- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

MAHERA, Sierra Leone Eighty-seven children who traveled 50 miles to freedom from rebel-held territory in central Sierra Leone described yesterday how they endured searing heat, humiliation by militiamen and severe thirst and hunger to reach government lines.

The children the youngest only 9 months old evaded search parties of the murderous Revolutionary United Front rebels and survived more than 36 hours with no food and little water.

They were caught twice by RUF patrols, who stole their remaining possessions their clothes and a few scraps of food and forced them to beg for their lives.

One 15-year-old boy was taken by the RUF and forced to carry a 5-gallon drum of palm oil 24 miles through the bush. He was denied food and drink and was beaten with rifle butts when he began to tire. He escaped when his guard went to urinate.

The children's story paints a chilling picture of life in the RUF-held north and east of Sierra Leone, where human rights organizations say dismemberment, rape and summary executions continue.

Since the rebels began a major offensive three weeks ago, information from behind the lines has all but dried up. The killing of two Western journalists last week by the RUF has deterred others from venturing to the front lines.

The children's exodus began after the RUF arrived Wednesday at their camp in the central Sierra Leone town of Makeni, where they were being looked after by the Catholic aid organization Caritas. The RUF wanted to draft the children into their forces and send them to fight.

Rather than submit to being drafted, the children, accompanied by 23 Caritas local staff, fled into the bush during the night. The head of the camp, Edmund Koroma, led the way.

"About 10 miles out of the camp we ran into the RUF," Mr. Koroma said. "They were in fatigues and stoned on marijuana. They took everything our clothes, our watches, our radios. Then they made us beg."

The 9-month-old baby girl, Rabiatu, carried by her 15-year-old mother, was stripped of her clothes, even though she was feverish, covered in sores and suffering from cold in the night.

Without baby food, she was forced to survive on her mother's milk and dirty water that the group begged from the few villagers left in areas they passed.

Like any cross-section of children in Sierra Leone, some of the children were themselves former fighters. A 15-year-old boy whose name was given as Kawuta was among them. He spent six years fighting in the RUF before joining the Caritas camp.

"I was taken by the RUF and given a machine gun and told to fight," he said. "I fought for many years and killed many people. But it was not my will."

Kawuta witnessed dismemberment, torture and summary executions. "I was also forced to take part," he said. "I raped many, many women. Sometimes when we had finished they were shot."

Almost all the children have horror stories. Mamusa, Rabiatu's mother, was dressed in a flowery print shirt, cutoff jeans and orange sandals, replacements for the clothes she had been robbed of in the bush.

She had been seized by RUF soldiers as a girl and made to serve as a prostitute and keep house for one of them.

"It was a very difficult journey out and my baby was hungry," said Mamusa. "But it's better to be here now. I don't want to go back."

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