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International Social Work 50(6): 740–754

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Sage Publications: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore DOI: 10.1177/0020872807081901

Institutionalized child abuse The use of child soldiers


Carrie E. Kimmel and Jini L. Roby

Throughout the world, children are recruited by both government military and rebel forces to fight and kill, loot and destroy property, lay mines, act as messengers and scouts, and, in some cases, be used as sexual slaves (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2004). According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2002), approximately 300,000 children (individuals under the age of 18) are estimated to be involved in this practice. In this process, the children experience extreme violence and trauma on many levels. The practice of using children as soldiers has been condemned by both international civic and religious leaders and child experts as one of the worst forms of child abuse. Yet hundreds of children fight and die to carry out the political motivations of adults. In this article, we provide a conceptual model for understanding how this institution of child soldiering is facilitated and perpetuated through the interaction between macro and micro factors, and offer points of intervention. The institution of child soldier abuse: structural foundation Our descriptive model (see Figure 1) identifies six dimensions which interact together to facilitate the institutionalization of child soldier abuse. Though each dimension plays an integral part of institutionalization, their significance may vary throughout the world. Liberia is Key words * child soldiers * Convention on the Rights of the Child * institutionalized child abuse * Liberian children

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Macro level

Families Micro level


Figure 1 Descriptive model of the institution of child soldier abuse

used as a case study, because of child soldering in the recent civil war, as well as the new political context in which the problem is being addressed. Macro-level contributing factors Three-macro level dimensions (politics, policy, and culture and beliefs) in the institution interact with each other, as well as influence three micro-level dimensions, creating a trickle-down effect that produces a negative psychosocial toll on the children. Politics Government militias and opposing armed forces are generally responsible for recruiting the majority of child soldiers in order to further political agendas (Coalition, 2004). In Iraq, boys as young as 10 have been enlisted in summer military schools since the mid-1990s to be indoctrinated and trained in military skills. By keeping the rising population under military control, totalitarian regimes use child soldiers as pawns to support political power struggles (Singer, 2003). In Liberia, after 160 years of power monopoly by the AmericoLiberians (former slaves from America), Samuel K. Doe in 1980 briefly overthrew the government (Bright, 2002), followed by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor taking power (Kulah, 1999), unleashing inter-tribal conflicts that escalated into civil war (Stack, 2003). As the number of available


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adult men declined, children were recruited (PBS, 2003b), soon making child soldiering the norm (Human Rights Watch, 2004). All three major groups – the government troops under Taylor, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) – recruited child soldiers (Coalition, 2004; Human Rights Watch, 2004). Thus, the political agendas of tyrants (Berkeley, 2001) deeply institutionalized child soldiering. Most recently, Gyude Bryant, who served as interim leader after the forced exile of Taylor in 2003 (PBS, 2003a) made the rehabilitation of ex-combatants a priority (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004; TLC Africa, 2003). Likewise, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected in 2005 as president of Liberia, declared: ‘We believe Liberia needs a successful program of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and resettlement which will enable our children who have been forced into arms and who have been robbed of their childhood and youth, to return to the schools and training programs that will make them productive, constructive citizens’ (Ellen For President, 2005). There is clearly political will to dismantle the institution of child soldiering. Policies The absence of policies, poor enforcement and misguided policy application contribute to child soldier abuse. In North Korea, for example, ages for conscription or voluntary recruitment are unclear and the country has not signed the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (Optional Protocol). Although Uganda acceded to the Optional Protocol in 2002, and passed its own National Resistance Army Statute 3/92 setting the recruitment age at 18, the government has recruited children to fight the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) (Coalition, 2004; IRIN, 2003). Further, the Ugandan policy of criminal accountability starting at age 12 was applied to child soldiers, resulting in charges of treason against two boys (aged 14 and 16) who had been abducted by the LRA and forced to fight the Ugandan government (Coalition, 2004). Although the charges were eventually dropped, the government’s indiscriminate policy caused further trauma for these children (Eramu, 2003). In Liberia, the UN CRC which specifies the minimum age of recruitment at 15 and prohibits the use of those who are younger than 15 in direct combat (UN General Assembly, 1990, Art. 38) was ratified in 1993 (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d.). Liberia had also signed and ratified the African Charter

