On 2 August 1997, Charles Taylor was elected President of Liberia.

Eight years prior, as leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Taylor had set-out to overthrow then president Samuel Doe. What transpired was a devastating conflict.

Torture, rape and the indiscriminate killing of civilians spread across the small West African nation with thousands of children recruited as soldiers by the NPFL and other groups.

At the time, Taylor’s election was seen by international observers as possibly bringing a halt to the bloodshed, but two years later violence erupted again. Taylor-backed rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone, in the midst of its own civil war, encroached into Liberia while anti-government factions domestically ignited further violence.

Embed from Getty Images

Four years of conflict ensued; thousands more were killed and child recruitment increased once again. Although exact figures are impossible to calculate, it is estimated at least 38,000 child soldiers were used in Liberia’s two civil wars from 1989 until 2003.

It is believed that up to 250,000 people were killed during the 14-year conflict.

Taylor’s brutal reign ended in 2003 and he fled into exile but was arrested by UN authorities in Nigeria in 2006. The infamous warlord was charged with 11 war crimes in 2012 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Although Taylor was finally bought to account and his actions have now largely faded from international glare, the scars of war stick indelibly to Liberian society and its thousands of former child combatants.

Nearly thirty years since the start of Liberia’s bloody conflict and two decades on from the ill-fated election, one former child soldier shares his own harrowing memories from the period.

Charles Wratto recounts his experiences at the centre of Liberia’s civil war, the struggle to free himself from the conflict and how now, as a PhD candidate and University lecturer in Europe, he is dedicated to providing education to children and helping former child soldiers in his country and beyond.

What are your early memories of the war?

By Liberian standards, I was privileged as a child. My father was a doctor, which made my siblings and I fortunate to have an education. However, all that changed when the war came.

It was 1989 and I was just eight-years-old. Violence between Charles Taylor’s NPFL and the national Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) was growing. I remember seeing AFL soldiers shoot a group of men by the roadside one day. I can remember being overtaken by fear.

The country was becoming too dangerous to live in and children were being recruited every day to fight. For this reason, my mother took my siblings and I to neighbouring Sierra Leone for protection.

Our relief in Sierra Leone did not last long. In March 1991 the soldiers crossed over from Liberia into Bo Waterside [Sierra Leone border town] and within minutes, they were in the refugee camp killing anyone they saw. Any child who cried or resisted the rebels was immediately shot. I survived by hiding amongst bodies.

When we returned to Liberia later that year the war had gotten even worse; children were constantly being harassed and adults, like my father who abstained from the war, became potential targets - sometimes by members of their own tribes.

Embed from Getty Images

How did you come to be involved in the war?

One morning I was beaten by the Brigadier General Joseph Jalee of the AFL. My crime? Walking on the street by his house.

My mother ran to the scene and asked why he had beaten me. Sadly, she too was knocked to the ground on the General’s order and kicked by the soldiers in the stomach and wherever they could. Soldiers held me down while my mother was beaten, forcing me to watch her pain while rendering me helpless to come to her defence.

When my father came to inquire afterwards, the General ordered his men to pin him down to the ground, while he savagely beat my father.

For me, this was a turning point in my life. From that moment, I wanted to be a soldier - to take revenge on those men and protect my family.

Was it easy for you to find a group to join?

Most of my childhood friends and former classmates had become soldiers. Despite the risk, they regularly returned from the frontlines to visit their families and told me how easy it was to be a soldier.

“It’s just like in the movies or as we used to play with our toy guns. All you need is your marijuana and a little white powder to keep you fit and free from bad thoughts.”

I was given an address for the recruiting office. But when I went to register, the senior officer rejected me. My father had saved his life in the hospital and he told me: “Go back home and take with you the life your father has given me. I am offering you a chance to live… a chance that many here will not have.”

Undeterred, I kept on trying to join. Someone told my mother about my intentions and in order to keep me away from fighting, she sent me to an orphanage. I was 15-years-old.

How did you join the armed group?

Three months after I arrived at the orphanage, the war came to Monrovia. I remember the day - it was 6 April 1996. That week, the rebels captured us. They beat the men and raped the women and girls among us.

I will never forget what I saw on our way across the rebel lines. People were forced to sit at dinner tables to eat pieces of human flesh... some hearts still had life in them after being removed from the victims. An NPFL general ordered his men to give me a glass of ‘juice’ to drink - it was human blood. I was told not to be sick or else I would be served for lunch. I saw things that are impossible to unsee; acts of violence and inhumanity that no one – let alone a child – should be witness to. This was the ugly face of war.

After witnessing this, I felt deeply ashamed of myself and no longer wanted to be a soldier. There was a temporary ceasefire and so I returned to central Monrovia, but my joy was short-lived.

