It’s 6:50 p.m. in Fendell, Liberia and a chorus of prayers emanates from the Queah Town Mosque on the Monrovia-Kakata Highway. It happens every day, around this time, in this way: a prayer coinciding with a howling rooster and a steady flow of traffic, imported cars casually disrespecting opposing lanes, and Pen-Pen (transport motorbike) drivers speeding with passengers who hold on tightly, without helmets or much to lose, down the highway.
Hamet Dean* has heard the Queah Town Mosque prayers many times before. He knows the families of the neighborhood—from the owners of the roosters to the squatters packing up their plantain and paw-paw market tables to return from the edges of the highway to their zinc-roofed homes. Hamet Dean, known as “Deek” to those around the University of Liberia’s Fendell campus, is a security guard, a local to the area of Fendell. He is short and stocky with dark skin and eyes that glint while he listens, carefully, hopefully, to your promises of spare cash, “small, small change” he will remind you of if he happens to run into you again. Deek arrives at LU’s campus every day at 6:15 a.m. to begin his shift at 6:30; he leaves right around 7:00 in the evening. He’s held this routine devoutly for five years, making a meager $10,500 Liberian dollars per month (about $122). You would not know by looking at him, or in conversation, cheerful and full of stories from his recent day, that Deek was once a merciless combatant, a rebel leader in both of Liberia’s Civil Wars, which killed an estimated 250,000 people, and displaced as many as 850,000 to neighboring and foreign countries.
I’ve seen films about men like Deek—rebels, once young boys who were drugged with sanguinary cocktails of cane juice and crack, forced to kill, and commit merciless acts of cruelty to save their own lives. Most recently, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beast of No Nation, follows the dramatic journey of Agu (Abraham Attah), after he’s thrust into the role of child soldier in a shapeless war, lacking context or motive. Why was there no explanation of why they were fighting? Where was the analysis of the conflict, so that viewers understood what was at stake, and more importantly, what needed to happen in order for the war to end? Beast of No Nation overflows with enough senseless violence to quench a certain type of person’s appetite for the darkness and gore of “Africa,” and it perpetuates Hollywood’s one-dimensional version of Africans. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog had similar effect in 2007. Yet, child soldiers are not exclusive to Africa. India, Thailand, and Burma are a few of the countries that have a history of rebel groups using children in war. Still, Beast of No Nation, though criticized by some for, among many things, neglecting to name a country, and thus further maintaining the idea of child soldiers and the savagery of war as synonymous with being African, received wide acclaim, and even recent praise after being snubbed by this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor for Idris Elba’s chilling role as the warlord commandant who viciously subjugated Agu. In the end of the film we see Agu playing with other boys in an ocean-side camp. It is an idyllic ending: he plays soccer, swims, and he receives rehabilitation for his drug use. Agu shares his story with a counselor and there is a semblance of inner peace and reconciliation with his past.
The child who was once forced to kill now goes to work and night school, and drives the Pen-Pens, and guards upper-middle class homes.
But, what really happens to those boys after the wars? The truth is that most, like Deek, are thrust back into everyday life, living alongside their former victims, with little or no rehabilitation to deal with the trauma of their frightful pasts. The child who was once forced to kill now goes to work and night school, and drives the Pen-Pens, and guards upper-middle class homes. In conversation there are hints of the men they could have been, the devastation peeking through sparkling grins before a question they all ask, with visible shame and all too soon, “So what you want know about the war?”
Hamet Dean was abandoned at birth at Bensonville Hospital, outside of Monrovia. He was told by a nurse at the hospital some ten years later, after returning to look for traces of his biological mother, that her reason for abandoning him was so one of the families of the nearby “Congo” neighborhoods would adopt him. (Congo is a Liberian colloquialism referring to those who descended from freed slaves—black American settlers to the area in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. They are more formally known as Americo-Liberian.) As his mother had hoped, Deek was adopted by a man named Hamet Dean; he was given the Dean name and a primary-level education in exchange for doing chores and housework. Adopting children of lesser means and educating them in exchange for house labor was customary among many privileged families at the time.
