Once, Gabriel Swen was a regional warrior.
He fought in his country, Liberia, for years, first picking up a gun at the age of 7 after losing his family in the West African nation’s 14-year civil war. He handed in his weapons to the UN in 1997 in exchange for some training in shoe repair, but after failing to find a means of survival without a gun, he took up fighting again the following year.
In 2001, Swen was part of a mercenary army that crossed Liberia’s eastern border to francophone Cote d’Ivoire following a January coup attempt on the then-newly elected president Laurent Gbagbo. Swen fought not for pay, but for the spoils of war, until he was seriously wounded in a car crash and returned to Liberia.
The phenomenon of regional warriors in West Africa is rearing its head again today, as Cote d’Ivoire hovers on the brink of civil war.
Thousands of combatants roam this fragile region from conflict to conflict, fighting as a means to survive in some of the poorest nations on earth, where peace without proper reintegration has brought not happiness but rather a life of idle deprivation for some former fighters, many of whom were coerced to take up arms as children.
According to numerous reports, Cote d’Ivoire’s death squads are linked to the security forces of Gbagbo, who is refusing to cede power to the internationally recognized winner of the country’s November 2010 election, Alassane Ouattara.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to “target certain groups in the population” during the current crisis that has left more than 200 dead.
The risk to regional stability posed by disenchanted and impoverished former fighters in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and surrounding countries is widely recognized by the United Nations and international bodies, as well as national governments.
The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) noted as recently as June 2010 its concern about an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Liberian fighters in western Cote d’Ivoire.
At various times since the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, UNMIL has responded to reports of ex-combatants congregating along the borders with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in hopes of getting picked up by a commander heading to conflicts elsewhere.
Over the last six weeks, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has repeatedly called on her country’s ex-combatants not to get involved in violence next door.
But the failure to provide the tens of thousands of ex-combatants throughout the region with viable alternative livelihoods continues to fuel regional instability and mercenary activity.
Nya D. Twayen Jr., assistant minister for youth services with the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sport, calls the country’s thousands of street youths, many of whom are ex-combatants, the greatest threat to stability in the fragile post-war country.
“They are vulnerable. You give them five dollars and give them an AK-47 and say shoot… they’d shoot,” says Twayen. “As long as a portion of them still remain depressed and down and wayward, they will wage war on others.”
In a 2005 report dubbed “Youth, Poverty and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa’s Regional Warriors,” Human Rights Watch wrote that regional warriors identified poverty and hopelessness as motivators for them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts.
“They described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters,” the report reads.
“Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival.”
Swen retired from a decade of fighting before he was 18 years old. Now repairing shoes on the streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Swen says he wouldn’t want to go back to war. But eight years of peace haven’t got him anywhere. He still has no job and can’t afford to eat most days; he says he’s haunted by memories and holds little hope for the future.
“I need help to stop thinking,” he says. “I think about the war that happened, I feel bad.”
If a truck rolled up and offered him a couple bucks and some food to return to a frontline somewhere, he says with a shrug, he might go.
“The future? I do not have no hope for it.”