Former child soldier gets cold welcome from Canada

Acts of a six-year-old abducted and forced to fight for rebels in Sierra Leone branded by bureaucracy as possible war crimes.

Former child soldiers Prince Cole (left), Kabba Williams and Alhaji Mansaray walk down a road in Lumley village on the outskirts of Freetown. Experts warn that lack of opportunity for young people could plunge the country into violence again.

Jared Ferrie/The National *** Local Caption ***  Security1-Ferrie.JPG
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VANCOUVER // For a former child soldier who speaks for the voiceless even while struggling against grinding poverty, the invitation to participate in an international conference must have seemed a golden opportunity. But Kabba Williams's elation soon turned to anguish when Canada refused to let him into the country, branding him a war criminal despite legal observers who say child soldiers are victims. Mr Williams's story has a happy ending - to the surprise of those watching events unfold. After months of bureaucratic wrangling, at the 11th hour, Canadian immigration issued him a special visitor's permit. Today, a day after Salman Rushdie gives the keynote address at the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas, Mr Williams will participate in a panel discussion on violence and youth. "I feel extremely delighted. This is a great transformation in my life," said Mr Williams just two hours after touching down in Edmonton. "It's really, really chilly here." The long road that brought Mr Williams from the jungle-clad hills of Sierra Leone to the frozen plains of Alberta was fraught with unforeseen twists and turns. Media pressure was a factor in the government's change of heart, as was an unexpected change of immigration ministers in Ottawa. Through it all, Mr Williams refused to lose hope, even after festival organisers cancelled his plane ticket. "I was shocked actually," said Miki Andrejevic, the festival director. "We gave up and then suddenly we received a call that the visa would be granted." Mr Williams was initially denied entry in August but he did not want to go public with the story because the university was lobbying Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) behind the scenes. Mr Andrejevic said a member of parliament, whom he had promised not to name, made sure Mr Williams's file reached the desk of Diane Finley, the immigration minister at the time. Mr Andrejevic said he learnt that Ms Finley reviewed the case and apparently supported the decision to refuse Mr Williams a visa on the grounds that he possibly committed war crimes. Mr Williams then gave the green light to releasing the story to the media and calls to the minister's office began. Ms Finley's decision coincided with a cabinet shuffle and Danielle Norris, a CIC spokesman, asked for an extra day to respond with a comment. She explained that Jason Kenney, the new minister, might want to take another look at the file. Mr Kenney personally granted Mr Williams a visa, according to Mr Andrejevic. "The phone calls did a lot but, if nothing else, they prompted the minister to look again," he said, explaining that the story would have been embarrassing for the government and particularly for a minister in his first days on the job. "In my opinion it was a smart political move," he said of Mr Kenney's decision to override the original ruling of J Tieman, a visa officer in Accra, Ghana. In a letter made available to TheNational, Mr Tieman told Mr Williams: "There are reasonable grounds to believe that, during the civil war in Sierra Leone while you were a member of the RUF from 1991-1992, you committed a war crime, genocide or a crime against humanity." Mr Williams was six years old in 1991. He was abducted by the Revolutionary United Front, drugged and forced to fight along with thousands of other children. When making his decision, Mr Tieman appeared not to have taken into account international law which stipulates that children under 18 cannot be held responsible for actions committed during wartime. "I think legally they're wrong," said David Matas, a well-known Canadian human rights lawyer. "It's my understanding of international law that a child can't commit a crime against humanity. Child soldiers are victims." Douglas Cannon, an immigration lawyer in Vancouver, agreed that the government's decision could be challenged in court, but said that process would take a lot of time - something Mr Williams was running short on as the conference loomed. "Practically speaking you're really only able to do anything about this politically," Mr Cannon said. The political solution was not to issue Mr Williams a regular visitor's visa. He received a special permit which can be granted "in exceptional circumstances to persons otherwise inadmissible to Canada", according to Ms Norris of CIC. In other words Canada still considers Mr Williams a possible war criminal - a fact that diminishes his joy and relief at being given permission to participate in what he regards as a seminal event in his life. "Why are they still considering me a war criminal?" he asked. "I was used against my will." Mr Williams was one of the first children to be abducted when rebels attacked his village at the start of the decade-long civil war, which was characterised by mass amputations and massacres of civilians. His father and uncle were killed in the attack. "I had no choice but to do what I was ordered to do. If I refused I would have been killed," he said. After six months with the rebels, Mr Williams managed to escape into the bush. He was captured by government troops who made him fight on their side until he was turned over to the United Nations in 1994 for rehabilitation. Mr Williams has managed to emerge from the tragedy that was his childhood with determination to make something of his life. Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, is teeming with former child soldiers who live on the street and often turn to crime for lack of other opportunities. But Mr Williams has worked with the United Nations and such human rights groups as Amnesty International and he now attends university. Mr Williams's achievements were what attracted the interest of festival organisers, said Mr Andrejevic, who called him "exceptional". He said CIC would have set a disastrous precedent if it had not granted Mr Williams access to Canada. "Let's face it, if he gets denied now I think the doors to North America would be closed forever," Mr Andrejevic said. That would have been tragic for Mr Williams, who said his dream is to study humanitarian law in Canada or the United States so that he can more effectively advocate for the rights of children affected by war in Sierra Leone and around the world.