Now that the West African country is enjoying relative peace and democracy under the continent's first female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, these former combatants are trying to get the education they were denied in the hope of building a normal, decent life. Thanks to a very generous $1 million grant by billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Foundations (OSF), World ORT's International Cooperation Department (ORT IC), which has been implementing non-sectarian aid programmes in developing countries for 50 years, is there to help them.
ORT IC's Liberian Youth Training and Employment project will directly help 1,000 people - young people who simply missed out on school because of the wars as well as ex-combatants - in six rural districts gain vital practical skills through an apprenticeship scheme. But the project stands to benefit countless more people by helping to improve training and employability throughout the whole country.
"We're working on a micro-level but the overall goal is to develop a national framework for standards, certifications and training," said the Director of ORT IC's Washington bureau, Celeste Angus, on her return from a highly successful trip to Liberia where she set up the terms of reference for the project with partners and stakeholders - OSI, USAID and the Core Education Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) programme which it funds, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Education, the World Bank and the International Labor Organisation (ILO).
An ORT IC expert is in Liberia this week to lay the groundwork for implementing the year-long programme, which will also provide business development support so that businesses can be in a position to hire the apprentices they are currently helping to train.
During the war, schools were closed and teachers killed so USAID's CESLY programme is providing young men with a primary education. But the programme only goes up to the 6th grade - and vocational education programmes require participants to have reached 9th grade.
"ORT will work in partnership with CESLY to fill the gap," Ms Angus said. "We will provide support and training to both the apprentices and small businesses over a 12-month period in six rural districts, there already being more opportunities for people in the capital, Monrovia," Ms Angus said.
Director of Special Projects at OSI's Education Support Programme, Aleesha Taylor, who is based in Monrovia, said all parties concerned with vocational education were excited by the prospect of ORT IC's involvement.
"We were pleased to have a preliminary indication from USAID that they are viewing ORT's engagement in the CESLY programme as a pilot that may be considered for expansion in the next phase of programme funding," Ms Taylor wrote to World ORT's Chief Programme Officer, Vladimir Dribinskiy. "ORT's expertise and track record in skills development and employment and your engagement in the CESLY programme are quite timely as the Government of Liberia and its partners are making a more explicit focus on youth employment."
ORT IC enjoyed a successful partnership with USAID in a similar project in the Balkans from 1991 to 1997: in the Albania Human Resource Development Project, ORT provided professional adult training and workforce development for more than 26,000 people emerging from decades of oppression.
And in 2007, ORT IC's Geneva office evaluated a $75 million World Bank-funded programme to reintegrate the veterans of Burundi's 11-year civil war into peaceful occupations.
In Liberia, ORT will also make a significant contribution to the ILO's review of the Government's Decree of Apprenticeship, which establishes the common elements of apprenticeship programmes - things that we in the West take for granted, such as a contract between employer and apprentice detailing pay and work conditions.
"The ILO has invited us to join the Technical and Vocational Education and Training working group (TVET) which will allow us to share what we're doing with other stakeholders and implementation agencies so that we're all working together for the betterment of education and training in Liberia," Ms Angus said. "The Ministry of Youth and Sports will incorporate what's learned from our programme into the new Decree meaning that we will have a nationwide impact as well as making a change on the individual level for apprentices and their employers."
Although OSI has a relatively small presence in Liberia its significant resources mean that it is an influential actor. The Director of its Education Support Programme, Hugh McLean, said that it had been looking for partners which could make the right kind of contribution to the country, which could build local capacity and give support of the kind that had been overlooked.
"When we became involved with ORT IC in Washington we found a common concern and common language," Mr McLean said. "We found we were on the same wavelength."
He said OSI was hopeful that ORT IC's contribution would provide a good example to other agencies and to the Government of what could be done.
"We really need positive examples in this country," he said. "Small as it is, this project could be a very crucial contribution to what is quite a small country. But it's a country that has a lot riding on it: democracy after war and the first woman president in Africa. Both for the region and for the world it's important that this succeeds."
Mr Soros has given the project his personal backing.
"An educated youth is key to the future of an open society," he said. "It is my conviction that equipping young people with education and the skills needed to be productive members of their communities will be a crucial step towards a peaceful Liberia."
World ORT President Dr Jean de Gunzburg said it was a privilege to be able to work with the OSI.
"This project aims to help a population for which no educational programme has been implemented for so many years. Joining together the strengths of World ORT and OSI, in particular in the area of education for underprivileged populations, constitutes one of the most appropriate means to help them in their daily struggle for the basic elements in life," Dr de Gunzburg said.
Founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States of America, Liberia now has a population of 3.5 million, almost all of whom live on less than $2 a day. The country is rich in natural resources - including water, minerals and forests - and has a climate favourable to agriculture. It has the highest ratio of direct foreign investment to GDP in the world but average life expectancy is less than 60 years and the UN Human Development Index ranks it at 169 out of 182 countries.
OSI's Education Support Programme's central issues and activities include supporting the renewal and rebuilding of education systems in post-conflict countries, promoting equal education and inclusion for marginalized groups, strengthening critical thinking and education quality, and helping civil society play a progressive and engaged role in the education reform process. The programme implements its strategies and programs internationally with particular focus given to Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and South East Asia.
ORT IC has implemented more than 350 non-sectarian projects in nearly 100 countries to the benefit of more than two million people since its establishment in 1960. ORT IC's work has received support - and praise - from major organisations such as the World Bank, Hewlett-Packard, USAID, the Coca-Cola Foundation, the United Nations and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
World ORT is the world's largest Jewish education and vocational training non-government organisation and has benefited more than 3 million people - Jewish and non-Jewish - in over 100 countries since its foundation in St Petersburg in 1880.