READ THE PASSAGE | Drums and gardens

‘I was thirteen when the rebels came. My father, a local farmer, made me hide under the table. I never saw the rebels kill him, but I saw them through the window, blood was dripping from the knife. I will never forget the blood on the knife.’

A child soldier and a commander in both the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars, Morris remembers all too well the day his life changed forever.

In the chaos of his father’s death his older siblings fled. Morris remained frozen, crouched under the table. He waited. And waited. At such a young age – and in the midst of such trauma – he could not connect the bloodied knife with the death of his father. ‘I kept thinking my father would walk through the door. But he never came, so I too fled.’ Alone he found the road to look for his aunt, haunted by what had transpired at the farm. In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, he found other youngsters; some had guns for protection and soon Morris did as well. Living in the streets without a family he found comfort in their friendship and shared experience. He soon joined  them at the rebel camp outside town. ‘You know, people think that child soldiers are greedy for material goods or just want to do something wicked, but many of us watched our families being killed. We had nowhere to go.’

Morris and his friends were told they could fight for the death of their parents. They were told they would help bring their country to peace. They were told they would be heroes. They were given new names. New identities. New families. ‘There was a whole army of us, child soldiers. We ruled the camp. And that is when it all started. That is when the real violence began. That is when I really saw killing, you know. Anything you can imagine,’ he paused, his eyes drifting to another time, another place. ‘They sent us back into our commu- nities, to do these horrible things to our own people. And then one day you realise I just killed my auntie, or my sister, the woman who fed me when I was young. We had AK47s, grenades, M16s, anything you can imagine and we would shoot from the trucks through the villages, because if you didn’t do it, you wouldn’t survive.’

He soon moved up the ranks to become a commander. In the mid-nineties, as the war shifted in Liberia and peace seemed close, he travelled to Sierra Leone. He trained young child soldiers to fight for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). He, too, continued fighting.

‘And then I realised I couldn’t do this anymore, I was just becoming something negative. I had nothing, I was nothing.’

He escaped and came to Ghana. Buduburam Refugee Camp – far away from the land of his people – became his new home.

The United Nations Refugee Agency opened Buduburam Refugee Camp in 1990 in response to the devastating violence that swept across Liberia in 1989. It holds more than 30,000 refugees who fled their homeland of Liberia in a drastic attempt to escape the war. The war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003, garnered international attention for the gross human rights abuses of child soldiering, diamonds for arms trade, and sexual violence. Although Buduburam is located  only 45 minutes from Ghana’s capital city of Accra, the two places are worlds apart. The camp buzzes with life. The sounds of laughter, music, chickens, and children playing fill the air in a place created as a result of devastation. Like a small city the camp holds several schools and various neighbourhoods. People live in makeshift homes that line the narrow dirt alleys which weave through the camp.

Though the fighting had ended, the violence continued to plague Morris’s mind as he tried to begin a new life in the refugee camp.

‘It is so hard. You have this weapon. I don’t mean a weapon like just a gun, but your mind, your mind is the weapon. All you have in your mind is violence. You have been living in violence for so long and at any moment with any person you can take this weapon out. It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s embedded in you. And it is creative. You can do unimaginable things, terrible things with this creativity, because you have seen so much violence. It takes will-power to transform that. Some of us are working hard to change. I think about how Saul became Paul and that gives me hope. I know I can transform and maybe people will begin to accept me, forgive me. We need reintegration. We need acceptance. What we really need is forgiveness. To forgive is divine.’