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The Small Boys Unit (SBU) was a group of children who were forcibly recruited by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) as militants during the Sierra Leone Civil War . The war began in 1991, when the RUF desired to overthrow the government and gain control of the diamond mines; a major source of revenue for the country. In 1998, 25% of the soldiers fighting in the war were under 18, and of those, 50% were abducted and 28% were under the age of 12.[1] The war ended with a cease fire on January 18, 2002.[2]

The SBU in Sierra Leone was made up of over 10,000 children mostly between the ages of 8 and 10 who were notorious for their particularly cruel crimes against civilian populations, including human mutilation and torture. With over 55% of the population of Sierra Leone under 18, there was a large supply of potential fighters.[3] Originally, the children were taken in order to carry ammo, food supply and equipment to the other fighters.[3]

As the war progressed, children were taken to special work camps where the boys were trained for war and the girls were made into sex slaves.[4] The first weapon that most children were handed was an AK-47, considered a light-weight-gun that was manageable for their small size.[5] Once they were sent out to fight, they executed the trades they were taught and engaged in the murder of innocent civilians and also those close to their family.

A key actor in the formation of the Small Boys Unit was President Charles Taylor of Liberia. Taylor “is believed to be one of the first warlords to recruit child soldiers, who were organized into Small Boys Units.”[6] During the war in Sierra Leone, Taylor acted as a means of obtaining weapons for the RUF, as Taylor would “trade their diamonds for weapons and in turn sold the diamonds to merchants exporting diamonds to Belgium." He allowed for the RUF to use Liberia as a route for resupplying resources and was thought to directly control militant operations in Sierra Leone.[7] In addition, accusations aimed at Taylor claim he ordered his troops to physically consume captured enemies.[6]

Following the end of the war, millions of people were displaced and thousands of children brain washed. Rehabilitation and reeducation was the next step for the children.The Special Court for Sierra Leone has been established to address the human rights violations that occurred, and as of 2010, they are still conducting trials of those accused to be leaders in the war. While conditions have improved in Sierra Leone following the end of the war, children in 2010 are still in a compromising situation, with an estimated 250,000 refugees and 600,000 internally displaced people.[2]


The RUF, the operators of the SBU, was established as a strategy by the Libyan leader Mu’ammar Gadhafi as a way of spreading revolution across Africa.[7] It was there in Libya where RUF leader Foday Sankoh was trained at the secret military academy, World Revolutionary Headquarters. He trained along with Liberian President Charles Taylor, who further helped with the founding and solidification of the RUF.


Most of the recruitment tactics to get children to join the army were forced. Commonly, RUF members would raid local villages and capture children. After their capture, it was not uncommon to force the children to witness or participate in the torture and killing of their relatives.[8] For others, participation in the SBU became viewed as an opportunity. Children were considered ideal candidates, as they were seen as "easily malleable and in times of conflict, additional factors can contribute to their recruitment as soldiers including poverty, education and employment, family and friends, politics and ideology, and culture and tradition."[7] One girl noted that she became to like the RUF who captured her, as she said “they offered me a choice of shoes and dresses—I have never had decent shoes before."[2] For others, gain came through the obtainment of a form of education that had long been diminished in their home towns. They were able to use scraps from textbooks and receive training in the art of bush-warfare. This presented an opportunity for educationally starved children to exert themselves and show off their skills.[2]

Actions of the SBU

During training, children were taught how to mutilate people. One common technique was the cutting off of civilians limbs. Children were instructed to get the subject on the ground and shove the gun barrel to the back of the person's neck. Once he was helpless, another boy takes the victim's arm and lays it on a piece of wood then brings the machete down on it to make an amputation. After this step, the child soldier was free to cut anything else, including lips, nose and removing internal organs and making the victim eat them.[9] As of 2010, Sierra Leone has an estimated 10,000 amputees, one of the highest rates in the world, which is largely due to the actions of the SBU.[10] When members of the SBU came across a pregnant women, the children would argue the sex of the child, then use a machete to cut the womb to discover the sex.[9]

