By Andrew Kishuni
Child combatants are recognizable characteristics of regional instability and volatile conflicts worldwide, prominent in regions like Myanmar, South Sudan, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Syria. They have become familiar as institutions of modern war; however, the child soldiers of the Liberian civil wars – between 1989 and 1996, and 1999 and 2003 – are peculiar.
Various armed groups enlisted children and operated in Liberia through factions like the National Patriotic Front of Liberia under the leadership of former warlord, ex-head of state, and war criminal Charles Taylor – the Charles Taylor that made headlines last year for communicating with political allies from a British prison.
The rebel coups and power vacuums of the 1990’s and early 2000’s destabilized the region, leaving it vulnerable to vicious militias vying for control. Power struggles erupted between factions, like those of Taylor and Prince Johnson, now a prominent Liberian senator. Militia rivalries subjected Liberia to further deterioration as rebel groups engaged with one another for “control of diamond fields and gold mines,” while “in Monrovia, they fought gun battles in the streets.”
Destabilization saw the emergence of a plethora of mercenary leaders and rebel commanders characterized by colorful names, including Chuck Norris, General Mosquito, his rival, General Mosquito Spray, General Rambo, General bin Laden, and former militia leader turned Christian preacher Joshua Blahyi, known by his wartime title General Butt Naked. The culture within children’s guerilla units under the aforementioned rebel leaders exemplify the chaos, absurdity, and reversal of moral society in modern conflict.
Drug-fueled adolescent machine gunners equipped with torn bridal dresses, fluorescent women’s wigs, and purses comprised the militias operating under Taylor and other warlords. The war these fighters participated in was, according to a 2003 article by Mark Scheffler, of “the most disturbing horror shows the planet has ever seen,” leaving thousands dead and “25,000 women and girls… raped.”
Shane Smith regarded Liberia as a “post-apocalyptic Armageddon with child soldiers on heroin, cross-dressing cannibals, and systematic rape – total hell on earth.” The toll these conditions wrought on child soldiers is evident through improvised and twisted field cultures that draw upon west African mysticism.
Keith Richburg noted in his 1997 book “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” that the war in Liberia was:
…a war where soldiers get high on dope and paint their fingernails bright red before heading off to battle. It’s a war where combatants don women’s wigs, pantyhose, and even Donald Duck Halloween masks before committing some of the world’s most unspeakable atrocities against their enemies. It’s the only war that hosts a unit of soldiers who strip off their clothes before going into battle and calls itself ‘the Butt Naked Brigade.’ It’s a war where young child soldiers carry teddy bears and plastic baby dolls in one hand and AK-47’s in the other. It’s a war where fighters smear their faces with makeup and mud in the belief that ‘juju’, West African magic, will protect them from the enemy’s bullets.
Obviously, the bizarre child soldiers characterized the armed anarchy of 1990’s and early 2000’s Liberia. Stephen Ellis explained the cross-dressing practice in his 1999 book “The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War.”
Ellis wrote that “Transvestitism is often taken as a demonstration of the strength of a warrior, containing an element of wildness, an ability to transcend established genres,” concluding that “Cross-sex impersonations and role exchanges occur in a number of… rites” which may be “traditionally used as a sign of the dangerously liminal status during the passage from boyhood to manhood, in which case its use by adolescents setting out on the essentially adult business of making war is not surprising.”
Moreover, Mats Utas in his 2003 book “Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War” explored the “regional preoccupation” with the cross-dressing phenomena as historical, noting customs of costuming and bizarre dress as a “highly visual way of pointing out that you have entered a morally different role,” invoking the protection of “magic spirits.”
Cannibalism functioned in a similar way, as Utas found it was “advantageous for a warrior/soldier to promote a reputation for being a cannibal, for having taken the extreme magical measure of eating human body parts, transforming it to personal powers.” These kinds of beliefs manifested themselves into cultures saturated with “child sacrifice, cannibalism, the exploitation of child soldiers and trading blood diamonds for guns and cocaine,” which were “fed to boy soldiers as young as nine,” as in the Butt Naked Brigade.