The child soldiers of Liberia have taken street art to another level. Tim Hetherington, winner of the World Press Photo of the Year in 2007, took these terrifying photos during the blood-drenched civil war over there a few years back. The childlike scrawls of rape, violence and intimidation are pretty grim, but it all gets out of hand when you see the cupboard with “room of pain” etched on it. We spoke to Tim about Liberia, child soldiers and the 90s Liberian graf scene.
Vice: What was going on in Liberia when you took these photos?
There had been civil war in Liberia for much of the 1990s until the warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor took power there in 1997. In 2000, an armed rebel group called the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) started to challenge his rule and so the country returned to full-scale civil war. In August 2003, Taylor was forced to leave the country and a United Nations peacekeeping mission took over. By this time Liberia had been reduced to ruins. There was no functioning government, no running water or electricity, and large groups of armed men held various parts of the country hostage.
Did you see the people who did these?
In 2003 I lived with the LURD rebel group in the interior of the country as they made their final attacks on the capital Monrovia. Frontline towns were covered with graffiti made by their fighters and so I was present in a few circumstances. As well as making drawings, people would write their names on houses to show that the property now belonged to them. After the end of the war I continued to find these, but usually stumbled upon them without seeing who wrote them. Some people would write their names, or nicknames, and so you can kind of trace the movements of specific fighters within the country.
Were they kids, or just not great at drawing?
The civil war in Liberia was notorious for its use of child soldiers. When Charles Taylor was fighting in the mid-90s he had a bodyguard unit called the SBU or “Small Boys Unit”. These were children who had been abducted or whose parents had died and who now came to see Taylor as their “Pappy”. As Taylor once said of the SBUs, “We arm them as a way of keeping them out of trouble.” It’s well known that young children make good fighters as they are small and fearless. They don’t have the responsibilities and knowledge of the world that might cause them to hesitate in killing or committing cruelty. Many of the rebel factions used children to fight, often supplying them with drugs.
Were these drawings done in buildings occupied by the artists?
The people who made these drawings weren’t really artists, they were often just fighters who had taken over a property in the town or village that they were currently living in. When a rebel group took over a place, they would have the license to kill, rape, and loot. This practice was widely accepted as a type of payment for their participation in the war since the fighters didn’t receive a salary as such. Many of them would come to a house and take it from whoever was living there. It became their house, and so they would write their names on it, and if they found some paint, they might start to cover it with images.
It looks like a scary place. Were there any close shaves on your trip?
Liberia went through some very dark times during the war. A lot of people were terrorised and it’s estimated 200,000 died. There was no rule of law or justice, just angry young men rampaging with weapons. I lived there during some of the hard times of the war, but also stayed on to see the country transformed from the criminal enterprise it had become. Anyone who lived in Liberia during the war would have seen some pretty bad things.
For more Tim Hetherington, visit timhetherington.com