Psychological Effects

There were many psychological effects that resulted from being part of the SBU. Specifically, flashbacks were severe. For some, the worst memory was the time the rebels came to their home. One child soldier remembers how they poured petrol over the mother, father, two brothers and sister and set fire to them, watching as they ran around, burning alive before her capture.[9] Many children who have been child soldiers "report psycho-social disturbances - from nightmares and angry aggression that is difficult to control to strongly anti-social behavior."[11] Much of this was due to the fact that the army forced the children to consume drugs, most notably marijuana and LSD, in order to loosen their inhibitions. The consequence of this was that the children suffered with addiction to drugs after the war and health related problems.[1] In addition, many of the children were branded or forcibly tattooed with the letter of their affiliated army, serving as a constant reminder of what they had been through. In order to help with this issue, UNICEF founded a relief project that provided a service to remove tattoos and disguise them.[1] In addition to removing the weapon form the child and taking them out of conflict, it is also important that the child be reintegrated into a family setting and a strong community environment.[11]

International Policy on Child Soldiers and International Intervention

Prior to the war, in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly that developed law and policy directed specifically at children. The Convention, which is universally binding and non-negotiable, highlights rights that are unique to those under the age of 18.[12] There are two optional protocols included in the Convention; one pertaining specifically to the restriction on using children as soldiers. Specifically, it establishes "18 as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment and requires States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities."[12] It is clear that Sierra Leone violated this Convention during the war.

In 1998, during the final years of the war, the UN established the United Nations Observer Missions in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL)to “to monitor the military and security situation, as well as facilitate the disarmament and demobilization of former combatants."[13] In 1999, Sierra Leone signed the Lomé Convention , which lead to the formation of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone leading to the disarmament and demobilization of more than 75,000 ex-fighters, including child soldiers.”[14]

On January 6, 2002, the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established by the Sierra Leone government and the UN to prosecute those involved in the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since November of 1996. Following trial, 5 leaders of the RUF were indited for their crimes. Additionally, as of 2007 and still ongoing until 2010, Charles Taylor is facing eleven charges relating to terrorizing the civilian population, murder, sexual violence (rape and sexual slavery), physical violence (cutting off limbs), using child soldiers (under the age of 15), enslavement (forced labor) and looting.[7] During the prosecution phase of the trial, Taylor denied recruiting or using children as combatants and claims to have no knowledge that children were being used as soldiers in Sierra Leone.[15]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "Sierra Leone", Child Soldiers Global Report 2008. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Center for Security Sector Management. “Politics, War and Youth Culture in Sierra Leone” African Security Review. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name6" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name6" defined multiple times with different content
  3. 3.0 3.1 Woods, Larry J. “Military Interventions in Sierra Leone: Lessons from a Failed State” Combat Studies Institute. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name1" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Swain, Gill. “Blood in Her Hands: The Shocking Story behind Naomi Campbell's Gift from African Warlord” Celebs. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  5. BBC World Service. The Child Soldiers of Sierra Leone Part 1 Global Crime Report Institute. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Barrowclough, Erin. “U.S Court Convicts Charles Taylor's Son of Torture” The Times Online. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Lipman, Janna. “Charles Taylor’s Criminal Network: Exploiting Diamonds and Children Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name7" defined multiple times with different content
  8. UNICEF "Children as Soldiers" Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Sweeney, John. "Sierra Leone: Boys Taught to Torture and Maim” Daily Mail and Guardian. Daily Mail and Guardian. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name13" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name13" defined multiple times with different content
  10. Sheila, Burke. "Child Soldiers and the War in Sierra Leone” Sierra Express Media. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  11. 11.0 11.1 IRIN “AFRICA: Too Small to Be Fighting in Anyone's War" Humanitarian News and Analysis from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name9" defined multiple times with different content
  12. 12.0 12.1 UNICEF > "Convention on the Rights of the Child" '’United for Children. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Name10" defined multiple times with different content
  13. UNOMSILM. “Sierra Leone- UNOMSILM Mandate”. United Nations. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  14. UNAMSIL: United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone. “Peace and Security Section of the Department of Public Information in Cooperation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations” United Nations. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.
  15. Sesay, Alpha. "Prosecutors Accuse Charles Taylor Of Using Child Soldiers In Liberia." AllAfrica.com. Accessed 07 Dec. 2010.