International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

5:00 Prosecution witness Father Jose Maria Caballero takes the stand

Lead prosecutor Brenda Hollis tells the court that the next witness will testify openly and in English.  The witness swears on the Bible to tell the truth.

Prosecutor Shymala Alagendra will lead the witness.  Through a series of questions, he states the following:

My name is Jose Maria Caballero, normally known as Father Chema.  I was born in 1961 and am 46 years old.  I presently reside in Madina, Kambia District in Sierra Leone.  I first arrived in Sierra Leone in 1991.  I’m Spanish.  I speak Spanish, English, Italian, Krio and a little Limba.  I’m a Catholic priest.  I have a BA in law and theology from the U. of Madrid.  Also a master’s degree in social sciences from the U. of Long Island in New York.  I was trained in counselling there.  I counselled youth involved in drugs and violence.  I learned how to deal with children and use sport with children.  I volunteered to work with black and Latino gangs in the S. Bronx, New York.  My superiors sent me to Sierra Leone to work on issues of justice, peace and human rights. 

My first assignment in Sierra Leone was in Kenema, at the pastoral center.  My congregants were running workshops on human rights, human development, peace and justice.  I was there in 1992 until the end of 1993.  I left because the war came and the situation wasn’t safe. 

I left Kenema for Makeni in 1993 or the beginning of 1994.  After Makeni I was sent to a parish in Kissi, Freetown.  I was in Freetown until the end of 1994/beginning of 1995, when I went to Spain.  In Freetown I was working with youth.  I went to Spain for my ordination.  I was sent to the US to study.  I returned to Sierra Leone in 1998, to Kenema.  The center re-opened in 1997.  We couldn’t work because of the war.  People were afraid to travel to Kenema.  From Kenema I went to Makeni.  I stayed there for a few weeks, perhaps a month.  Then we had to run away from Makeni because the RUF forces attacks the city. A few days before the attack, people were running away from a village, Binkolo, near Makeni, saying the RUF was attacking.  When Makeni was attacked on December 22, 1998, we ran away to Lungi. 

I left Sierra Leone in March 1999 for a meeting in Rome on the situation in Sierra Leone.  We had to abandon all our missions.  Six of our brothers from the Xaverians had been kidnapped in Freetown together with six of our sisters.  Three of them were killed.  At the meeting were all representatives of our order based in Sierra Leone.  We decided to focus on displaced persons and refugees, youth and child soldiers.  We wanted to get child soldiers out of the fighting forces, rehabilitate them, and return them to their families.  At the end of March I returned to Sierra Leone. 

When I returned I started the program on child soldiers in April 1999.  We used a former hotel in Laka on the Freetown peninsula.  Before starting the program, we consulted with UNICEF because we didn’t know how to deal with child soldiers at the beginning.  UNICEF supported us.  At the time UNICEF was negotiating with fighting forces for the release of children.  When there were negotiations I stood nearby to take custody of any children who were released.  Once, around August 1999, we went to Okra Hills to negotiate the release of child soldiers.  UNICEF was there and Bishop George Biguzi were there.  I waited in Waterloo.  The Bishop came a few hour laters and told us to flee because most of the delegation had been kidnapped by the RUF. After UNAMSIL took over, UNICEF withdrew from this role.

At St. Michael’s Lodge, we had 114 staff, including security, cooks, nurses.  We had 25 social workers.  All of them were teachers who had a teachers certificate.  We gave training for dealing with child soldiers.  One training was organized by UNICEF, and our specific training for St. Michael’s conducted by Handicap International.  Every week they came to discuss the problems the children had.  An Italian doctor, Dr. Rita Fiori Mazo, provided training on the stages of human development.  That helped us to identify the age of the children.  A Spanish psychologist, Dr. Fatima Millares, came to train our social workers and teachers on how to work with drawings to get children to share their feelings.  St. Michael’s Lodge was open from April 1999 to March 2002, about three years.  We dealt with 3,025 children.  Out of these, at least 62% of the children were child soldiers.  At the end of the program we prepared statistics based on our monthly reports to UNICEF.

Prosecution asks that the witness be shown a document.

Pros:   Do you recognize this document and the signature?

Wit: Yes, that’s the report and my signature.  These are the statistics.  Out of 3,025 children, 1, 180 of them combatants.  The cut-off age for the program was 18 years old, in accordance with UNICEF guidlines.  The first group of children were brought by UNICEF in April 1999.  Most of them were little children, 12, 14, 15.  Many girls were in the group – mostly pregnant or already with babies.  This group was what they called “camp followers” or “slaves”.  They were not trained as soldiers, but were doing domestic work for the fighters.  Most of the girls were sex slaves, used by the fighters “as wives”.  The youngest girl who said she was a sex slave was 14.  She was kidnapped when she was 7 or 8 years old.  She was abused by a commander from the beginning as a “bush wife” until she became pregnant.  He released her then and she came to us.  She delivered a few weeks later and the baby died.  The commander who took her was with the RUF.

We had child soldiers in the program.  When UNAMSIL started the DDR program in Sierra Leone, we used similar procedures as when we worked with UNICEF.  UNAMSIL brought children with us.  We also sent social workers to work with UNAMSIL because many of the peacekeepers couldn’t speak Krio or communicate with the children.  The first group of child soldiers that came was in October 1999 – they weren’t demobilized yet or recognized as child soldiers by the DDR program.  That group came following a fight within the RUF.  One part of the group had been with Issa Sesay in Lunsar, and the other part with Superman in Makeni and Magburaka.  At one point ECOMOG troops got the children, put them in trucks and brought them to us.  The children continued to fight at St. Michael’s and peacekeepers had to come to stop the riot.

