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From Africa To Europe, A Former Child Soldier Haunted By His Own Unthinkable Acts

One native of Sierra Leone, who arrived in Italy via the now notorious island of Lampedusa, is trying to find peace in a Roman slum.

Papani Kamara, haunted by memories
Papani Kamara, haunted by memories
Niccolò Zancan

ROME — When he was a child, Papani Kamara’s mentor was known as Adama “Cut Hands.”

“He always told us that our machetes needed to be well sharpened,” Kamara recalls. “This was important because if the cut was clean, then the victims would pass out. Otherwise, the wrist or elbow could stay attached to the rest of the arm hanging by just a strip of flesh.”

As a 10-year-old boy living in the Sierra Leone village of Baomahun, Papani was forced to become a soldier for the Rebel United Front (RUF). “They came with the syringes already filled,” he recalls. “They injected drugs in our arms. We were treated like a bunch of dogs. They used us as tools for their own personal needs. Before setting the houses in the village on fire, our commander released everyone. He made a son rape his mother. We were forced to assist. I heard her screams and had to keep a rifle on the boy's neck.”

If they had refused, he explains, they would have been killed. “But they were killed afterwards anyway. When kids disobeyed, they were gunned down immediately. They did this to teach the rest of us a lesson.”

These unthinkable nightmares emerged during months of tearful sessions with psychologists. “This information has been confirmed by international observers,” Kamara’s therapist is careful to explain. “The use of drugs and smuggling of diamonds are some of the tools used by the RUF to carry out its missions. During the war, they branded the children like cattle.”

Today, this former child soldier is 24 years old. He suffers from depression and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in misery, just outside of Rome, in a single room within a building shared by about 100 people whose lives have been turned upside down by crises — Italians, Chinese and other Africans like him. They take turns doing the cleaning and the security at the gate. On the wall of his room, there’s a picture of the Madonna. A small dog is yelping, chained, from the building opposite.

Leaving Sierra Leone

Papani escaped the war in Sierra Leone, spending seven years on the Ivory Coast before crossing the desert in Niger in a van filled with contraband cigarettes. Then, after all that, he escaped the war in Libya. “I wanted to enroll in Gaddafi’s army,” he says.

Papani then left for Lampedusa, escaping a northern Africa embroiled in crisis during the spring of 2011, arriving on the Italian island that has become a destination for many immigrants and just last week witnessed its own horror when a boat filled with would-be new arrivals caught on fire and sank.

Back then, Papani was convinced that he would find peace here in Italy, but his troubled past followed him here. “Everybody is afraid of me,” he says. “They think that I could snap in an instant and go back to doing bad things. But it’s not like that. I want to tell the world: It was because of drugs that I did those things. When they injected me with them, I didn’t know anything or recognize anyone — not even my parents.”

His father, Momodou, was the village chief, and his mother was named Fatou. They were killed in a fire that was started with petrol. Everything in Papani's life still smolders. “I dream of getting a job,” he says, staring at the wall, “of learning a trade, being at peace and having a family.” But, these past two years in Italy haven’t been fruitful. “For me, things get worse day by day. I’m not working, I’m not studying. To be able to register for an Italian language course, I’ll have to pay a hundred euros.” Lost time is scary, especially when you’re haunted by your memories.

Forced against his best friend

Papani tells us for the first time what makes him cry the most: “Adama asked me to cut off the hands of my best friend, Moses. I refused. I looked him in the eyes, he was shaking and begged me not to. Then Adama beat me like he had never done before and threatened me with a knife on my neck. He said to cut Moses like he had taught me to.”

The psychologist’s report on Papani defined this as impossible choice. “One of the technically most atrocious tortures, used as a rite of passage to prove one's affiliation with the RUF,” it says. “The aim of cutting Moses’ arms was to permanently separate him from his past and from any affections.”

Papani cries into a pink blanket that he saved from the trash. He has never had a girlfriend. The only girls he sees are the ones in the naked photos he has downloaded onto his phone. He says that some evenings he has to drink five beers because it’s the only thing that helps him not to think about what happened to his best friend. “Until I ask for Moses’ forgiveness for what I did, I’ll never be at peace.”

For Papani, there is a giant kaleidoscope of horror: the image of Moses screaming and writhing on the ground, a dark boat filled with people praying and vomiting in the middle of the sea, the violent protests in Bari, the nights spent sleeping rough and alone in Rome’s central Termini station.

Papani's Permesso di Soggiorno visa issued for humanitarian reasons is about to expire. He doesn’t have the money to renew it, and the Interior Ministry hasn’t granted him political refugee status. He dries his eyes. For a moment, he tries to imagine what a stroke of luck would be like. He knows how to tile roofs and would accept any kind of work. “Unfortunately, I haven’t found any friendly people here in Italy. I’m sorry for saying that. I’ve looked for friends, someone to talk to, but I haven’t found anybody.”

The truth is that three women are trying to help him — his psychologist, a lawyer and an Italian teacher named Cecilia. Cecilia wrote him a letter that he carries with him always, like a passport. “I haven’t known you long, but I can tell that you’re a good guy,” it says. Nobody has ever said that to this former child soldier.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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