08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ernest Sompon was selling biscuits on the streets of a city in Liberia when rebel soldiers forced him to join their ranks. "I was 10 years old," recalls Sompon. "I was frightened." The boy had no choice but to fight—until a bullet wound landed him in a hospital last year and he escaped. "I didn't want to fight anymore," says Sompon, now 16, who hasn't seen his family for six years.
But what a child soldier wants rarely matters. Experts estimate that as many as 10,000 armed children are fighting in Liberia's civil war, which pits the bloody regime of President Charles Taylor against two rebel groups, each with its own record of atrocities. Prime among them: abducting kids as young as 9 from their schools or homes, providing them with weapons and forcing them into battle—often while high on drugs provided by their commanders, and sometimes naked except for amulets they believe make them invulnerable.
Deprived of love, family and education, says Peter Singer, a military expert at Washington, D.C.'s Brookings Institution, they often loot and mutilate with the gusto of kids playing video games. "The younger ones are sometimes the most ferocious," says Singer.
While the United States and 53 other countries have ratified a treaty setting the minimum age of combat troops at 18, experts don't expect the practice of recruiting child soldiers in Liberia (where 2,000 U.S. Marines are standing by aboard ships off the coast while President Bush considers whether to order armed intervention) to disappear anytime soon. As automatic weapons grow ever lighter and cheaper, underage fighters offer rogue commanders distinct advantages. "Kids often follow orders more easily than adults," says Jo Becker, a children's specialist at Human Rights "Watch in New York City. "They're more vulnerable to intimidation." And, forced to live far from those who love them, they're often considered dispensable.