We have met an incredible organization based in Buduburam, known as VECSAOL (The Veteran Child-Soldiers Association of Liberia). In 2003, Ivorian armed groups, followed by other armed groups, began entering the camp to recruit former child soldiers to join their forces. In response, several brave former child soldiers formed VECSAOL to increase awareness, education and sensitization in the community about the positive impact that these men and women can have, in addition to advocating against allowing recruiters into the camp. There are no longer any armed forces recruiters entering the camp, and VECSAOL has also been successful in reducing stigmatization in the community against ex-combatants.
The 300-member strong organization is now working to encourage the ex-combatants to live in the present and to not have their future be dictated by the past.The civil war in Liberia, much like that in Sierra Leone, is known for the abduction and use of children in conflict, among other war crimes. The growing use of child soldiers has become an international trend and one we have also encountered in our trips to Sierra Leone and northern Uganda.
The organization is mostly comprised of men – not because young women and girls were not taken as participants in the conflict but because we have found that the women are more fearful of identifying themselves as former combatants/sex slaves. We have met some extraordinary former child soldiers who are working hard to demonstrate to their community that today they are neither a security threat nor “bad people”; they have started an art school and after-school programs, they are farming land to be able to feed their community, they are teachers and students. They do not like to reminisce about the past and are adamant that they want to focus on who they are today and who they want to be in the future. Each one is desperate for education to be able to make a living and give back in some way. The work of VECSAOL and the support it provides for its members have been a crucial ingredient to the decreased tension between the non-combatants and the former combatants in the community.
VECSAOL is not without its management problems or other issues that a small organization may encounter, and this is also not to say that every former child soldier in Buduburam is working hard to build a new life for themselves so they can contribute positively to the development of their community. But it is truly remarkable that the former child soldiers that we have been fortunate enough to get to know during our time here have been able to at least begin to overcome the many psychological, emotional and physical consequences of their forced participation in conflict. They have taught me that the only way to move forward is to accept responsibility for their actions while balancing the difficult reality that their contribution to the war was not their choice. Forgiveness of self is paramount.