Red hand day: Sierra Leone’s child soldiers remember
Sierra Leone had the challenge to resettle child soldiers, not only to remove the arms from them but also to de-traumatise them because many of them were forced to take up arms when they were little kids
By Claudia Anthony
FREETOWN: Sierra Leone continues to grapple with the long-lasting effects of trauma and the difficulties of reintegrating former child soldiers to this day. The country is still deeply affected by the effects of its devastating civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002. As the world comes together on February 12 to recognize the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers — commonly referred to as Red Hand Day — the West African country is reflecting once more on its ongoing relationship with the past.
“Sierra Leone had the challenge to resettle child soldiers, not only to remove the arms from them but also to de-traumatise them because many of them were forced to take up arms when they were little kids,” said Peter Konteh, a Catholic priest who worked closely with children associated with the war.
“First of all, we had to let them understand their roles as kids again, because in the jungle, they were exposed to all sorts of crimes, including killing, raping and many atrocities,” Konteh told DW. Red Hand Day, established by the UN in 2002, aims to amplify the global campaign against the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts.
The Paris Principles, which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, provide a clear definition of what exactly it means when a child is associated with an armed force or group. According to these principles, a child in this context refers to any individual under the age of 18 who is actively involved in war or conflict in various capacities.
But the definition is not limited to fighters. Minors who work as messengers, porters, spies or even cooks are also covered by the definition, as are children who are recruited and abused for sexual purposes. Africa is particularly affected by this phenomenon, with seven countries on the continent collectively accounting for 40% of the world’s child soldiers, some 250,000 individuals.
A recent UN report confirmed that in 2022 alone, there were severe violations against the Paris Principles affecting 18,890 children worldwide, about a quarter of whom are believed to be girls. Manty Tarawalli, Sierra Leone’s minister of gender and children’s affairs, recalls the horrors of war she had to witness during the civil war when she was only a child.
Tarawalli knows the unimaginable depths of trauma children had to endure firsthand, recounting in graphic detail how children were forced to murder other children using rudimentary kitchen equipment and blunt objects. Proactive de-traumatisation methods are the only way to begin to heal those wounds, said Konteh. “They experienced a lot of horror which led to psychological problems,” said the priest, underscoring the critical role of mental health support in their recovery.
Ishmael Morgan Heritage Charles used to dream of becoming a medical doctor, but his hope to help others was disrupted by the brutal war in Sierra Leone. “My desire has always been to help those in difficulties rather than inflicting pain,” he told DW, reflecting on the years when he was forced to work as a child soldier.
Charles has since dedicated his life to creating a brighter future for himself and others as an author and a humanitarian, proving that even the deepest trauma can be overcome. Another former child soldier, who opted for anonymity, told DW that he dedicated his life to the study of peace and conflict once the conflict in Sierra Leone was over. “I did several courses on international humanitarian assistance and recently completed my MBA on leadership and management,” he told DW.