Bensonville, Careysburg, Crozierville, Harrisburg—these were among the settlements founded by freed American slaves interested in making a country, a black country, an independent country, Africa’s first, and free of colonial rule. They named the capital city Monrovia after American president James Monroe. They built churches, schools, infrastructure, and a culture. They Christianized local indigenous groups, educated them to Western standards, and after more than a century of benefiting from an endemic national favoritism over indigenous Liberians, the country imploded.
On April 12, 1980, a coup led by military sergeant Samuel K. Doe resulted in the killing of then-president William R. Tolbert and brutal execution, without trial or explanation, of thirteen government ministers and officials in front of a crowd of jubilant indigenous Liberians. The results of that day made Doe the first indigenous man in Liberia’s history to become president of the West African nation. It took ten years of lackluster policies and a rapidly declining economy before rumors materialized that a former government official under Doe, one Charles Taylor, was returning to oust the unpopular leader from the presidency under a newly formed, Libyan-backed militia, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
I was the last person in Fendell to know of Deek’s past and former position, which he shared with me over the course of several days.
Deek was fifteen years old when the rumors of war reached his family in 1989. His adoptive father made plans for Mrs. Dean and their four other children to travel to the United States before the rebels invaded. Deek was left behind. “They were good people,” Deek explained. “They were good to me. But by birth I was not her child, so I didn’t go with them to America.”
His adopted father was a man, Deek insists, who was proud to the very end—when they decapitated him.
A senior officer for the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) at the time, Mr. Dean was sent to a military base in Gbarnga, Liberia, after his wife and children left for America. Deek followed and worked alongside his adoptive father. In March of 1990, AFL’s Gbarnga base was invaded by the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a breakaway rebel group of Charles Taylor’s NPFL.
Deek watched as the rebels separated his father from the group of soldiers he led. The rebels led Mr. Dean to the side of the road. He was a man, Deek insists, who was proud to the very end—when they decapitated him. A member of the faction eyed Deek, who had been standing close to his adopted father when they took him away. A commander stopped the rebel as he approached Deek to shoot him. Deek admitted that he was the son of Mr. Dean, but the commander commented on the contrast of Deek’s dark skin and African features, resembling an indigenous man, in contrast to Mr. Dean’s lighter skin-tone. The commander recognized that Deek was not “Congo” like his father, but adopted, and demanded that he join the rebel army. Afraid for his life, Deek followed the faction of nearly fifty rebel soldiers as they moved into Kakata, Liberia.
“I was afraid,” Deek recalled. “They found a house where we would all live and every evening and every morning they brought people there and killed them.”
For two weeks Deek washed clothes for the faction, cooking and doing yard work around the house before again catching the attention of the rebel commander.
“He came to me one day and say anything I saw other children doing, I should do,” Deek said. He gave him an unassembled AK-47 and demanded he put it together, like he had seen the other boys do. Deek followed orders and assembled the gun, then followed the dozen or so young boys into the yard to practice shooting. First at trees. Then at light poles. Then into the road, into the distance. Then, at people. “On that day,” Deek shared, his voice low but exact, “I become rebel.”
The rebels traveled toward Monrovia, reaching the nearby suburb of Paynesville in May with a squad of fifteen boys. To distract himself from the atrocities Deek eventually committed to their cause during the following months, forced to perform what they called VIP treatment (fatal torture, beatings, rapes); he binged on marijuana and cane juice, cocaine and other cocktails–one a barbed, man-made wine from the inland forests. Deek would eventually lead his squad of rebels, telling them where to invade, when to retreat, and, most damning of all, whom to kill.
“At that time, nobody was sorry for anybody. Everybody was dying; the only way to not die yourself was to become rebel,” he said. “When the drugs make the wickedness build in you, you do anything.”
