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Soccer Star Launches Effort to Help Liberian Children Recover from War - 2004-01-23

African soccer icon George Weah is back home in Liberia to try to help children recover from the effects of civil war, including being recruited as child soldiers.

Everywhere he has gone this week, Weah - also known by his nicknames Big Papa or King George - has attracted boisterous crowds of children.

He is Africa's only soccer player to win the world's best player award in 1995, while he played in Europe. He continues playing professionally in the Middle East.

But this week, Weah was back in Liberia as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nation's children's charity fund UNICEF.

His message to children was simple: go back to school and don't let anyone ruin your life.

"We all know that it's imperative to go to school because when you're educated, no one can convince you to do anything," he said. "If you're educated you can read and write."

Many of Liberia's thousands of child soldiers were abducted from homes or relief camps, handed guns and drugs and sent to front lines to kill, rape and loot.

Weah said the outpouring of emotion his visit has caused is a sign peace can take hold following 15 years of civil war.

"I am greatly honored and humbled to the people of Liberia, especially the children who turn out in large numbers to greet me," he said. "This is a concrete demonstration of love and their desire for peace. The children have told us they want to be in school. They want to play like me, but they are still in war. They are hungry, and they need educational supplies."

Fighting ended in August with the departure of former Liberian president Charles Taylor to exile in Nigeria and the arrival of thousands of United Nations peacekeepers.

But looting and sporadic fighting continues in outlying areas. The start of a disarmament program has been repeatedly delayed due to logistical problems.

The U.N. children's fund is calling on former fighting factions to immediately release their child soldiers so they can go back to school along with 700,000 other children.

UNICEF is also setting up care centers focused on reintegrating children who have been traumatized by their war experience.