The commander was sympathetic, but adamant; Charles Taylor, then the country’s president and fighting to consolidate his power, needed strong young men like Momo and Daniel to win the war. So he struck a deal: The father could choose one son to return to the farm. The other would have to stay and fight.
Fayiah chose Daniel.
It has been a little more than a decade since peace came to Liberia. The war, which spanned from 1989 until 2003, left more than 250,000 people dead and 1.2 million more displaced. It’s hard to find a family anywhere in the country that wasn’t personally touched by the violence. Most of the children who fought in the war are now young adults. They are largely homeless, without steady work or education. With the help of the United Nations and aid money, Liberia has developed swiftly. Monrovia now has paved roads. The shops are filled with food again. But former soldiers like Momo cannot participate in this new economy. Without education, and often psychologically disturbed by the war, they have a hard time finding any work at all.
Momo survived the war. He proved to be a natural fighter, rising quickly through the army’s ranks. Peace is proving to be more challenging. Most mornings he limps to a street corner where the other young men like him gather. Trucks pull up and he loads them full of lumber. On an average day, he earns enough for a plate of rice. On a good day, when the trucks come steadily and his body is not crippled with pain, he earns a little more.
It’s on these days that Momo boards a shared taxi and makes the journey across town to visit his brother, Daniel. In the years that have passed, their lives have diverged dramatically. Though they were born a month apart, to different mothers — as village chief, Fayiah had 17 wives and even more children, all of whom grew up together — they hardly look related. Momo is compact with broad shoulders and a pronounced limp, an injury he picked up from a motorbike accident. Daniel, by contrast, is thin and bookish and moves quickly through the bustling city streets. Daniel has a job as a secretary at the Free Gospel Church. He recently finished high school and hopes to attend college. Momo, who dropped out of school after second grade, believes he will never complete his studies. And while Daniel has a small apartment at the back of a schoolhouse, Momo is virtually homeless, resting his head most nights on the floor of a restaurant owned by a friend.
In 2012, a UN-backed tribunal sentenced Taylor to 50 years in prison for war crimes, including murder, rape and the use of child soldiers. But before that, Taylor was the architect of most of the violence in Liberia. First, he led the armed rebellion under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. In 1997, he ran for the presidency, using the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” and won 75 percent of the vote. For many of the 15,000 child soldiers who had fought during the war, the sentiment was literal.
“Children were easier to trust than adults,” explains Moses Jarbo, a psychologist who oversaw Liberia’s disarmament process. “This I heard from Mr. Taylor himself.”
The children were organized into “small boys units,” although international law prohibits the use of children in conflict. Young boys and girls were used for every conceivable purpose during the war, from manning roadblocks to fighting on the frontlines. Some of the units were led by adult supervisors, while others were helmed by children like Momo. The children were forced to commit unspeakable crimes, sometimes to their own family, or face death themselves. Many were kidnapped, beaten, raped or killed.
By 13, Momo was at the front and commanding a small boys unit of his own. He reported directly to Benjamin Yeaten, better known as “50.” Yeaten was the commander of the Special Security Service, Taylor’s personal bodyguards. Around Liberia, Yeaten was known as the man who had Samuel Dokie, the leader of the opposition, arrested and burned alive.
Yeaten took a special interest in Momo. He gave him liquor and drugs and told him he was brave. When Momo killed, he was often given money as a reward.
When Momo talks about that time, he is glassy-eyed and at a loss for words. What he does remember is that he was only 13. “The people you executed, they torment your mind,” says Momo. “I was very young.”
Still, he says, if Taylor were released from prison tomorrow, he would certainly vote for him. “He’s my leader.”
When the war ended, the United Nations Mission in Liberia began a campaign to disarm the country. Radio stations broadcast the news that any soldier who brought in his or her weapon would receive a payment of $300 — a hefty sum in postwar Liberia. On the very first day of the campaign, more than 8,000 men, women and children arrived at a disarmament base that was only meant to accommodate 1,000. Once there, they learned that they were only to receive $75 that day; the remainder of the money would be paid out once the process was complete. Angry armed men stormed the streets of Monrovia. Several people were killed in the ensuing chaos, causing the entire process to shut down temporarily.
This early misstep proved indicative of what was to come. While the disarmament process was intended to help reintegrate former child combatants back into society, the measures were often inadequate. At the time, the UN had expected about 38,000 soldiers to participate in the process over a period of about six months. Instead, there were more than 100,000, creating a $39 million shortfall forthe rehabilitation and reintegration phases of the program. As a result, both processes were cut short — with grave consequences for the former child combatants. In 2005 alone, more than 4,000 former soldiers were expelled from school because the UN had failed to cover their school fees.
“We’re talking about children who were uprooted from their village, innocently, and turned into killing machines,” says Jarbo, the head of the UN process, which he acknowledges did not do enough for the former child soldiers. “Can you rehabilitate them in two weeks? In a month? It takes years.”
Many children had no place to turn. Their families were dead or else did not want to bring former armed combatants back into their household. The promised psychological counseling was often completed in as little as two weeks, after which the children ended up back on the streets.
Momo was 16 when the war ended and he put his gun down. He lived for a time in a UN disarmament camp. Then he roamed the streets with other boys like him.
In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of a new, peaceful Liberia. She promised that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would rectify the mistakes of the past. She promised to help the thousands of former child soldiers reintegrate into society.
But when the commission’s report was finally produced in 2009, the president was among those who it said should be barred from participating in future elections, due to her association with Charles Taylor in the 1980s and her having helped finance his 1989 invasion of Liberia. The recommendations of the report, which included a lengthy section on how to address the needs of former child combatants, were mostly ignored.
“They are not integrated back into society,” says Jarbo. “Many of them destroyed their own villages. They killed uncles, they killed aunts. So they never went back.”
Momo tried to go back. In 2007 he made the journey north, back to his village, looking for Daniel. The moment of reunion was a happy one. No one had been sure if Momo had survived the war — many of the small boys had not. Daniel was pleased to see his brother back in the village. But the brothers had been too close for Momo to hide his psychological pain. Daniel says he could see the change in the gait of his brother’s walk, in the cadence of his voice. He knew that Momo was not OK.
That first night together, the brothers shared a bed. Momo was wide-eyed and fearful. “There’s witchcraft in this room,” he whispered. He asked Daniel to pass him a knife to keep them safe from the spirits. Daniel refused.
Within a month, Momo was gone from the village, certain his neighbors and family had cursed him with witchcraft, punishment for the crimes he committed during the war. Convinced he is possessed by the ghosts of his past, Momo continues to have angry outbursts.
Violence is the only way he knows to negotiate this world.
It’s during these outbursts that Daniel will come to Momo’s aid. “He’s always had a temper,” Daniel says.
“When we lived in the village, I was known as the hero,” recalls Momo, “and Daniel was known as the lawyer,” because of his gift for words. Both boys believe that this is why their father, Faiyah, chose to take Daniel home and leave Momo behind to fight: He believed Momo was more likely to survive.
But in postwar Liberia, Momo is struggling to keep his head above water, and without assistance from his government, it seems unlikely he will. Instead, he relies on his brother.
“He fought for me,” Daniel says. “So now I speak for him. It’s the least I can do.”