Empowerment, Reintegration and Rehabilitation of War Affected Youths through the Use of Sports


By Joe Hena
Knowledge bank: In Liberia, Don Bosco Homes has succesfully used soccer tournaments to rehabilitate child soldiers and raise awareness of HIV/Aids and childrens' rights.

Liberia is a state that is located on the West Coast of Africa. It was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (a Christian philanthropy organization) which focus was the resettlement of former and recaptured slaves from North America and the high seas back to Africa.

Between 1822 to 1848 the colony of Liberia was ruled by American Christian philanthropic missionaries. By 1847 the settled ex-African slaves declared the colony an independent state and its first president was Joseph J. Roberts. The estimated population of Liberia prior to the civil war in 1989 was 2.5 million.

Between 1847 and 1980, Liberia was only ruled by descendants of former slaves through a one party system - a leadership that was characterized by slave-master mentality of governance. The last descendant of the ex-slaves, Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. who led Liberia before a native Liberian came to power was brutally killed in a coupe d'etate on the 12th of April 1980.

The coup leader, Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe governed from 1980 to 1990, a period that will forever be remembered as extremely bloody and characterized by gross human rights violation. In 1985 an election was held which he Doe rigged and declared himself president. During his administration many people were killed secretly, other prominent citizens went to jail and were tortured, while many went into exile amongst which is our present President Mr. Charles G. Taylor.

The Liberian civil war was started on the 24th December 1989 by The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The rebellion was launched in Nimba County from a border town with the Ivory Coast. The NPFL was headed by Mr. Charles G. Taylor. By the end of the civil war in 1997, the warring factions increased from one to eight with a bulk of their fighting forces being children. It is alleged that the NPFL had the highest number of child soldiers.

By the end of the United Nations supervised demobilization, less than 10,000 child soldiers were registered out of the reported 14,000; other reports put it at 20,000.

Soccer tournaments eased tension amongst child soldiers
Don Bosco Homes ran rehabilitation and reintegration programs in Liberia for war affected youths for both male and female in five out of the thirteen counties. The program offered skills training in sewing, pastry making, soap making, carpentry, and agriculture. Other aspects of the program were the documentation of child soldiers, tracing of the parents and possible reunification.

Many of the child soldiers we worked with came from different warring factions but had to live together. Initially it was very difficult, but with the introduction of soccer films on George Weah games in Europe and their participation in community tournaments, the tension gradually eased among them as groups from different warring fictions.

Based on Don Bosco Homes initial success with the first batch of child soldiers, a soccer team was formed (Millennium Stars) with the aim of discouraging child soldiering and the manufacturing of smaller arms.

On a tour of the UK in 1999 by the Millennium Stars, a question was asked by another youth from the UK as to where the arms that the children were using in Liberia came from? One of our kids replied, we do not make arms in Liberia but rather they were brought there in exchange for our resources by people from Europe.

The majority of the kids that made the tour are now in their early twenties and have completed secondary education or have found their way out of the country. Some of them are currently going to school and do not want to be a part of the ongoing war.

In 1997 a free and democratic election was held and Mr. Charles Taylor overwhelmingly won. Two years later, another civil war started and up to date the child soldier factor has again been introduced by both sides in the conflict.

However, due to the strategy of work employed by Don Bosco Homes (using sports, mainly soccer) to bring young children together to discuss issues they may see as treath to themselves have highlighted the advocacy work on childrens' rights.

Usually a group with a specific problem will dramatize an issue that will be left for open discussion and guest invited learn from these activities. In most cases children below 15 years question the justifications for their parents (civil servants) not being paid for more then ten months while others ride and own flashy cars and splendid houses? Why would other children be fighting when others are in schools?

Raising awareness with soccer
Soccer is presently being used as a means of creating HIV-AIDS awareness.

Don Bosco Homes is working with one hundred eighty two communities in 14 zones and each of these zones has its own under-14 soccer tournament that does advocacy awareness on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some children of the Millennium Stars work along with community contact persons as coaches and role models. Because of the role of soccer in the transformation of many war-affected youths (mainly ex-child soldiers), Don Bosco Homes initial contacts are done through sports, community soccer and kickball games.

A couple of months ago, Don Bosco Homes launched a major soccer campaign against child soldiering in the-on going armed conflict in Liberia. The awareness started in five populated areas in Monrovia. Each of these areas ran a tournament that had ten teams participating with two qualifying for the grand finals. Two weeks ago, the grand finals started with ten teams representing their areas.

The program started with a parade through the streets of Central Monrovia and ended at a playing pitch. The reason for the awareness was again restated namely that national government should demobilize all children under 18 years who are fighting along with the militia forces and an appeal was made for the government to sign the Optional Protocol on The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Commissioner for the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Liberia in her keynote address also urged the government to commit itself to international documents that they have ratified. An important observation she noted was Don Bosco Homes use of sports in the rehabilitation and reintegration of young people; especially when there are no facilities to serve as better sporting ground. Obviously the absence of play grounds (recreation centers) contribute to lot of children engaging in adults related activities before they turn 18 years.

What you can do
An actual figure of the number of children fighting in the ongoing war in Liberia can not be given, but what is definite is that the number is increasing and there is a lot you at this conference could do and that include the following:

  • Highlight the re-emergence of child soldiers in the ongoing Liberian conflict by both sides.

  • Bring the ongoing war in Liberia to the international scene by focusing on children and women who are grossly being abused by both sides in the war. Now a days, several young girls can be seen along with the government militia in the capital city fully armed, while others are constantly being raped.

  • That you convince your governments to engage the Liberian government to put a halt to child soldiering rather than international isolation. In isolation, it is only the citizenry who accept whatever that is given.

  • That you also appeal to your various governments to pressurize Representatives of Liberian United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD) warring factions to put a stop to the war and the use of children as soldiers.

Thanks you very much for affording me the opportunity to attend this conference as speaker. It has given us at Don Bosco Homes in Liberia the chance to highlight the silent plight of thousands of children who are being used as child soldiers and thousands more who are afraid of being forcibly recruited.

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