Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: UN Envoy Stunned by Magnitude of Child Slavery

Lansana Fofana

KOIDU TOWN, Sierra Leone, Feb 28 2003 (IPS) - ”I cannot believe that in this day and age, so many children could be forced to slave away in the mines earning next to nothing; this is appalling,” says UN Under Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, who is visiting the war scarred West African country.

”I was horrified by what I saw at the minefields,” Otunno told IPS this week

Thousands of children, aged between seven and 16, are being engaged in the minefields of Koidu Town, the capital of the eastern diamond-rich district of Kono in what is clearly child labour in the post-war era.

The civil war in Sierra Leone was declared over in Jan 2001, but many ex-combatants have been left jobless and thus looking out for ways of making ends meet.

Ibrahim Kaisamba, 15, told IPS: ”I am not happy being in the mines. If I had an option, I would be in school by now”.

Kaisamba was captured by rebel forces in 1998 and forced to take up arms and fight. ”I still feel too bad about my experience as a combatant and do hope my life changes drastically,” he said.

World Vision, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), has just released a report after a survey of children involved with mining. Titled ”Children in Mining Activities”, the survey targeted 1,000 minors, among whom 90 percent were male children and 10 percent girls, all involved in mining in various capacities.

Mac-Ivan Rogers of World Vision told IPS in Koidu: ”Child mining in Kono is a serious problem because of the various abuses that the children have to put up with.”

The child miners come from various backgrounds, from ex-combatants and street children, to abandoned and separated children. They have a common story to tell. Foday Kanu, 14, lost both his parents in the war. He knows nothing but shooting and killing people in the past five years, having served as the commander of the so-called ”small boys unit” of the dreaded Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement.

”The people who now look after me just can’t afford to pay my school fees because they are poor and have been impoverished by the civil war,” Kanu said.

The mining barons, who take advantage of the minors and their poverty to draft them to the mines, deny that they are enslaving the children.

”It is no slavery,” says mining patron Samba Kamara. ”We want workers of all categories and children do the light work. At least when the diamonds pop up, they get something to help themselves and their families.”

But the picture is not as rosy as Kamara puts it. The children in the mines say what they get is pure ”slave labour”. Even adult social workers in the region acknowledge this fact.

”They are often given non-negotiable fees on irregular basis, sneakers and tape recording sets which impress them a lot, given that they are getting these items perhaps for the first time,” says Franki Sandi, a social worker in Koidu.

The civil war in Sierra Leone, which broke out in Mar 1991, lasted ten years. During that period, many children were either coerced into fighting forces or took part in the conflict as a way of avenging the death of their parents.

Along the way, some got exposed to mining and its complex arrangements and are still attracted to the meagre benefits that follow profits from diamond sales, never do they play a role in determining the value.

Yet there is a larger problem bordering on the future of the children. Many have lost years of schooling and are yet to fully re-integrate into society. They are either out-rightly rejected in their communities of origin or simply afraid of returning.

Otunnu said: ”It is true these children are vulnerable and are a ready source of recruitment for potential trouble-makers. This is why their situation is very serious”.

Observers believe the government should take steps in regularising the mining sector, firstly to get children off the mine sites and then ensure the nation benefits from its natural resources.

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