Wafting its way through the ruins of downtown Monrovia and Liberia's lovely but war-torn bush country, the fragile scent of peace begins to tickle the nostrils of countless children.
Peace is unfamiliar and enticing--nothing like the predictable odor of gunfire, fear and dead bodies in the street. Those smells--of a brutal war between government and rebel fighters--the children know. What it's like to be unable to go home or attend school, to lose a friend or relative--this, too, they know.
In the 14-year conflict, more than 150,000 people were killed and nearly every Liberian has been a refugee, aid groups estimate.
Liberia's children--young and vulnerable, both victims and perpetrators of the bloodbath--have wrapped their hopes, finger-like, around the latent promise of fishing lines, schoolbooks and, in some cases, rifle triggers.
Of the 45,000 fighters who have not yet disarmed since the Aug. 18 peace, half are children. John Yormie worries about his 13-year-old who was taken as a soldier. "I'm told my son has started smoking and taking in drugs," he says. "My family is planning to visit [his] military camp to encourage him to come back home."
Sumoward Harris, bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, says the church will provide vocational training for 600 former child soldiers.
These photos offer a glimpse into the lives of Liberia's children during the last half of 2003. Now, at long last, with help from Lutherans, they are inhaling the fresh possibilities of peace and a place to grow up.
Prince Collins, a free-lance writer living in Monrovia, Liberia, also contributed to this story.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers