Girl Soldiers Continue To Suffer As Taylor's War Crimes Defense Begins

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor may be taking the stand in International Criminal Court tomorrow to defend himself against war crimes charges, but women in Liberia say they continue to suffer after Taylor turned them into child soldiers.

Taylor, the first African leader to be tried for war crimes, will speak for the first time tomorrow at The Hague in The Netherlands, where the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone is trying him for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, The New York Times reports.

Taylor is only being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, which neighbors Liberia, between 1996 and 2002, where he allegedly armed and commanded rebel groups that used child soldiers, raped and disfigured civilians, and killed up to 200,000 people. However, it's believed that his policies destroyed the lives of even more people in Liberia, where he first began using bands of child soldiers as a rebel leader in the 1990s and then as president.

When Taylor lost control of the country in 2003 about 15,000 children were fighting in his government forces, and since then they've been struggling to rebuild their lives. The Guardian interviewed dozens of child soldiers who say in addition to being traumatized by they war, they aren't receiving help from the state and are shunned by their communities.

In a video interview, 18-year-old Gloria Sherman, who was 13 when she saw her father and brother brutally murdered and was forced to join the army, explains how conditions were even worse for girls, saying:

For boys they have to do what they are told. If they are told to go somewhere they have to go, but for a girl sometimes we used to be raped not just by one person sometimes two or three and after that we still had to carry weapons to the front lines so girls were maltreated more than the boys.

After two years Gloria managed to escape and went back to her village, Lofa, but she ostracized by the other villagers and labeled a "rebel wife." "They say we are bad girls because of what we did in the war and what we do now," Gloria said. "But they took me and I had no choice." Now she says she can only survive by prostituting herself, and is often paid in food, sanitary napkins, or soap.

Researchers from Plan, an international children's organization which runs support programs for former child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, found that 70% of girls and 80% of the boys who were once child soldiers are at risk for suicide and 30% have already tried to kill themselves. Gloria says:

When I close my eyes, all I can see is the war. I often think about taking my own life. It would have been better if I'd died in the war, but I am still alive and I hope one day something will be different and I will be a good person.

Ninety-one witnesses have testified about the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone since the trial began in January 2008, but in his opening statement on Monday, defense attorney Courtenay Griffiths said Taylor wasn't responsible, AFP reports. Griffiths said, "Taylor was not an African Napoleon bent on taking over the sub-region. He had a front line role in the conflict as a broker of peace." Taylor's testimony is expected to last for six to eight weeks and there probably won't be a final verdict for another year.

War Crimes Trial To Hear From Ex-Liberia President [The New York Times]
Agony Without End For Liberia's Child Soldiers [The Guardian]
Video: Girl Soldiers: Charles Taylor's Legacy [The Guardian]
Liberia's Taylor 'Was Peace Broker': Lawyer [AFP]