Monrovia, Liberia – Tucked deep in Monrovia’s impoverished Red Light District, Sugar Hill Community is a slum within a slum.
Set against a sprawling rubbish tip, its corrugated iron shacks lean and sag against a grey sky. A group of its residents are taking shelter from the rain, slugging “King Juice”, a high-proof spirit, from clear plastic bags.
These men are the pariahs of Liberian society, former child soldiers who live a hand-to-mouth existence, stealing to survive.
“We are not human beings. We are not recognised in society,” says Winston Graham, who is 39 years old.
It is estimated that as many as 20,000 child soldiers fought in Liberia’s 14-year civil war, two back-to-back conflicts. The war ended in 2003, having killed about 250,000 people – or about a quarter of the population.
Today, thousands of former child soldiers live in the slums of Monrovia, shunned by society as they struggle with PTSD, addiction and extreme poverty.
Most of the men at Sugar Hill fought with Charles Taylor, the mercurial rebel leader-turned-president, whose forces invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast in 1989. Within a year, his army had split into factions battling for control of territory and resources, raping, maiming and massacring as they went.
Having controlled much of the bush throughout the 1990s, Taylor eventually became president in 1997 under the infamous slogan: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him.”
Now, “Papay”, or “the old man”, as the men of Sugar Hill once called him, is in a British prison, serving a 50-year sentence for aiding and abetting rebels who committed atrocities in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone war.
Taylor had fuelled that conflict with arms, enriching himself with the country’s “blood diamonds”. He has never been held criminally responsible for conduct he oversaw in the Liberian conflict.
“He is still our father!” shouts one of the men, a sentiment everyone agrees with.
The men, who were coerced and manipulated into joining Taylor’s army, still look up to him.
In Sugar Hill, life is a daily battle for survival.
“We steal to generate money. If we saw you in the street, we would take your chain and your mobile phone,” says Graham. “But we are good people. If we can survive for just one day, we thank God.
“We are self-employed,” he says.
Many of the men carry bullets in their bodies.
“Feel my leg,” says Graham, undoing his tracksuit bottoms to reveal scarring on his right thigh. “One doctor wanted to cut my leg open, but I said no. So, now I just get tetanus injections.”
Other men come forward, lifting items of clothing to show their bullets and scars.
But it’s the memories that cause the most pain.
Graham worked as a cook for Charles Taylor’s special forces from the age of 15.
He describes how one commander would get a kick out of opening the stomachs of pregnant women, just to see if they were carrying a male or female baby. After witnessing such acts, the boy would hide away in the bush to calm his mind. He fled to Ivory Coast in the mid-1990s, returning to Liberia in 2011 in the hope of finding a better life.
“There is no rest in my mind,” he says. “If you are not strong, you will go out of your mind.”
Sunny Sayon, 39, worked as a front-line soldier in Lofa County, to the north of Liberia.
“I had a good experience. I wasn’t happy, but it was a different world,” he says, remembering when Taylor would visit with supplies of rice and bullets. “He was a good man. If I heard Taylor was coming back tomorrow, I would go to the airport and wait for him. He’s the only man who can rule this country.”
Sayon has a bullet in his left hand, which prevents him from bending one of his fingers. He says he was a brave soldier, but that he smoked cocaine to give him strength.
He frequently saw others eating human hearts, a common practice believed to make soldiers invincible. He categorically denies ever having done this himself.
Cannibalism is just one of the rituals that soldiers engaged in. Many fought naked or wore wedding dresses and fright wigs to protect themselves from the bullets.
By now, there are around 30 men jostling for a chance to tell their stories. The atmosphere has become highly charged, with arguments breaking out and lots of pushing and shoving.
‘I go from man to man’
There is only one woman in the group. She stands slightly apart from all the others. Her name is Tete Flomo and she is 19 years old. She came here from Lofa County to live with an aunt, who turned out to have no fixed abode. So now she lives with these former child soldiers, working as a prostitute.
“I go from man to man,” she says.
Each night, she waits for the owner of a small stall near the rubbish tip to close shop before dragging out a mattress made of flattened cardboard boxes from beneath the counter.
“I want to go to school, to become someone better,” she says.
“We all want to go to school, but we have no money for school,” Graham chips in. “I want to live, I want to help other people. We have talent, but people want to keep us down.”
In the stall where Tete Flomo sleeps, a man is sitting with his leg up on a bench. Asaek Mark, 41, has a bullet in the front of his calf, which is badly swollen. However, he is one of the lucky ones, sleeping in a room near the airport, rather than Sugar Hill. He only comes here to beg in the Red Light market.
Like Sunny Sayon, he worked as a cook in the bush, helping to prepare food for a battalion of over a thousand men. He remembers when he was recruited at the age of 12, right at the beginning of the conflict. He had run away to the bush because there was no food in the city and lived on yams and water from the creek. It was in this desperate state that he was found by rebel forces.
“I was hungry. I was very happy to be recruited,” he says.
He saw thousands of people killed, shot in the back as they tried to run away or caught in exploding mortar. He waves a hand dismissively, then goes quiet. Many, he says, were buried alive.
“I move freely because I never did bad,” he says. “But I feel bad for my brothers in Sugar Hill. They need more help. They need counselling for trauma.”