One morning I was burying a baby that was killed by a bomb. It was a violent day, with RPGs landing everywhere. Members of the UNIMO-J armed group appeared and arrested me and two other boys.

They said: “You must go across the bridge and tell the enemy we want to negotiate.”

We knew this would most certainly result in our death, so we tried to run. They captured us and beat us so badly that we eventually begged to be sent to the bridge.

At the bridge, we realised we had been deceived. No negotiation was planned. Instead, they wanted us to collect the unused bullets from this bridge, which was a major battleground.

Unable to turn back, we began to cross. Once we got close, the enemy began firing on us. I cannot explain how another boy and I somehow narrowly escaped death on that bridge. Our relief was short-lived though as we were re-captured by UNIMO-J.

At this moment, we had two choices, pick up the guns and fight or run and be killed by our captors. It was certain; we would have been killed if we didn’t pick up the guns.

Embed from Getty Images

What was your role within the armed group?

As a soldier, my comrades admired my rejection of drugs and alcohol, despite several beatings, imprisonments and starvations. However, I was hated by the commander who saw me as a bad influence on others and always put me in the first line of fire to be killed by the enemy.

We always had to go on attacks and were never allowed to retreat. There was always someone at the back that would stop us leaving and shoot any of us who would turn around.

Often the goal was to take food and supplies from the enemy. We slept wherever the General wanted us to sleep and ate when he wanted us to eat. Although the commander hated me, he felt I could best be used as a spy. It was a dangerous job and I always prayed to live the next two seconds.

You stayed with the armed group for two years. Why did you decide to leave?

I left because though I never wanted to be a part of the war, I couldn’t escape until then. Secondly, Charles Taylor was now in power and his government was looking for people who had fought against them.

To survive, some other boys and I would hide in the ceremony. We would break open the graves; remove the bones and sleep inside the graves.

From late 2001, Taylor changed his strategy and started recruiting everyone into his army to fight against a new enemy. By now, the soldiers also knew our hiding place.

I knew that my county was no longer safe for me.

In November 2001, I managed to escape and travelled seven days through the vast forest from Liberia to the Ivory Coast.

Fighting another cruel battle to survive, this time as a refugee, I embarked on a journey to Mali, which took a month on foot.

There, I met Belemina Obunge, a Nigerian national who embraced me as a son and took me with him to Nigeria.

I was 22-years-old but made a conscious effort to go back to school.

With Obunge's help, I gained a university place to obtain a BSc in International Relations.  In 2013 I moved to Romania to study for a Masters’ degree in Crisis and Conflict Management. This October I am scheduled to receive my Ph.D. in Peace Studies.

How has your experience been in Romania and what do you hope to achieve after your studies?

My experience in Romania has been wonderful (Pictured right, during a speech at his university). As a former child soldier, my goal is to set an example for children with my background and show them that with opportunities and determination they can make it.

I have seen the best and worst life has to offer and I am now seeing the good in it again. My inspiration is borne out of these experiences and that is why I am deeply involved in issues of peace building. Let the politicians fight their own wars, while the children and youth get an education.

What can countries like Nigeria learn from the Liberian experience?

Like the Sierra Leoneans, most Nigerians have failed to realise that the conflict with Boko Haram has already been going on for 14 years. Unfortunately, many remove the human context and see it as a problem between the Muslim north and the Nigerian state. This attitude has led to the destruction of lives and livelihoods by both parties.

Child soldiers are the products of failed social systems. They are used as the instruments that fuel and sustain violent conflicts.

The use of child soldiers is a gauge of the pace of war and peace. The problem continues because national governments, particularly those in Africa, have refused to empower the youth. There is a need to engage the youth to become involved in peace building initiatives so they won’t be deceived into participating in violent conflicts. Of course, people will probably still join armed groups due to a myriad of reasons, but if they are informed of the trouble and long-term impact they may think twice.

Right now, I am working to build a school that will provide vocational training for former child soldiers and vulnerable youth and secondary education to youth and children in 11 villages in Liberia (Pictured below, centre, in Liberia in 2014 with UN staff during charity work with former child soldiers). It is a lot cheaper to save lives than to fight wars. Therefore, we need to find a way to educate people in local communities so that they can take care of themselves and not be fooled by their leaders.

 Charles, pictured centre, in Liberia in 2014 with UN staff during his charity's work with former child soldiers.

Charles Wratto is a PhD candidate at the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania where he is studying conflict analysis and management. He also runs the Charles Wratto Foundation, a non-profit working to improve the lives of children and former child soldiers through education.  

Banner image credit: Wikimedia