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Children from Sierra Leone study their numbers at a school for demobilized child soldiers in an interim care center. (Susan Shepler photo)
Child soldiers and childhood in Sierra Leone studied by UC Berkeley graduate student
26 July 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - As Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war ebbed to its end in 1999, Susan Shepler, a student in the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, returned to the West African country where she once taught math with the Peace Corps.

The high school-level equations she'd once posed to students there paled in comparison to the staggering numbers posing challenges for the diamond-rich, yet poor, Sierra Leone. An estimated 7,000 children fought in the war in Sierra Leone, according to independent authorities, and Shepler began researching the plight of children being demobilized and returning to civilian life after months or years as soldiers, drug runners, cooks, water-carriers and sex slaves for forces on all sides of the long conflict.

Human Rights Watch calculates that in more than 30 countries around the world, as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 are currently soldiers with government or rebel forces. The organization says child participation in warfare has been reported recently or is ongoing in countries such as Uganda, Mozambique, East Timor, Uzbekistan, Peru, Yugoslavia and Papua, New Guinea.

Shepler's research in Sierra Leone explored the plight of children being demobilized and returning after months or years to civilian life.

"People kept saying that education was the solution," said Shepler, who is in the social and cultural studies program at the Graduate School of Education. "I was interested in education's use almost as a machine, the idea that you take a child soldier and stick him in the education machine and then he comes out the other side, remade into an innocent youth."

UC Berkeley graduate education student Susan Shepler (third from right) joins former child combatants and other Sierra Leonean villagers in a lesson on traditional fabric tie-dyeing.

With funding from a Rocca Fellowship from UC Berkeley's Center for African Studies and by grants from the American Association of University Women and the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Shepler examined how a society rebuilds itself in the aftermath of war and reintegrates child soldiers into daily life.

She crisscrossed the country, journeying from city to village and back, looking for Sierra Leone's answers to such questions - What is childhood? What is the value of a child? What is the role of child labor? And what is the society's responsibility for educating their children? She also explored how relief organization intervention helped shape answers to these questions.

Now writing her dissertation at UC Berkeley, Shepler is comparing the international community's notions about youth - as epitomized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - with Sierra Leone's changing views on children's rights and roles.

Often the efforts of humanitarian agencies fail or falter because they apply outside values and models with no "translation" or consideration of whether they will work in other settings and cultures, Shepler said. For example, the concept of children's rights is largely a new one in Sierra Leone and is due partly to philosophies and programs introduced by outside relief agencies. While art therapy and stressing education might work well in some environments, Shepler said, vocational training and encouraging youth to engage in a needy agricultural system might be most suitable in today's Sierra Leone, which is in dire need of housing and food.

"Kids aren't expected to have rights, or self-expression, or much of a say, Shepler said, theorizing that this may be due to a high child mortality rate in Sierra Leone, where 50 percent of the children don't reach the age of 5. "Children are valued differently in that society."

Shepler stayed a total of nearly two years in Sierra Leone, talking to child soldiers, parents and community elders, discussing their opinions about the war and what problems they perceive that the children now present.

She began in interim care centers set up to provide medical exams and psychological counseling as child soldiers were demobilized. She stayed in the capitol of Freetown, medium-sized towns, country villages and a camp for displaced persons.

When she met with friends from her previous stay in Sierra Leone, Shepler said, almost all had children, siblings or relatives who had been abducted. "Through my research, I came to know people very well who had experiences of their children being abducted or killed," she said.

Shepler learned that some Sierra Leonian child soldiers were drugged and forced to follow older soldiers. Still others joined rebel camps in hopes of simply surviving the bloodshed.

She encountered some families who sent delegations to rebel camps to negotiate children's return. "But for the most part," she said, "it was just too dangerous."

Some former child combatants Shepler interviewed were kidnapped and forced to take up arms at such an early age that they no longer remember their parents. They have no idea where to call home. There also are parents who reject returning offspring because of the atrocities they committed, she said.

Other youngsters joined combat in desperate hope of survival, Shepler said. She saw children with the names of rebel groups carved into their chests and met several girls who had been kidnapped and raped.

"The rebels were very unpredictable," she said. "They could just kill people for no reason."

When fighting intensified and rebels took about 500 United Nations peacekeepers hostage in May 2000, she was evacuated reluctantly and returned to Berkeley for several months.

"Most of the time, I tried to stay away from the action of the war because I was really working on reintegrating child soldiers, but there were a few scary times when I was near armed rebels and drove through a place where rebels were disarming and kind of protesting. There were armed men at checkpoints all over the place," Shepler said. "So it was scary at first, but it was something that you just get used to after a while, being in a war zone."

Back in the Bay Area, she refocused her work. Shepler decided to also concentrate on what was happening at the village level, where some child soldiers were returning and where other families still wondered about the fate of their missing children. She sought out children who fought with various fighting factions, child soldiers who served in different regions of Sierra Leone and for varying lengths of time.

"I wanted to get the whole arc, as much as I could get at, of the demobilization and the reintegration process," Shepler said.

She found children most accepting of the former child soldiers re-entering their ranks as they acknowledged their fate could have been anyone's. Ex-combatants seemed to be most helpful with one another, Shepler noted. On the other hand, she overheard parents on more than one occasion talk dismissively about "those rebel children."

Although much of what Shepler heard and saw was heartbreaking, she said the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone was inspirational. "I learned from my Sierra Leonian friends, because they had to go on with their lives and couldn't sit around crying all the time."

Sadly enough, Shepler said, her work has applications far beyond Sierra Leone.

Shepler plans to return someday to Sierra Leone, a country she has grown to love, to research the process of reconciliation and forgiveness and how forgiving child soldiers ties into changing concepts about youth. She also hopes to conduct long-term studies with the children she met, to understand the reintegration process over time.