At 10 years old Alhaji Baba Sawaneh was abducted and forced to fight as a child soldier with the rebel force in Sierra Leone. At 12, he was rescued, demobilized and disarmed. And at 14, he became the first child ever to address the United Nations Security Council. (Click here to read his speech).
Now he is looking to lead a normal life. With the help of the United Nations and the national Demobilisation, Disarmament and Rehabilitation (DDR) programme in Sierra Leone he is well on his way.
"I did bad things in the bush and saw very bad things done to both children and adults," says Alhaji. "Removing the gun from me was a vital step."
Alhaji's story began on a Christmas holiday in 1997. On a visit to his uncle in the Northern part of the West African country, he and his family heard the rebels were near so escaped into the bush to hide. But on a foray out to find water for cooking, Alhaji was caught, beaten and then abducted by the rebels to fight for them as a soldier. He was 10 years old at the time.
The rebels forced him to walk over 100 miles for 10 days on an empty stomach. Once at their base he was trained in how to shoot AK-47 rifles. From that point on, he was considered a soldier.
Children make good soldiers because they are obedient, do not question orders and are easier to manipulate than adult soldiers, according to Graça Machel, the UN expert and author of a report on children in armed conflict. Often, they don't even have to be paid.
Because he was so skinny, Alhaji says, he sometimes did domestic chores for his commander's wife or went on food raids. But other times he was forced to fight in Sierra Leone's particularly brutal form of warfare, where rebels have amputated the arms or legs of civilians as a means of intimidating the people. Alhaji was not exempt from these activities: "During the attacks we killed people, burnt down houses, destroyed properties and cut off limbs."
Nearly two years after his abduction, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) negotiated the release of the child soldiers in Alhaji's unit as part of the DDR programme. The disarming and demobilisation of all soldiers - adults and children - began in November 1999 and was as an essential step in the effort to bring peace to the war-torn country. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) made sure that the special needs of child soldiers were seen to in the demobilisation process: most importantly separating them from adult combatants and getting them to a safe and neutral environment.
As part of the rehabilitation process, the demobilised child soldiers spend about six weeks at centres run by NGO's such as Caritas, International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, where they receive medical and psychological care as well as some informal education. They are registered to be reunited with their families or if their families cannot be found, as in Alhaji's case, they are taken it to live with a foster family.
"The programme helped me feel normal again," says Alhaji. "It helped me develop ways to fit into society again."
But the suffering of a child soldier does not end the moment they are removed from conflict. Back in school, his peers did not readily accept him. "They looked at me differently like an evil person," he said while at the UN. "Maybe they had good reasons. After all, we used to do very horrible things to them, their families and communities."
Rejection by schoolmates, families or even entire communities is a common phenomenon. According to Olara Otunnu, Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and one of the biggest challenges is sensitising the community to their needs. "Whatever a child did, fundamentally that child was being victimised and they should be looked at as a victim who needs support and help," says Mr. Otunnu.
"We suffered just as them because we were forced to do so by our commanders," says Alhaji, with no bitterness. "I am easily reminded of my past when I make mistakes. 'Do not bring your rebel life here' they say."
In November 2001, Alhaji, who hardly knew of the UN just four years earlier, travelled to New York to tell his story and became the first child ever to address the United Nations Security Council.
"Alhaji Sawaneh's presence is a reminder not only of the suffering that children endure in armed conflict - but also of the contribution that they can make by participating in the realisation of their own rights," Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of UNICEF, told the Council. (Click here to read her speech).
Although war and prejudice interrupted nearly four years of Alhaji's childhood, he still has the hopes and dreams of any boy his age. He believes peace will happen in his country. He wants to go back to school. He is passionate about football. And someday he hopes to start his own NGO to help feed the poor and support children in his country to go to school.
"The UN is there to help make peace in any country that is affected by war. The job they have done in Sierra Leone is so great. Now the DDR programme is going on well and the war is coming to an end."
FIND OUT MORE about how the UN protects childrens rights. Go to the links next to Alhaji.
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