14, a Liberian War Veteran Dreams of Finding a Way Home
By Tim Weiner
The New York Times
August 25, 2003
Aug. 23 — "The war came before the rains in 2000,"
Dukuly Togbah remembered. "I was 10 years old."
Dukuly is a smart,
tough country boy from the northern hills. He was one among the
thousands of child soldiers who have fought this nation's grisly
battles for 14 years.
He is 14 himself,
born on Independence Day, July 26. His story is the story of Liberia.
When he was in the first grade he started to fight with rebel
forces and, when captured, he was forced on pain of death to fight
for the government. He survived it all by the skin of his teeth.
With the chance that
the war may be dying down now, Dukuly (pronounced Due-CLAY) has
been out of combat almost three weeks, and lives in a shelter
run by a Catholic charity here in Paynesville, on the outskirts
of Monrovia, where he is learning to read and write. He stands
about 5 feet 2 inches and weighs perhaps 100 pounds.
Three years and four
months ago, he was taken from his village, Kambolahun, in Lofa
County, near the borders of Sierra Leone and Guinea, by the rebel
group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known
as L.U.R.D., who overran his village.
What happened to
his family is unknown; it is very possible that they are among
the 600,000 refugees among Liberia's population of three million.
The rebels tried
to overthrow President Charles G. Taylor, himself a former warlord
who fought his way to power on the backs of battalions of child
soldiers, who seldom lack for weaponry.
Mr. Taylor, who left
power Aug. 11, under indictment for war crimes in Sierra Leone,
did not invent the practice of using children in combat.
But he did introduce
the phenomenon to Liberia. Perhaps 10,000 children remain mobilized
among government forces and the rebels. All the main factions
used what they call Small Boy Units, sometimes abducting children,
sometimes luring them with the promise of the glory of war.
Dr. Peter Coleman,
the Liberian minister of health and social welfare, said of the
child soldiers: "In some areas they are 40 to 50 percent
of the fighting force. Young people with arms has become a way
of life." Dr. Coleman said there were no social services
or public health facilities in the nation to treat or rehabilitate
the thousands of child soldiers.
Dukuly spoke vividly
and dispassionately in English of his experience. By comparison,
some of his youthful colleagues are so traumatized by the experience
that they can hardly speak.
"I can remember
I used to play with my friends, and sometimes we would go in the
bush and set traps to catch meat," he said. "But since
the war I can't see my friends.
"The first time
I saw fighting I was 10 years old," he said. "It was
dissidents and government. The dissidents were four or five in
the village by the time the sun come up. They shot up my home
and we all run in the bush. My parents, everybody run away, me
too. I started running and they opened up firing. They captured
"So now I can't
see my family," he said. "So I followed the people."
"I fought with
L.U.R.D. in the bush," he said, learning to fire an AK-47,
walking point, winning a battlefield commission and a nom de guerre.
"I was the deputy commander of the Small Boy Unit under General
Iron Jacket. They call me Quick to Fire. Iron Jacket gave me that
Iron Jacket's Small
Boy Unit was about 100 strong, Dukuly said, and the rebel force
under the general grew to about 2,000, including many women and
girls abducted from villages to cook rice, catch fish and serve
the men and boys. Babies were born in the bush.
The rebel force slowly
fought its way south through Lofa County, battling government
troops in at least four major engagements and countless skirmishes
during the next three years, destroying villages and displacing
tens of thousands of people in the process.
radio station reported late tonight that major fighting had broken
out in Bong County, in the heart of the nation. The station broadcast
unconfirmed reports that rebels had killed hundreds of civilians
in recent days.
Many of Iron Jacket's
troops used magic and ritual to protect them in battle. They called
it medicine. They wore spent bullets as amulets and rubbed powders
on their chests to shield their hearts from harm. They put on
women's wigs to transubstantiate their bodies, to turn into someone
else, to leave their physical beings and strengthen their spirits.
They also used cocaine
for courage. The only psychiatrist in Liberia, Dr. Edward Grant,
said drug abuse added to the horrors of war there. "These
children are the most dangerous segment of the fighting machine,"
he said. "They have been used to commit atrocities under
the influence of drugs."
"I can't lie
on myself," Dukuly said. "I used to take it. It made
me brave. Iron Jacket used to give me it. You take it in your
nose or you smoke it in your grass. I used to feel brave. I used
to get the mind to fire the gun. Sometimes we take it when we
relaxing, but most of the time we take it in battle.
Jacket would give me some kind of white chalk to rub on my body
so the bullets can't touch me," he continued. "But I
never used to like it. When I go on the battlefront, front-line
troop, I can pray to God. When I come back, I can tell God thank
you. I had my Bible in my pocket. I don't know how to read. But
every time I go on the front line, I would knock it on my head,
put it in my pocket and go.
medicine my friends use, when the rocket come in, it can pick
them up so the rocket can't do nothing to them," Dukuly said.
"And when the bullet come, it just bounce off them. My best
medicine was the drug — that drug called cocaine."
Tons of cocaine arrived
in Liberia in the 1990's, government officials here said. They
said war made the borders porous and turned the nation's ports
into transshipment points for international smugglers of drugs
Good fortune was
also with Dukuly, along with guns and drugs.
I survive?" he said. "Because sometimes when we go into
villages and my friends be beating and tying the people, I say,
`Y'all stop.' And sometimes when we get rice, I can divide it,
give them one, two cup of rice. That put good luck behind me."
"Most of my
best friends, they were killed," he said. "My friends
who used to call me Quick to Fire. We used to wrestle together.
But we ourselves, we also killed plenty. When they killed my friends
and I feeling bad, Iron Jacket would tell me, my boy, that's war.
You got to be brave."
In June, the L.U.R.D.
forces fought their way to the edge of Monrovia. Then began the
three major battles between the rebels and Mr. Taylor's forces
known here as World War One, World War Two and World War Three.
"I fought World
War One," Dukuly said. "We attack, we retreat. World
War Two, the fighting were not easy. Too hard. The government
come with plenty force. Iron Jacket, everybody leave. They leave
me behind when government forces come back. I hid in an old car.
And then they capture me."
me and tied me," he continued. "They wanted to kill
me, but one general saved my life. To prove myself to the general,
Sweet Candy, to prove I was a man, I had to fight. I fought one
month for government forces against my people. I wanted to run
away, to go to my men. If I go, they kill me.
"I feeling bad,"
Dukuly said. "I killing people's forces fighting my brothers,
killing my brothers. But I had no choice. Many, many days I did
not want to go fight, but if I did not, they would kill me."
Then came World War
Three. "The last fighting, the L.U.R.D. men bring all the
jungle mortars," Dukuly said. "They attack from all
over. They killing us."
In the final days
of World War Three, Dukuly ran for his life and found shelter
with the Catholic charity, Don Bosco Homes.
A visitor at the
shelter asked him what the fighting was all about. "I must
say, I don't know," Dukuly said.
used to say we going to kill Charles Taylor," he said. "For
me, I just used to take the drug and in my head I know the government
troop, that my enemy, so anytime I see them, I fire."
"Now I want
to fight no more," Dukuly said. "I'm thinking about
my people. I want to go to school. When I go to school, I want
to be a teacher. I want to go back home."