As Liberian President Charles Taylor fights for his very survival, child soldiers, many of them orphans of the conflict, are back at the forefront of the fighting. Every day they can be seen riding around the streets of the capital Monrovia in pick-up trucks proudly toting their automatic rifles.
Relief workers in Monrovia said that on several occasions this year forces loyal to President Charles Taylor had raided schools and camps of displaced people in search of young recruits to fight two rebel movements. These now control over two thirds of the country and are fighting their way into the outskirts of the capital.
The Liberian government has repeatedly denied conscripting children by force, but relief workers have documented several cases of this occurring. One attempt to press gang school kids into the militia in the northern town of Ganta on 6 March sparked off protest riots, they said.
Some of the child soldiers fighting in Taylor's rag-tag army are as young as nine-years old. But not all were press-ganged into service. Many joined the government militias as volunteers eager to avenge the killing of their parents by rebel fighters.
Boakai, who looks to be less than 10, is one of these. Smoking a cigarette as he cradles an AK-47 automatic rifle in his arms, he is now part of the forces guarding rundown Monrovia, where water and electricity are scarce and civil servants have not been paid for months.
Boakai told IRIN that he enlisted in Taylor's militia after fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement killed his parents at Gbarma, a small town 125 km northwest of the capital. He vowed to find his parents' murderers and kill them. "I'll get them on the front," he said.
The rebels also use child soldiers. During one recent LURD attack on Gbarnga, a large town 140 km northeast of Monrovia, eye witnesses said they saw children firing rocket propelled grenades as well as automatic assault rifles.
Many of the young combatants are resigned to the fact that they themselves will die in combat before they grow up.
J-Boy, who claims to be 16 but looks younger, wears a faded yellow T-shirt with the inscription "Death better than living."
"I will die for my country!" he said defiantly in broken Liberian English. "I na (not) sitting down for deku (dissidents) walk over me." Questioned further, J-Boy said he was following in the footsteps of his brother who had already died in combat. "My big brother was a soldier man but he na died. He told me to fight because when you soldier you can get money."
Child fighters, who are highly prized for being fearless in combat, are sometimes even promoted to become officers. Sando, who looks to be not much more than 13 years old, claimed to be a colonel in the Navy Command militia group. "They gave me a gun to fight, now I cornor (colonel)," he told IRIN.
Children have been at the forefront of fighting in Liberia ever since Taylor fought his way to power during the country's first civil war in the early 1990s. His National Patriotic Front of Liberia movement grouped its child soldiers in a special Small Boys Unit.
"Over 5,000 child soldiers that participated in the first civil war from 1989 to 1996 were disarmed and now with another war in Liberia, we again see children getting involved as part of the fighting forces," said Garmondeh Clinton, executive director of the children's rights group Child Peace Liberia. "This increasing number of child soldiers needs urgent attention and practical action to curb it...this is not a good signal for Liberia's future."
No-one knows how many child soldiers are involved in the present conflict, which began in 1999. According to the Liberian Educational Achievement Foundation (LEAF), a non-profit organisation whose mandate is to change the status of education in Liberia, 20 percent of all combatants in Liberia's first civil war were under 18-years-old. LEAF's website address is: www.liberia-leaf.org
Tragically, it is not just in Liberia that children get sucked into combat. They were also widely used in Sierra Leone, where UNICEF helped to demobilise 6,850 combatants under the age of 18 after a 10-year civil war ended in 2001. And more recently they have been recruited in Cote d'Ivoire. Rebel forces seized the north of the country last September and relief workers say children have been given guns by both sides in the conflict. Further afield child soldiers are a common sight in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Relief workers have even reported some cases of child soldiers becoming mercenaries, following their elders from one regional conflict to another.
"Children form part and parcel of mercenary activities in West Africa," said Napoleon Abdulai, a disarmament expert of the UN Programme of Coordination and Assistance for Security, noting that they are often drugged up to the eyeballs as they are sent into combat.
He told IRIN that many child soldiers in Sierra Leone in the 1990's had been unable to stop their violent way of life and had gone on to become hardcore adult mercenaries in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.
