The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, is spearheading a program in Sierra Leone to remove marks that rebels branded on children during the years of fighting in the country. UNICEF says the rebels used scarring and mutilation to punish or intimidate the children.
More than 5,400 children, some as young as eight-years-old, were abducted in Sierra Leone and forced to become soldiers. There are no exact figures on how many of them were branded.
The U.N. children's agency says all the different rebel groups in Sierra Leone used branding as a way to ensure that the children did what they were told and also to ensure that they did not try to escape.
UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the children were warned that if they escaped, the security forces would kill them because the scars identified them as spies and soldiers for the rebels. She says the rebels branded the children with the letters of their factions, such as RUF or SLA or ARFC. "The messages are ghoulishly straightforward," she says. "It was like signoffs, tragic signoffs of what rebel forces have done to children and the civilian population in Sierra Leone. And they are written on the foreheads of children, on their backs, on their bellies, on their necks."
Ms. Belmonte says the scars have affected the children psychologically. Many of them refuse to go to school out of shame. Others refuse to go home because they fear rejection and reprisals by their communities. UNICEF hopes surgery to remove the brands will help the children lead a more normal life.
"One of the reasons why the surgery is so important is that in certain cases, they have been so desperate and the families have been so desperate," she says, "and so scared that this is written and people can see it and mistakenly take them for something they were not, that they have taken battery acid, they have taken caustic soda, and basically reburnt themselves to try and get rid of what was carved into their skin."
The project to surgically remove these disfiguring scars began late last month and will continue for six more months. A team of international surgeons, under the auspices of the International Medical Corps, is doing the plastic surgery.
The operations are taking place at the Lungi Hospital in Port Loko, near Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. So far, 14 children between the ages of 10 and 16 have had operations. About 120 children have been identified for the program. But, officials say that number could increase to about 500.