As Sierra Leone begins the process of rebuilding after a devastating 10-year civil war, it is trying to reintegrate the thousands of young people who have been serving as child soldiers for much of their lives. The international community has been pouring millions of dollars into rehabilitation and reintegration programs through non-government organizations. Much of the rebuilding will have to begin with repairing the country's damaged social structures.
With disarmament has come the release of thousands of children abducted by combatants during the war and used as child soldiers. The children are turned over to child protection advocates who work to reunite them with their families.
The director of the Roman Catholic relief group Caritas Makeni, Ibrahim Sesay, says there are several obstacles to uniting the children with their families. He says many of them were so young when they were abducted that they do not know their real names, only the names given them by the rebels, making it more difficult for relief agencies to find their families. Also, in many cases, both the children's parents have been killed.
Mr. Sesay says among the most difficult cases are those of girls who have been sexually abused during their years with the rebels. Aside from the trauma caused by the abuse, Mr. Sesay says the girls often face rejection when they return to their families. "There has been some community rejection, more especially [of] those who have babies with them," he says. "These are girl mothers, aged about 12 to 16. The families do see them as a big liability, and looking at the horrors of the war, they really do not want to have any sort of product [of that war] within their families or communities."
Mr. Sesay, like other child advocates who spoke with me in Sierra Leone, believes that without an economic turnaround in the country, prospects of recovery appear slim. "How can we turn the economy around, in terms of the provision of jobs [to] absorb this lethal and volatile population that has been out there? What can we really do in terms of getting them back into civilian life? Change in attitude, community acceptance," he says. "You talk about reconciliation. You talk about justice. You talk about all of these issues. It is a very complex situation."
Long-term prospects for sustained economic development in Sierra Leone look uncertain. With thousands of schools destroyed, the education system is in shambles. Only 31 percent of the population over the age of 15 is literate.
Despite the country's vast mineral wealth, most Sierra Leoneans live on less than a dollar a day.
The government of Sierra Leone has expressed optimism that with the impending return of the diamond-rich Kono district to government control, the country will be able to benefit more from diamond exports.
All but a tiny fraction of Sierra Leone's diamond revenues end up in the hands of smugglers who purchase them illegally and at relatively low prices from miners working on lands controlled by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.
The RUF and the government recently agreed to ban mining in Kono, but that ban has been ignored. On the highway between the cities of Yengema and Koidu, one can see scores of people, including children, waist deep in muddy streams, using sieves to sift through the pebbles and dirt, looking for diamonds.
It is happening before the eyes of U.N. peacekeepers. Their mandate, the peacekeepers say, is to secure the place and does not include enforcing the ban on mining.
Sierra Leone's Mines Minister, Mohamed Deen, this month announced that a Canadian mining firm, DiamondWorks Limited, is willing to invest at least $40 million in mining concessions in the Kono district. According to the minister, the company plans to do it once the Sierra Leonean government establishes authority over the region.
Hundreds-of-millions of dollars' worth of aid have been pouring into Sierra Leone, through international relief organizations and direct aid from other countries, including the United States.
The Sierra Leonean government has been focusing on rehabilitating former combatants, both RUF fighters and pro-government militias. Government officials say it is necessary to assist the combatants if there is to be lasting peace.
After disarming, combatants are housed at camps for up to three weeks. Some are offered job training, then given a stipend of about $50, before they are released.
In the case of one former pro-government militiaman who had just gotten his commercial driver's license through a rehabilitation program, this is not enough. He said, $50 and a driver's license after fighting and risking his life for nearly 10-years is not fair compensation.
There is resentment visible in Freetown among civilians who were victims of the combatants' atrocities. Some people say they believe the government is focusing too much attention on former combatants and not enough on their victims.
Freetown teacher Andrew Dumbuya, who fled the town of Makeni after rebels took over, says that on his salary of about $50 a month, he struggles to pay for food. He says he cannot even begin to think about starting reconstruction on his home. "We are suffering. Not only the ex-combatants, but we the people, the masses, the civilians, the poor civilians, are really suffering," he says. "But we are not counted for now. Everybody is concentrating on ex-combatants. Everybody is concentrating on those who were victims. But we are all suffering. Since people want peace in this country, the only thing that they are concentrating now is [on helping] the ex-combatants. But let us also think that [other] people are suffering, and to make complete peace, to make everybody forget and forgive, there must be at least that encouragement to other people who have been suffering under these ex-combatants."
Many Sierra Leoneans know they will have to recover by their own means, without government assistance.
Sixteen-year-old Abdulai Sesay, whose right hand was amputated by rebels, says he learned to carve wood figurines that he hopes will sell when tourists start coming to Sierra Leone. He says being able to work gives him independence. "Through this I can work and make money and get on with life. Nobody can threaten me now, because I now at least [have] the means to support myself." He says, "I can do my carving and make money to live on and not have to ask anyone for anything. No one can ever threaten me again."
Bambay, also a teenager, had both of his hands cut off by rebels who rampaged through his village in the northern Bombali district three-years ago. He also believes that it is through work that he is able to retain his dignity.
Bambay earns a living planting vegetables in a small plot on the hills above Freetown. He says he wants no aid. He wants no one to feel sorry for him. He says it hurts him when he hears people say "I am sorry." He says, "When I hear that, I get discouraged. I feel the same as I did the moment they did this to me. The moment they cut me. That is the same pain that I feel."
A few months ago, he says, he came across the man who mutilated him. He says, "I wanted to kill him." When asked why he did not, he answers: "killing him would not make my hands grow back."
Reconciliation between combatants and their civilian victims; confidence in the peacekeeping effort; and rebuilding the country's economy are all key issues that face the country in what will be an uncertain path to recovery after 10-years of war.
While there is lingering resentment among Sierra Leoneans because of the atrocities committed over a decade, it is clear that many Sierra Leoneans are ready for peace. Both rebels and pro-government combatants say they are tired of fighting.
U.N. officials continue to be optimistic about the prospects for peace. Disarmament has been completed in Kono and three other districts. Combatants continue to disarm in Koinadugu district and in Moyamba district, where the rebels have their headquarters.
But there is concern that as the war ends, the world's attention will be turned away from Sierra Leone and aid efforts will begin to decline.
U.N. spokeswoman Margaret Novicki last week warned that a lack of funding could put in danger programs that have been put in place to reintegrate former combatants into society.