In November 1999 another group arrived.  There were seven children at first, and then 67 or 69 came.  UNAMSIL brought them.  These were the first children to be officially demobilized.  They were 14, 17, 18 years old.  They were demobilized at St. Michael’s.  UNAMSIL came to take pictures of the children, and the children took over and forced the UNAMSIL soldiers against the wall.  I had to intervene to calm the situation. 

Most of the child soldiers belonged to RUF.  The children told us, and many were marked with the initials RUF through knives or blades.  The average age of all of these child soldiers was 14-17 years of age at the time they came.  Most were Sierra Leonean.  We also had a few Liberians who told us they were Liberians.  They said they came with the forces that came from Liberia to support the RUF. 

Once children were accepted into our program, they stayed in 21 bungalows with caretakers.  We divided them by sex and age, and also by fighting force. We tried to separate former commanders among the children from other children so that they could no longer give orders.  Girls were housed separately, and those who were pregnant or mothers were kept in another location.

When children came, we showed them the location, explained the program, and tried to help them to decide what to do – to go to school or learn a trade.  Once they decided, they were assigned to a workshop or to school.  We ran a school at the compound.  Our teachers were trained by the Norwegian Refugee Council.  Once children had caught up, they were sent to normal schools.  We provided skills training: carpentry, driving, bread baking, hair-dressing, etc. workshops.

The children’s daily routine was to wake up early, clean their living area, wash, eat breakfast, pray (either Christian or Muslim prayers), attend an assembly, then go to school or the workshops.  Then there was lunch, a break for laundry or rest.  Then there was school in the afternoon, then sport, dinner, and after dinner different activities.  We did role-playing therapy with them after dinner sometimes.  The cleaning of their living area and other chores were very important because as fighters they were used to ordering other children, the camp followers, to do chores for them.

We had a registration process, including full interviews at the beginning.  Usually they gave false information at the beginning because they were afraid or didn’t know what we’d do with the information.  It usually took 2-3 interviews to get the truth.  The second interview came after 1-2 months, and a third after a year.  For registration we used UNICEF forms. 

(Proseuction shows the witness a document.)

This is the form we used to register the children.  We recorded family background, the child’s name, nicknames in the family and as a fighter, nationality, tribe, languages, schools, last address, landmarks that could identify the village’s location, information on relatives, who the child was living with when he/she was kidnapped, wishes of the child regarding with whom they would like to be reunified if we could find the family, where the child was abducted, by whom, where the fighting force moved with the child, and when the child came to us.  All agencies working with children used this form.

I used to talk with the children in the evenings, to counsel them and get information from them.  I would check whether I got the same information as the social worker who had interviewed the child.  I asked about their background, whether the child was a fighter or a camp follower, or other child. 

The typical history of a child soldier:  Following the abduction of the child, they were forced to carry looted items from their village to the fighters’ camps.  They were divided among the commanders.  Boys were sent for domestic work, girls used as sex slaves.  Some were selected for training as fighters.  This training was very hard, they called it “American track”: with obstacle courses and live fire from the trainers above their heads.  They learned how to use weapons and lay ambushes.  In the afternoons they would be indoctrinated.  The RUF told them that the government had stolen all the riches of Sierra Leone, that they were fighting for free education and a better country.  At the end of the training, they were taken to the juju man or moriman for a ritual in which they were anointed with a liquid to make them invisible to the enemy or impervious to bullets.  Then the juju man told them that once they’d killed their first victim, they should bring something from the victim: a thing or a body part.  This thing taken back to the juju man would become their juju, and the children grew very attached to these things.  They thought they protected them.  Children were trained to use AK-47s and RPG guns.  A child came to my office with a human skull he used to protect him.  He gave it to me because he wanted to start a new life.  He was around 9 years old when he killed this person, and was about 17 when he gave the head to me.

They spoke of their commanders: Issa Sesay, Sam Bockarie, Superman, Rambo, Gibril Massoquoi, and many others.

The children said that after this training they were returned to their commanders.  They were sent back to their villages and asked to kill their parents, and asked to burn the harvest of the village.  One child told me he was sent to kill his father when he was ten years old.  He was still having nightmares about  it.

The children told me about their assignments.  They were used as fighters to attack villages, for food-finding missions, as spies, and as bodyguards for the big commanders.  The children were armed with AK-47s, RPGs and guns.  Before battle they were normally given drugs and alcohol.  They were given cocaine.  They were cut under the eyes or on the temples and given cocaine there.  They were given amphetemines and “brown brown” which is heroine, and a local alcohol.  They said the drugs came from helicopters that came to their bases along with weapons.  The helicopters took looted items and diamonds.  They described these as white helicopters.  Others said they walked to the Liberian border to exchange looted goods and diamonds for drugs and weapons.  Most of the children who spoke of diamonds were based around Kono.

Children conducted amputations, committed rape and looted.  The children who told me this were between the ages of 14 and 17.

Today’s session has ended.  Court has adjourned until Monday at 9:30.  Our live-blog will continue on Monday at 10:00.