Berkeley - As Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war ebbed to
its end in 1999, Susan Shepler, a student in the University
of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, returned
to the West African country where she once taught math with
the Peace Corps.
The high school-level equations she'd once posed to students
there paled in comparison to the staggering numbers posing
challenges for the diamond-rich, yet poor, Sierra Leone.
An estimated 7,000 children fought in the war in Sierra
Leone, according to independent authorities, and Shepler
began researching the plight of children being demobilized
and returning to civilian life after months or years as
soldiers, drug runners, cooks, water-carriers and sex slaves
for forces on all sides of the long conflict.
Human Rights Watch calculates that in more than 30 countries
around the world, as many as 300,000 children under the
age of 18 are currently soldiers with government or rebel
forces. The organization says child participation in warfare
has been reported recently or is ongoing in countries such
as Uganda, Mozambique, East Timor, Uzbekistan, Peru, Yugoslavia
and Papua, New Guinea.
Shepler's research in Sierra Leone explored the plight
of children being demobilized and returning after months
or years to civilian life.
"People kept saying that education was the solution," said
Shepler, who is in the social and cultural studies program
at the Graduate School of Education. "I was interested in
education's use almost as a machine, the idea that you take
a child soldier and stick him in the education machine and
then he comes out the other side, remade into an innocent
With funding from a Rocca Fellowship from UC Berkeley's
Center for African Studies and by grants from the American
Association of University Women and the Institute on Global
Conflict and Cooperation, Shepler examined how a society
rebuilds itself in the aftermath of war and reintegrates
child soldiers into daily life.
She crisscrossed the country, journeying from city to village
and back, looking for Sierra Leone's answers to such questions
- What is childhood? What is the value of a child? What
is the role of child labor? And what is the society's responsibility
for educating their children? She also explored how relief
organization intervention helped shape answers to these
Now writing her dissertation at UC Berkeley, Shepler is
comparing the international community's notions about youth
- as epitomized by the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child - with Sierra Leone's changing views
on children's rights and roles.
Often the efforts of humanitarian agencies fail or falter
because they apply outside values and models with no "translation"
or consideration of whether they will work in other settings
and cultures, Shepler said. For example, the concept of
children's rights is largely a new one in Sierra Leone and
is due partly to philosophies and programs introduced by
outside relief agencies. While art therapy and stressing
education might work well in some environments, Shepler
said, vocational training and encouraging youth to engage
in a needy agricultural system might be most suitable in
today's Sierra Leone, which is in dire need of housing and
"Kids aren't expected to have rights, or self-expression,
or much of a say, Shepler said, theorizing that this may
be due to a high child mortality rate in Sierra Leone, where
50 percent of the children don't reach the age of 5. "Children
are valued differently in that society."
Shepler stayed a total of nearly two years in Sierra Leone,
talking to child soldiers, parents and community elders,
discussing their opinions about the war and what problems
they perceive that the children now present.
She began in interim care centers set up to provide medical
exams and psychological counseling as child soldiers were
demobilized. She stayed in the capitol of Freetown, medium-sized
towns, country villages and a camp for displaced persons.
When she met with friends from her previous stay in Sierra
Leone, Shepler said, almost all had children, siblings or
relatives who had been abducted. "Through my research, I
came to know people very well who had experiences of their
children being abducted or killed," she said.
Shepler learned that some Sierra Leonian child soldiers
were drugged and forced to follow older soldiers. Still
others joined rebel camps in hopes of simply surviving the
She encountered some families who sent delegations to rebel
camps to negotiate children's return. "But for the most
part," she said, "it was just too dangerous."
Some former child combatants Shepler interviewed were kidnapped
and forced to take up arms at such an early age that they
no longer remember their parents. They have no idea where
to call home. There also are parents who reject returning
offspring because of the atrocities they committed, she
Other youngsters joined combat in desperate hope of survival,
Shepler said. She saw children with the names of rebel groups
carved into their chests and met several girls who had been
kidnapped and raped.
"The rebels were very unpredictable," she said. "They could
just kill people for no reason."
When fighting intensified and rebels took about 500 United
Nations peacekeepers hostage in May 2000, she was evacuated
reluctantly and returned to Berkeley for several months.
"Most of the time, I tried to stay away from the action
of the war because I was really working on reintegrating
child soldiers, but there were a few scary times when I
was near armed rebels and drove through a place where rebels
were disarming and kind of protesting. There were armed
men at checkpoints all over the place," Shepler said. "So
it was scary at first, but it was something that you just
get used to after a while, being in a war zone."
Back in the Bay Area, she refocused her work. Shepler decided
to also concentrate on what was happening at the village
level, where some child soldiers were returning and where
other families still wondered about the fate of their missing
children. She sought out children who fought with various
fighting factions, child soldiers who served in different
regions of Sierra Leone and for varying lengths of time.
"I wanted to get the whole arc, as much as I could get
at, of the demobilization and the reintegration process,"
She found children most accepting of the former child soldiers
re-entering their ranks as they acknowledged their fate
could have been anyone's. Ex-combatants seemed to be most
helpful with one another, Shepler noted. On the other hand,
she overheard parents on more than one occasion talk dismissively
about "those rebel children."
Although much of what Shepler heard and saw was heartbreaking,
she said the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone was
inspirational. "I learned from my Sierra Leonian friends,
because they had to go on with their lives and couldn't
sit around crying all the time."
Sadly enough, Shepler said, her work has applications far
beyond Sierra Leone.
Shepler plans to return someday to Sierra Leone, a country
she has grown to love, to research the process of reconciliation
and forgiveness and how forgiving child soldiers ties into
changing concepts about youth. She also hopes to conduct
long-term studies with the children she met, to understand
the reintegration process over time.