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on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Amnesty International, 2004), which mandates: ‘States Parties shall ensure that no child shall take a direct part in hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any child’ (Organization of African Unity, 1990, Art. 22). In addition, there was a legal prohibition of compulsory enrollment for military service before age 18 and voluntary recruitment under 16. However, none of these policies was observed (Coalition, 2004; Human Rights Watch, 2004), and the practice of recruiting child soldiers continued well into 2004 (Amnesty International, 2004; Coalition, 2004; Human Rights Watch, 2004). Fortunately, with the new regime, there are no signs of child soldiering on a wide scale. Culture and beliefs The cultural and religious beliefs of the larger society often influence child soldiering. In Iran the Basiji militia recruited ‘volunteers for martyrdom’ composed mostly of boys between ages 12 and 17 and men over 45. During the Iran–Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, told children and their families that sending children to their deaths would speed up the coming of the 12th Imam (an Islamic Messiah figure). Because of the strong indoctrination of culture and beliefs, children readily joined the Basiji seeking to find national pride and religious salvation. As a result, over 100,000 ‘martyrs’ who were more religiously indoctrinated than trained in military skills, were killed (Kuntzel, 2006). In Liberia, early tribal armies used children as war mascots, and joining armed forces often became the initiation into adulthood (Olukoju, 2006; Utas, 2003). War chiefs and warriors, those who enjoyed the greatest power in communities during wartime, were selected from young men considered brave and proficient in the battlefield. Thus, military training offered a means for upward mobility (Moran, 2006), and at times provided the justification for pillage, rape and harassment of the natives (Levitt, 2005; Utas, 2003). As Berkeley (2001: 31) summarized, ‘the institution of the army was a microcosm for what ailed Liberia. A gang culture flourished. Violence was rampant’. Additionally, the Americo-Liberians promoted modernity as the means to success. The armed forces became a means for gaining inclusion into a ‘new world society’ (Ferguson, 2002; Utas, 2003), with guns symbolizing modern status (Richards, 1996). Traditional power structures also facilitated child soldiering. Combined with the lower status of women, traditional marriage


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laws allowing men to take a number of wives (Olukoju, 2006) influenced enlisting girls to serve as sexual slaves or ‘wives’, with up to four or five girls being abused by one commander (Human Rights Watch, 2004; Utas, 2003). Liberian culture also fosters obedience to higher authority (Olukoju, 2006), making children easy prey for military strongmen and their indoctrination methods. Micro-level dimensions The micro-level dimensions of community, family and individual psychosocial factors also interact with the macro factors to further facilitate the institution of child soldier abuse. Communities Children in poverty-stricken communities are especially vulnerable to child soldier abuse. Community protection or resistance against child soldiering may be lacking for fear of reprisal by the violent armed forces recruiting from the community. Communities may also fear ex-soldiers due to the acts of violence committed by them, as was experienced by some former Sierra Leone child soldiers who were not allowed to attend school, making reintegration difficult (Shepler, 2005). In Liberia, military groups routinely took over villages and territories, trapping children in militarized communities (Moran, 2006), sometimes abducting children at or on their way to school (Human Rights, 1994). Once in the custody of the armed forces, children were given lightweight weapons to intimidate other community members (Moran, 2006). The spoils of war (e.g. looted goods, cattle or ‘wives’) even allowed for youth to override or rebel against traditional leadership (Utas, 2003). The communities, already depleted of fighting men and resources, would often be subjected to cruelties perpetuated by the children, which would later have major implications in the reintegration process. Families Families can contribute to child soldiering due to poverty, or cultural or religious beliefs. During the civil war in Sierra Leone, while rich families could afford to send their children away to safe locations, children from poor families were often left with no school or occupation, and vulnerable to recruitment as child soldiers (Zack-Williams, 2001). In Palestine, some parents believe that child martyrs bring honor to their family. One mother is reported as saying as she dressed her 12-year-old boy up in a suicide bomber costume, ‘I encourage him . . . God gave him to me to defend our land. Palestinian women must have more and more children till we