When Samuel Doe was overthrown in early September 1990, Deek was disarmed for the first time. A collective of West African nations under the guidance of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) sent a peacekeeping force to Liberia called the Economic Community Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). Human Rights Watch reported that ECOWAS stepped in because by August 1990, there was no prospect for intervention by the United States or the United Nations. “The ECOMOG mandate was to impose a cease-fire, help form an interim government and hold elections within twelve months,” the 1993 report stated. “Unfortunately, with NPFL attacks continuing, there was no peace to keep, and ECOMOG was thrust into combat to push the NPFL out of Monrovia.” Bloodshed temporarily ended and a November cease-fire divided Liberia into the International Government of National Unity (IGNU), backed by ECOMOG and based in the capital city, Monrovia, and Charles Taylor’s NPFL, which still controlled most of the country. A subsequent United Nations study reported that other ECOWAS efforts included mediating a series of agreements which became the basis of a November 1990 peace plan in which, “ECOWAS brokered the Yamoussoukro IV Accord which outlined steps to implement the peace plan, including the encampment and disarmament of warring factions under the supervision of an expanded ECOMOG.”
Instead of sleep, he suffered from tremors since he was never rehabilitated for his use of the drugs he depended on during the war.
Deek, who was sixteen at the time, and other child soldiers were disarmed by a local initiative, established by IGNU, as part of Liberia’s first Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. Many adult rebels were booked at Central Monrovia Prison, and children, including Deek, began vocational classes at the Liberia Opportunities Industrialization Centre (LOIC) in Monrovia. There Deek took daily classes in shoe-making as part of the disarmament process. For the next two years he would eat bread and beans once a day, haunted by nightmares while he lay, every night, in a trash-filled pocket under the steps of the school with seven other boys.
“I was ashamed,” Deek said. “I knew my Pa, if he lived, would be disappointed in me. Sometimes in combat when I see people walking who knew my Pa I would hide. I live with that shame and it was hard to sleep.” Instead of sleep, he suffered from tremors since he was never rehabilitated for his use of the drugs he depended on during the war. He obsessed over hypotheticals—meditated on whether his life would have been different if his adoptive father had lived, or if he had been more educated, or if he had followed Mrs. Dean and her biological children to America before the war had begun.
This would change yet again in 1992. On October fifteenth of that year, Charles Taylor launched “Operation Octopus,” attacking ECOMOG and AFL positions around Monrovia in an effort to besiege the city. By early November, The World Health Organization estimated that 3,000 civilians and combatants had died. The rebel group NPFL, known for using young soldiers in what was called the Small Boys Unit (SBU) during the initial weeks of Operation Octopus recruited among DDR programs. At the culmination of Liberia’s wars, the US-based Council on Foreign Relations published a study on the effects of combat on Liberia’s child soldiers: “If sufficient attention isn’t paid to these kids, they’re prime targets for re-enrollment into militias or mercenary armies,” said Jo Becker, an advocacy director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and contributor to the study.
Since the DDR program in which Deek was enrolled was not well funded and thus vulnerable, Deek, along with the boys he slept with under the school steps, ran away to the forest one night to get arms and to fight behind Charles Taylor’s NPFL. “We got used to it,” Deek said. “It’s what we knew and we know we will eat and have protection when we become rebel again.”
This time, Deek would remain a rebel and NPFL fighter through the second war, which ended in 2003 when Charles Taylor resigned from the Liberian presidency and was flown into exile in Nigeria.
Deek, now twenty-six-years-old, was again disarmed, this time by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). UNMIL’s DDR program at Margibi County’s Booker Washington Institute gave him an opportunity to study to become an electrician. A well-funded program, Deek now had a camp bed to sleep in and warm meals. But by then the damage was done. The nightmares did not end. He had hallucinations—saw places he had passed and things he had done and told others to do. The friends he had over the previous decade also began to go insane, and Deek lived with paranoia that it would inevitably happen to him, too.
“I start going to church because everybody was going to church,” he said. “You do bad thing like that, church the only way you wash it from you.” After BWI’s program, Deek, like many fellow ex-combatants, found it difficult to secure employment. He would remain unemployed and homeless from the time he graduated from the Booker Washington Institute in 2005—except for menial and seasonal jobs — until he learned of the University of Liberia’s vocational training program to become a member of the University’s police force. He completed the training in 2010 and remains employed with the University as a contractor today.
Today, Deek is married; he and his wife Ruth have two children under four-years-old. He rents a home not far from the campus and is saving what he can to buy land and build a home of his own.
He spends his spare time with friends, including some other former combatants who also live in the Fendell area. I met one, Melvin Dennis, at the Fendell junction where a crew of Pen-Pen drivers spend their days waiting for passengers to drive into Monrovia and neighboring cities. At the age of eleven, Dennis became a combatant for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a rebel group which operated during Liberia’s second war from 1997-2003. Like many rebels, Dennis was disarmed near the Fendell area and was thus required, as part of the DDR program, to reside in the immediate vicinity of his disarmament.
“We plenty around here,” Dennis shared referring to his fellow former combatants, “But we’n want trouble. Here we just want concentrate on our bike business and go. Nobody humbuggin’ anybody.”
Dennis, who started in the Pen-Pen business two years after his 2003 disarmament, once rented Pen-Pens daily to generate income. “Some boys would use leftover money from the war and go to Guinea to buy the bikes,” he explained, “and they would rent to us because we all fought together so we trust each other.” The Pen-Pen owners would make drivers like Dennis report a certain amount of profit each day and keep the remainder. From this, he saved his money and now owns four Pen-Pens of his own, which he rents out to other young boys and unemployable former combatants.
Although some were successful with reintegrating former child soldiers into society, DDR programs have generally had low enrollment.
“Those [DDR] programs there they give you training but they didn’t always give job,” Dennis explained. “So we depend on that we won’t have nothing. And it hard to get job if you take arm so we help each other.”
Various DDR programs were tried over Liberia’s nearly two decades of war with varying results. In addition to the government of Liberia, ECOMOG, and UNMIL, a number of institutions and NGOs established DDR programs to rehabilitate former combatants and, when possible, reunite them with their families. Although some were successful with reintegrating former child soldiers into society, DDR programs have generally had low enrollment. According to a post-war research study conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice entitled, “Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case for Liberia,” an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 child soldiers were under the control of six major armed factions in Liberia by 1996. However, by the end of the first DDR program, only 4,306 child soldiers were disarmed and demobilized. This number does not include combatants like Deek, since he rejoined a militia after only two years of enrollment in ECOMOG’s program. Factors contributing to low enrollment and retention in these programs include children voluntarily returning to their homes and communities after fighting, and reluctance to register with ECOMOG soldiers, “the very enemies they fought during the war.”
Local Liberians also spearheaded grassroots efforts to rehabilitate former child combatants during and after Liberia’s wars. Community worker and owner of Monrovia’s We-Care Library, Michael Weah, handed out books to children. Additionally, for three years after the second Liberian civil war in 2003, Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna hosted Straight From the Heart from a UN-sponsored radio station in Monrovia. After visiting a Liberian slum and finding a shanty with fourteen former child-soldiers whom she later interviewed, she began to air the testimonies of child rebels on her show.
Kamara-Umunna gathered testimonies, interviewed victims and warlords, and even convinced some former child soldiers to testify at Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. The TRC was created in May 2005 with a two-year goal of investigating human rights violations that occurred in Liberia between January 1979 and October 2003.
“Sometimes it’s rough,” Deek shared. “During Ebola time I wanted to take the children to orphanage and tell them their parents died of Ebola. Just so they can eat.” Like most Liberians, Deek was told to stay home from work until the Ebola epidemic was contained, thus depriving him of income.
“You fight and for long time, people look and say they’n want nothing to do with you because of what you did. Because you’n good man.”
Deek has indeed done wicked things. He was a rebel leader before his eighteenth birthday. Yet, considering the age of recruitment of combatants like Deek (fifteen) and Melvin (eleven), and how malleable they therefore were, and because their birth and adolescent experiences set the pace for the rest of their lives, how much of their wickedness was a symptom of their birth?
And then, how much of our goodness is a symptom of ours?
*Hamet Dean is an alias. Deek wished to conceal his government name to respect the members of his adopted family.