the bush for refuge, rather than going into the cities or crossing the borders into refugee camps. They may number more than 300,000 and many of them are beginning to return to their villages, where it is clear to their neighbours and assistance workers that they are suffering serious trauma. During a drawing exercise, children who hid in the bush were barely able to draw on their own. When they did, they drew pictures of themselves without arms or mouths.

Sierra Leone's conflict, like that of Angola, has meant extreme trauma for many girls and women, who suffered sexual violence at the hands of rebel troops and government soldiers. It appears that these abuses have not ended with the signing of the peace accord. In April 1997, there were reports that the RUF troops still maintained bush camps in the forests of central Sierra Leone and ex-combatants said the majority of camp members are young captive girls. Young women were used as commodities throughout the war in Sierra Leone. Sommers found that girls separated from their families often ended up in other households, working as domestics or serving as second and third wives. Most of the young women interviewed said that they did not choose these situations but were forced into them in order to survive.

The recruitment and kidnapping of children for use in armies has also been a serious problem in Sierra Leone. The 3-year reign of the military government of Captain Valentine Strasser trebled the size of the military forces to more than 10,000 soldiers. Many of the new recruits are youths, some as young as 9 years of age. The RUF was also known for its use of children in combat. Some estimates suggest that as many as 80 per cent of all RUF forces were between 7 and 14 years of age(1). Camps housing the young troops as well as the large number of young war captives were established in forest hideaways and drugging youths before raiding a village or entering combat was commonplace.

Sommers found that adolescent boys are still disappearing into diamond mining areas:

With schools barely operating and few available opportunities in the rural areas for young men, working in the mines gives the boys a chance to strike big riches (but against considerable odds) while being sheltered and fed in the mines.

The miners are widely believed to include combatants, soldiers, RUF rebels and probably some Kamojohs (local civil defence units empowered with bullet-deflecting charms to protect them) who have elected not to enter demobilisation programmes. Despite the significant numbers of young boys and ex-combatants in mining 'communities', they do not seem to have been considered as candidates for reconstruction or development programmes, probably due to their reputation of being tense, highly competitive areas, with potentially explosive social environments.

Mary Diaz is Director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an advocacy organisation and expert resource devoted to improving conditions for uprooted women and children around the world. She is acting chair of the UNICEF NGO working group on children in armed conflict in New York.

1. Mac-Johnson R 'The healing begins' in African comebacks: strategies for survival, 2.97, p10, and Africa Research Bulletin, December 1996, p 12514.

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October 1997