- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

COTONOU, Benin (AP) — Their bodies scarred by beatings and their hands callused from breaking rocks, 74 boys as young as 4 received medical treatment this week after their rescue from Nigerian granite quarries where they had been forced to work.

Nigerian police rescued the boys Wednesday and repatriated them to Benin under an accord between the two nations on child trafficking and other cross-border crimes.

Following their rescue — only the second of its kind in West Africa — the children told authorities that over the previous three months at least 13 other boys died, succumbing to exhaustion, disease, hunger and abuse, Nigerian police and aid workers said.

“We would break the stones, and the men would come take them away in trucks,” one boy said. Skinny, filthy, scratched and heavily scarred, the boy looked no more than 10.

The children, many just hip-high with bare chests showing white scars, hung from the windows of the buses that authorities used to return them from Nigeria to Benin, where they had been taken by traffickers and sold as child labor.

The children’s parents had put them in the hands of labor traffickers for as little as $35, an official with the United Nations Children’s Fund in Benin said. The children themselves received 35 cents a day for breaking stones with mallets, said Kemi Olumefun, whose Nigerian women’s charity helped rescue the children after receiving tips about the brutal conditions.

Granite pit bosses buried the dead children in shallow graves near the quarries, Miss Olumefun said.

Authorities in Benin assembled the children — none older than 15 — in a soccer stadium, preparing them for the return to their families.

Child labor and labor-trafficking are common across West Africa — while mass operations to rescue the victims are extremely rare.

Under an accord signed in August, the neighboring countries are cooperating to find and return children who have been forced into grueling and dangerous labor.

The first rescue under the pact came Sept. 27, when authorities brought back 116 children who had been put to work in the granite quarries of southwest Nigeria.

Three of the children died later at a camp where Nigerian authorities brought them before repatriation, Miss Olumefun said.

Most of the children worked at a granite quarry near Abeokuta, the hometown of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

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