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liberate our land’ (Pisik, 2002: A.01). Children also join armed forces to protect their families, to revenge a family member’s death, or to provide food for their families (Annan et al., 2000). Parents are often helpless to prevent their children from being abducted, as was seen in Liberia. As the civil war depleted Liberia’s economy (Utas, 2003), some children joined fighting forces to obtain food for their families (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Also, service in the military or rebel groups gave children an opportunity to protect their families from raids. Many families benefited when their sons became bigmen in the military, whose status prevented other fighters from looting their family property. Daughters who kept relationships with commanders also provided similar protection (Utas, 2003). Some children placed their loyalty in rebel groups that distributed weapons with which they could avenge family deaths (Moran, 2006). The armed groups offered a type of kinship for children who had lost their family in a chaotic, brutal world that they did not understand (Human Rights, 1994). As a result, a misplaced loyalty developed, as heard in the slogan often shouted by children who fought for Liberia’s President Taylor: ‘He killed my Pa, he killed my Ma. I’ll vote for him!’ (Lovgren, 2003: 19). Psychosocial factors Children, particularly adolescents, are very impressionable and willing to identify with social, religious or nationalistic causes. They can be easily manipulated and brainwashed (Annan et al., 2000), as was seen in Sri Lanka, where the rebel group, Tamil Tigers, recruited children because they were easily molded into suicide commandos and soldiers capable of the worst atrocities (Kadirgamar, 2000). Once in military service, children often become dependent on the military for physical support and psychological identification, which furthers the institution of child soldier abuse (Annan et al., 2000). Despite the fact that children are victimized by child soldiering, their very powerlessness played a role in the perpetuation of the abuse in Liberia. In many cases children were forced to join the armed forces through abduction or coercion. However, under other circumstances, children are lured into it as a means to obtain personal power (Utas, 2003), or a connection with a cause (Moran, 2006). According to one report, ‘some children were the most vicious, brutal fighters of all . . . Children learn by imitation; they saw killings and then when their commanding officers ordered them to kill, they did’ (Human Rights Watch, 1994: 31). Some children were even influenced to believe that cannibalism of their victims helped protect


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them (Stack, 2003). As another reported, children ‘wanted to do something for their country; they felt it would be more interesting than street life’ (Cohn and Goodwin-Gill, 1994: 35–6). The dimensions of abuse: human rights violations and psychosocial toll Regardless of their location or the context of the conflict or the amount of choice they have when they join, child soldiers are subjected to a tremendous psychological and social toll. The impact of the abuse can be seen as both human rights violations and in terms of psychosocial harm. Human rights violated Under the UN CRC, the most widely accepted child rights instrument in history (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d.), children, by definition, belong to a class of individuals who need special care and assistance (UN General Assembly, 1990). Under the CRC, children have the right to be protected from abuse (UN General Assembly, 1990, Art. 19). Specifically, they have the right not to be recruited into armed forces until age 15 and not to be used in direct combat under the age of 15 (UN General Assembly, 1990, Art. 38). Under the Optional Protocol, children are not to be compulsorily recruited until age 18 and voluntary recruitment is to be at age 15 or older (Art. 3). Despite these stated rights, many children have been involved in direct combat and in other tasks related to fighting, such as porting supplies and weapons; serving as spies, messengers, sentries, servants, and – in the case of girls – as ‘wives’. Children are also used to lay and clear landmines or do other highly hazardous tasks (Wessells, 2000). They are often deprived of the most basic needs, including food and rest. Children are beaten for making mistakes, creating trouble, or trying to run away. Often the children are forced to kill or rape, and are exposed to drugs, violence and sexual offences (Whitman and Fleishman, 1994). Another basic right of children under the CRC, education, is also severely compromised while the children are off to war. After prolonged absence from school, it is difficult for some former child soldiers to attend school because they are more familiar with violence than with academic study (Dukuly, 2004). Soldier ‘Roland B.’ from Monserrado County in Liberia explained, ‘Most of our brothers . . . have been fighting . . . so all they think about is war. But if you are educated, you can think of other things’

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(Human Rights Watch, 2004: 4). In addition, the schools in conflict zones face many obstacles including poor funding, few teachers and lack of textbooks and pupils (Dukuly, 2004). Psychosocial effects In addition to having their human rights violated, children also suffer psychological and social damage from a developmental perspective (Jareg, 2005), as has been well documented (Barenbaum et al., 2004; Machel, 1996; MacMullin and Loughry, 2004). When children are separated from their families, they are denied the appropriate cultural norms, social structures and support to develop strong values (Faulkner, 2001). They are deprived of the opportunity to experience childhood and adolescence in the context of their own families and communities. Sustained exposure to the armed group’s values can confuse children about what is right and wrong regarding violence, human life and conflict resolution (Peam, 2003; World Bank, 2002). When separation trauma is combined with experiences in combat, child soldiers become very susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Berman, 2001), with symptoms that include recurring nightmares, illusions, flashbacks, panic attacks and a sense of numbing detachment (Comer, 2004). They frequently resort to alcohol and drugs, and struggle with identity crises compounded by their disillusioning experiences (Utas, 2003). These problems can have a lasting effect, including interactions with current and future families, if not corrected with therapeutic intervention (Comer, 2004). Healing from abuse: intervention efforts In this section, we examine current and desired intervention efforts at the macro and micro levels. We do not separate out Liberia as a focus point, due to space limitations and the wide applicability of the methods discussed. We let it suffice to mention that Liberia is at an opportune juncture, having faced some of the worst child soldiering in the immediate past, and is now in a stable phase with a strong political will to end the abuse. According to Ilene Cohn (1999), former program officer of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, political transition provides a chance for resetting the national agenda. The key players, consisting of not only the international bodies and agencies but also representatives of fighting factions, international moderators and major donors, must understand the impact of conflict on children and set into motion child-conscious policies and programs


