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UN Repatriating Child Soldiers in West Africa - 2004-09-02

The United Nations says it is trying to repatriate hundreds of child soldiers who had been recruited from around West Africa to fight in Liberia's civil war. The U.N. mission in Liberia says it is also hoping to complete the disarmament of the former combatants by the end of October.

The United Nations estimates that at least 10 percent of the 10,000 child soldiers who fought in Liberia's civil war were actually recruited from other countries, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast.

Now that the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone have ended, U.N. representative Alan Doss says returning the children to their families is a prime objective.

"The policy of the United Nations led by UNICEF is actually to do whatever you can to reunify families. Even if it is not the direct family because we believe that institutionalization of children in that sense is undesirable, should be very much the last resort," he says.

The U.N. deputy representative to Liberia, Souren Seraydarian, says the children go through the disarmament process and then are sent to interim care centers set up by UNICEF where their families are located.

"We had child soldiers from Sierra Leone here, Sierra Leonean children who fought here and after their disarmament and demobilization, we have negotiated with the government in Freetown as well as the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone and we organized their repatriation home," Mr. Seraydarian says. "I do not remember now the exact figure, it was something around 70 children and they were unified with their families there."

He says there are reports that some of the former child soldiers are being recruited for other wars.

"So far, we had only two children in interim care centers who reported that they had been contacted while they were leaving the interim care center to join their family and offering them some money," Mr. Seraydarian says. "I think it was $75 to participate in further training and to go to one of the neighboring countries. I do not think it was for Guinea, I think it was through Guinea probably to Cote d'Ivoire."

But he says the problem does not appear to be widespread.

Many of the children, who fought throughout much of the 14-year civil war in Liberia, have had no formal education. Almost half of those children, Mr. Seraydarian says, are expected to take an accelerated education program.

In a related development, the United Nations has said it hopes to complete the process of disarming the former combatants in Liberia by the end of October.