Liberia today has been wrecked by 14 years of intermittent warfare and chronic government neglect. So with most schools closed and few other job prospects available, picking up an AK-47 rifle and lurching off to the front line in a battered pick-up truck can all too easily seem a glamorous prospect.
Musah al Fatau, an expert on mercenaries in West Africa at the Soros Foundation in Dakar, said child soldiers abound particularly in countries where governance has broken down.
"Sierra Leone was a clear example of this, where illiteracy and poverty were quite high and politicians used groups of young people for their political ends," he noted. Fatau said that many children who took up arms there were unable to develop subsequently into responsible adult citizens.
But such considerations rarely weigh on the minds of those who recruit youngsters to their ranks.
One militia commander in Monrovia confided privately that children make the "best and bravest" soldiers on the front line. "Don't overlook them. They can fight more than we the big people....It hard for them to just retreat," he added.
The militia commander described all the child soldiers fighting for Taylor as volunteers. "Sometimes we just can see them coming to us saying Big Brother I want be soldier," he said.
But many parents of children who have been picked up and whisked off to the front disagree. "My two and only boys Anthony and Varney were taken to the frontline two months ago," said Edward Gray, a retired civil servant who has not seen them since.
Ma Sando, a tearful woman in a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Monrovia, also complained that her 14-year-old son had also been forced to join Taylor's militia as a frontline soldier 40 km away. "I heard that he is now smoking opium (the local name for marijuana) ...how my child that I suffered for can be treated like this?" she wailed.
Young girls are pressed into service as cooks and domestics and are also occasionally required to serve as combatants.
Cynthia, a malnourished waif of a girl, said: "We can cook the GI food on the front...and when no plenty manpower we can go and busy on the front."
The female fighters in Liberia say they are also supposed to provide sex on demand for their male companions. "I ain't see nothing wrong with that," said one who refused to give her name.
Miatta, another war orphan who carries a gun, said all girl fighters were subject to orders from their male colleagues. "Anything the commander say....you must do it without delay," she said, adding that sex on demand was part of the deal. "After fire-fire (fighting) the chief supposed to relax and eat something."
The Liberian government militia commander, who asked not to be named said: "Those girls are not real fighters...They are just there to boost the boys' morale."
Several civic action groups in Liberia have joined forces to voice to try and stop the recruitment of child soldiers in a National Children Disarmament Campaign. Besides Clinton's Peace Child Liberia, the coalition includes the Roman Catholic child welfare institution Don Bosco Homes.
Don Bosco's executive director Paul Najue told a recent UN-sponsored meeting on the plight of children in Liberia's civil war that "child soldiers as young as nine years old are being conscripted into the fighting forces on both sides of the conflict".
Cyrille Niameogo, the representative of the UN children's organisation UNICEF in Liberia, said: "Awareness is being raised with regard to the issue of children being used as fighters." He said their demobilisation should be raised as an issue at peace talks between began in Ghana on June 4.
Abdulai, of the UN Programme for the Coordination of Assistance for Security, warned however that many programmes undertaken so far to disarm and demobilise child fighters and reintegrate them into civilian life had been "badly managed."
All too often, he said, not enough was done to secure decent jobs for the former combatants once they had been disarmed and retrained, so they just drifted back into warfare.
While nothing practical has yet been done to try and rehabilitate the thousands of child soldiers who are once more cruising the battlefields of Liberia, Save the Children and UNICEF have made a start on negotiating for thedisarmament of child soldiers across the border in Cote d'Ivoire.
Andy Brooks, Save the Children's programme director for Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, said the Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) rebel movement had pledged to stop recruiting children and had agreed in principle to demobilise soon those who were currently bearing arms.
UNICEF's regional advisor on child protection, Jean-Claude Legrand reported similar progress, but said he was still concerned about the situation in Western Cote d'Ivoire near the Liberian border.
French and West African peace-keeping forces established a stronger presence on the ground in this volatile area at the end of May to quell continuing violence. Much of this had consisted of raids on villages by poorly disciplined militias supporting both government and rebel forces in search of loot rather than terrritorial gain.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions