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Church helps former child soldiers find lost childhoods

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A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Philip Karhan stands in the doorway of his house, which he shares with three other former child soldiers.
Dec. 12, 2005

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

VIRGINIA, Liberia (UMNS) - Akim Werkpewolo and Philip Karhan just want to go home and grow up to be good men.

Werkpewolo, 14, and Karhan, 15, and more than 15,000 teenagers like them, lost their childhoods when they were forced to become soldiers in Liberia's 14-year-long civil war. In their young lives, they have only known a world without war for little more than a year.

"For me, it is good for me to change. When I came here, I was bad news," says Werkpewolo. "I came here for the people to help me change so I can be a good man for my people. I want to be a good man, to help my people tomorrow."

Werkpewolo is from Lofa in the remote northwestern section of Liberia. After the peace agreement was signed, Lofa remained a stronghold for rebels and suffered some of the worst causalities of the war.

Karhan, who is from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), was beaten and kidnapped from his home.

"I fought for two years," he says. "I was forced to fight. The people were fighting, catching people to go fight. I was beaten and forced - taken from my family."

Both boys have been living in an interim care center run by the Catholic Church for the past year. Many churches, including the United Methodist Church, and other nongovernmental organizations have been working with former child soldiers since disarmament began in December 2003.

At the heart of peace

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the use of children as soldiers dates to the start of Liberia's conflict in 1989. The country's warlords - including Charles Taylor, who became president in 1997 and was later exiled - were infamous for the abduction and use of boys in war. In many cases, children as young as 9 years of age were kidnapped, sexually abused, and forced to kill or be killed.

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A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Bishop John Innis and the United Methodist Church played a key role in getting ex-combatants - especially children - to lay down their weapons.
United Methodist Bishop John Innis and the United Methodist Church in Liberia were heavily involved in asking ex-combatants - especially children - to lay down their weapons.

"I risked my life and went to places no one could go, and I sat with those guys with their guns over me," Innis says. "I said to them, 'These guns cannot give you education, these guns cannot give you new life, so put these guns down.'"

During that time, the United Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran and many other churches were helping child soldiers disarm and go to school.

"The church has always been there as the strength of our peace process," Innis says. "We were even represented at the official opening of the disarmament process. I spoke to rebels and told them this was something good, something to hold onto."

It has not been easy for the thousands of men, women, girls and boys to give up the guns because the weapons had given them power, he says. "We have to keep talking to them in love and telling them this is something good."

According to a Human Rights Watch report, children with an education, "those that can read and write," are more difficult to recruit.

Innis agrees and sees education as key to helping ex-combatants return to a normal life.

"Those who had ears to hear, they heard, and made a decision to drop their guns and maybe go to school," he says. "Maybe they will look back and say it was good we listened to those people who spoke to us in kind words, in words of hope and reconciliation."

Rebuilding lives, country

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been working in Liberia for 12 years. "I have never seen a place like Liberia that has been so destroyed by warring factions," says Marcos Melaku, head of mission in Liberia for UMCOR.

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A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

"I have never seen a place like Liberia that has been so destroyed by warring factions," says UMCOR's Marcos Melaku.
More than 250,000 people lost their lives during the war, and 500,000 have been displaced. More than 300,000 are living in neighboring countries.

"We are in the phase of reconstruction, rehabilitation and attending to emergency situations," Melaku says.

UMCOR runs a training center for ex-combatants to help reintroduce them to the community and give them work skills so they can regain their lives.

Sheku Sillh manages a program for ex-combatants called the Apprenticeship Skills Training and Accelerated Learning Program in Monrovia. The eight-month program teaches skills for employment and provides literacy training for the former soldiers.

"They have been in the bush so long they do not think as human beings," Sillh says.

Counselors are essential to the transition process, he says. "United Methodist counselors meet and talk to them - tell them the need for peace, the need to make themselves self-sufficient."

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A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Children gather around the water pump at an interim care center for former child soldiers.
Some of the skills taught at the center are carpentry, tailoring, masonry and auto repair.
Sillh says 946 have just completed the program and received certificates that will help them find employment or start their own business.

"People coming back to reconstruct their lives are coming back with nothing, sometimes with just the clothes they have on," Melaku says. "We have to help these people to restart life, to own something which they would protect as individuals, as social groups, as communities."

Convincing the community to accept ex-combatants has been difficult. UMCOR is assisting potential employers with resources in exchange for them accepting the former soldiers.

"We had to convince them that in the interest of country, in interest of peace, they needed to accept these guys," Sillh says. "More than 50 percent of the centers we first contacted refused. After some time, they saw the need to accept and train these guys."

Regaining lost childhoods

Accepting ex-combatants back into the community becomes even more traumatic for children who just want to go home.

Part of the work for David Sheikh Konneh, executive director in Monrovia with Don Bosco homes - the interim care center where Werkpewolo and Karhan live - is to convince families to take back their children.

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Akim Werkpewolo is a former child soldier who fought in Liberia's civil war.
"We have to trace families, and the families are not always ready to accept the child," he says. "When we are working with the community, we tell them this child who was 9 years old, a little boy in second grade when you last saw him, is not the same child. He has done a lot of things and had a lot of bad experiences."

Many of the child soldiers were street children before they were "recruited" into the war.

"Street children were especially vulnerable and very easy to recruit," says Konneh. "At that time, there was no school, no food. Commanders took advantage because of conditions. Some of the girls went as wives of commanders or were forcibly taken as wives and sex slaves."

Sometimes the boys were taken so young, the only person they knew as a father was their commander. "They trusted the commanders. They were told they would be 'great men when you fight.'"

In the interim care centers, the children are expected to wash their dishes and clean their rooms. Children who had been used to commanding did not want to do those things, Konneh says.

"They lost their childhood, forced to be adults, and now to play the role of a child in an interim care center was very difficult," he says. "Some of the children were used to commanding people of their mother's age, sleeping with women their mother's age, and now we are telling them they must realize they are a child."

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A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

Akim Werkpewolo (center) enjoys playing games at an interim care center for former child soldiers.
Karhan says adjusting was hard when he first came to the Don Bosco home. Today he is a boy who enjoys Bible class, learning to read and write and raising pet pigeons outside his room.

"I miss my parents. I want to go back to see my parents," Karhan says. Unfortunately, he cannot go home yet because Cote d'Ivoire is now engaged in a war.

"I am happy I am not fighting anymore," Karhan says. "I pray for God to give me long life and make me a good man in the future. War is a bad thing, war is no good. War destroys people and destroys countries."

Donations to UMCOR’s “Swords Turned Into Plowshares,” an alternative, productive lifestyle and livelihood program for young ex-combatants, can be placed in local church offering plates or sent directly to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Designate checks for UMCOR Advance #14488A and “Swords Turned Into Plowshares.” Those making credit-card donations can call (800) 554-8583.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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