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(Cohn and Goodwin-Gill, 1994). A key policy is the Optional Protocol, which came into force in 2002 (UN, 2000), ratified (or acceded to) by 111 countries, including the United States. The protocol raises the minimum age of compulsory enlistment into war to age 18 and the age of volunteer enlistment to above age 15 (UN General Assembly, 2000, Arts.1, 2). These standards are also addressed in regional treaties such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. A timely policy development is the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) (UN, 1998, 1999), which empowers the ICC with jurisdiction to prosecute as war crimes the conscription or active use of children under 15 (Art. 8 (2)). The statute specifically prohibits attacks on schools and calls for special protection of children as victims and witnesses (Arts. 43(6), 68(1–2)). Children under 18 are exempt from prosecution by the court (Art. 26), and judges and prosecutors are to be trained on violence against children (Arts. 36(8), 42(9)). The use of child soldiers as witnesses should be handled with abundant caution keeping a focus on the child’s best interest, since ‘truth telling’ has the potential to retraumatize (Cohn, 1999). As of August 2007, Charles Taylor is now awaiting trial at The Hague by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes perpetrated in that country, including the use of child soldiers (ICC, 2007). The central vehicle for intervention at the macro level has been Art. 39 of the CRC, which requires governments to provide rehabilitation services for former child soldiers, in a manner that ‘fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child’ (UN General Assembly, 1990). Under this mandate, efforts have been undertaken in various locations by international, government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Just to give a few examples, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF have collaborated with governments and NGOs to carry out disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) programs for nearly 10,000 ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone (Council on Foreign Relations, 2003) and 150 child soldiers in Somalia. In the latter program, all but three of the excombatants finished the eight-month course in vocational training, and an estimated 80 obtained jobs. More impressively, none of the participants subsequently took up arms again (Qadi, 2004). Other efforts include training teachers on the psychological and social problems of former child soldiers (UNICEF, 2003), and programs utilizing sports to help children learn to have fun and socialize

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with others while participating in normal childhood activities, and to have healthy, nonviolent competition (UNICEF, 2004). Civil society has also joined the effort to rehabilitate child soldiers. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, posted pictures with names and faces in markets, schools and hospitals, helping former child soldiers reunite with family members (ICRC, 2004). Save the Children, International Rescue Mission and Don Bosco Homes are also housing and rehabilitating child soldiers (Council on Foreign Relations, 2003). Common program components include counseling, medication, skills training and reunification services with their families (Monibah, 2003). These projects are generally successful because they draw from the resources and strengths of the local community, ensuring longterm sustainability, cultural sensitivity and preservation of local traditions (Van Orman, 2000). Experts agree that incorporating culture and community are integral in intervention efforts (Eisenbruch et al., 2004; Farwell and Cole, 2002; Jareg, 2005; Machel, 1996). Machel (1996) cautions that in many parts of Africa the main sources of traumas are considered spiritual in origin and redress. Hence, western-style diagnostic and intervention approaches can miss the mark and possibly exacerbate the harm. The existing social care system such as parents, kin and the community, must be incorporated, utilizing not only child development knowledge but also with a deep understanding of local culture and practice, including the rites and ceremonies related to growing up, death, burial and mourning. One such ritual may be the ‘cleansing’ of a girl who has been raped or of a child who has killed someone. Restoring a sense of normalcy is best achieved by establishing daily routines of family and community life and structured activities such as school, play and sports (Gibb, 1994; Machel, 1996). Being able to contribute constructively to family and community life through work is key, as well as attendance at religious meetings where the congregation can serve as a system to provide ‘forgiveness’ and support (Gibb, 1994). Jareg (2005) recommends a model incorporating six aspects: restoring family relationships, community participation, health services including mental health, organized learning opportunities, vocational or income-generating training, and recreational activities, modified according to the different cultural, social and political contexts one is working in. She emphasizes the importance of gender-specific intervention, such as with girl soldiers (and their children, if any); ongoing dialogue with


