A UNITED NATIONS representative has pleaded for the international community to help children traumatised and mutilated in Sierra Leone's civil war.
The former Ugandan foreign minister, Olara Otunnu, also proposed setting up a national commission for children as part of a 15-point agenda in the aftermath of the civil war.
Following a visit to the capital of Freetown, Mr Otunnu said: "The children of Sierra Leone have suffered beyond belief."
He described a country with some of the worst abuses anywhere on earth - where "many children have been deliberately maimed, with their limbs brutally cut off".
In January more than 4,000 children were abducted during an incursion into Freetown by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. Sixty per cent of the abducted children were girls, the vast majority of whom were sexually abused. At least 10,000 children have been serving as child soldiers in the various fighting groups.
More than 60 per cent of the 3 million people who have been
displaced both inside and outside the country, are children. The RUF still holds several thousand captive.
Mr Otunnu, appointed last year by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, said: "Apart from the imperative of re-establishing credible security and peace, the 'crisis of the children' is the most important challenge facing Sierra Leonean society today."
The country faces an uphill task. Although a peace accord was signed in July, not all of the rebels agreed to it. Last month a group of international peacekeepers were themselves abducted while attempting to negotiate the release of several hundred children held by members of the former military junta. No sooner had their release been negotiated than the same dissidents ambushed the leadership of the RUF, returning from peace talks.
The resources to deal with the trauma suffered by children are said to be completely inadequate. The only two qualified psychiatrists in the country are overwhelmed by their case-loads. One described how her biggest problem was keeping the children in rehab - many run back to the rebels because they are guaranteed two meals a day.
One former boy soldier - a child who had been rehabilitated - justified amputating the hands of small children as "the best way to bring peace to his country".
A 14-year-old, known as General Bloodshed, told his counsellor how one victim had pleaded with him as he started hacking off his limbs, saying: "I'm a student, I haven't done anything, why are you doing this to me?" And how he explained that he had to fill a bag with hands as he'd been promised a promotion if he succeeded.
The United Nations' Children's Fund has helped sensitise the locals to the fact that "such children are victims as well as perpetrators" and many people have agreed to "forgive, but not forget" the atrocities. Yet much remains to be done if the country is ever to recover from its ordeal.
In Oxfam's latest report, Africa's Forgotten Crises: People in Peril, released on September 9, the aid agency calculates that the international community has donated to Kosovo 60 times as much per capita as it has to similarly war-torn countries in Africa.