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community leaders and neighbors in the reintegration process; and recreation and play as essential elements of recovery. While reunification with their families is the primary goal for most child soldiers, it is not possible for all. Some children may be orphaned or abandoned because of the war (Barenbaum et al., 2004). Even if family members are still living and can be located, they may reject children who have been disabled in conflict or have developed potentially dangerous behavior (Abramson, 1998). Girls who have been severely abused or have become mothers while in the armed forces may be disowned. Child soldiers with drug and alcohol dependency (Jareg, 2005) or other severe problems may not be welcomed back by their communities (Abramson, 1998). In addition, many former child soldiers are confused about whom to trust and, without intervention, may reject reunification. Despite these challenges, the effort must continue. According to Becker (2004), former child soldiers are prime targets for re-enrollment into militias or mercenary armies unless immediate and sufficient attention is paid to healing and reintegrating them (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004). When reintegration with the family is not an option, the CRC specifies that children nevertheless have a right to grow up in a family environment in a kinship placement, a substitute family, or in another suitable placement, with special regard to the most culturally-sensitive way to place a child outside the birth parents’ home (Barenbaum et al., 2004; Coury and Subbarao, 2004; Gudbrandsson, 2006; Machel, 1996). Conclusion Children who participate in conflict must be viewed as victims of institutionalized child abuse who have suffered human rights violations and psychosocial harm. This abuse is built upon macro factors such as politics, policies and culture, as well as micro factors such as community, family and the psychosocial context of the child. Helping them heal is not only in the best interest of the children but also the future of nations and the world community. Fortunately the international community has taken a strong policy stance against perpetuation of the abuse, through the CRC and the Optional Protocol, as well as the Rome Statute on the ICC. Social workers in every country can join in the effort to raise awareness, educate, lobby for policies, research, and rehabilitate these children and their families. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (quoted in Singer, 2005), said, ‘It is

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immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them. There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument, for arming children.’ Acknowledgement The authors gratefully acknowledge the funding assistance of the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowment at Brigham Young University. References Abramson, N. (1998) Soldier Child (motion picture). Abramson Film. Amnesty International (2004) ‘Liberia: The Promise of Peace for 21,000 Child Soldiers’ (AI Index: AFR 34/006/2004) (17 May). London: Amnesty International. Annan, K.A., E. Gombos, A. Taka´cs and T. Magyar (2000) We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century. New York: United Nations. Barenbaum, J., V. Ruchkin and M. Schwab-Stone (2004) ‘The Psychosocial Aspects of Children Exposed to War: Practice and Policy Initiatives’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 45(1): 41–62. Becker, J. (2004) ‘Children as Weapons of War’, in Human Rights Watch, World Report, pp. 219–43. New York: Human Rights Watch. Berkeley, B. (2001) The Graves Are Not Yet Full. New York: Basic Books. Berman, H. (2001) Children and War: Current Understandings and Future Directions’, Public Health Nursing 18(4): 243–51. Bright, N.O. (2002) ‘Liberia: America’s Stepchild’ (television broadcast). New York and Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (2004) ‘Child Soldiers Global Report 2004’. Available online at: php?id=966 (accessed 16 December 2006). Cohn, I. (1999) ‘The Protection of Children in Peacemaking and Peacekeeping Processes’, Harvard Human Rights Journal 2 (Spring 1999): 129–203. Cohn, I. and G. Goodwin-Gill (1994) Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflict, Henry Dunant Institute. New York: Clarendon Press. Comer, R. (2004) Abnormal Psychology, 5th edn. New York: Worth and W.H. Freeman. Council on Foreign Relations (2003) Liberia: Child Soldiers (Publication 7753). Available online at: soldiers.php (accessed 23 January 2007). Council on Foreign Relations (2004) ‘Liberia’s Vision for Transition’ (online transcript of discussion with Gyude Bryant, 5 February). Available online at: http:// (accessed 23 January 2007). Coury, D. and K. Subbarao (2004) Reaching out to Africa’s Orphans: A Framework for Public Action. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications. Dukuly, A. (2004) ‘Education – Liberia: Civil War Leaves School System in Tatters’, Inter Press Service News Agency (16 June). Available online at: http://www. (accessed 23 January 2007).


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Carrie E. Kimmel is a student in the School of Social Work at Brigham Young University, 2190 JFSB, Provo, UT 84602, USA. [email: [email protected]] Jini L. Roby, to whom correspondence should be addressed, is an associate professor at the School of Social Work, Brigham Young University, 2190 JFSB, Provo, UT 84602, USA. [email: [email protected]]

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