COTONOU, Benin -- Their bodies scarred by beatings and their hands callused from breaking rocks, 74 boys as young as 4 received medical treatment yesterday after their rescue from Nigerian granite quarries where they were forced to work as virtual prisoners.
Following their rescue -- only the second of its kind in West Africa -- the children told authorities that over the previous three months at least 13 other boys died, succumbing to exhaustion, disease, hunger, and abuse, officials said.
"We would break the stones, and the men would come take them away in trucks," one boy told The Associated Press. Skinny, filthy, scratched, and heavily scarred, the boy looked no more than 10.
The children, many just hip-high with bare chests showing scars, hung from the windows of the buses that authorities used to return them from Nigeria to Benin, where they had been taken by traffickers and sold as child labor.
Authorities in Benin assembled the children -- none older than 15 -- in a soccer stadium in the capital, preparing them for the return to their families. Officials prevented reporters from questioning them in detail about their experiences.
In Nigeria, granite pit bosses buried the dead children in shallow graves near the quarries, said Kemi Olumefun, whose Nigerian women's charity helped rescue the children after receiving tips about the brutal conditions.
Child labor and labor trafficking are common across West Africa -- while mass operations to rescue the victims are extremely rare.
Under an accord signed in August, the neighboring countries are cooperating to find and return children who have been forced into grueling and dangerous labor.
The first rescue under the pact came Sept. 27, when authorities brought back 116 children who had been put to work in the granite quarries of southwest Nigeria.
Three of the children died later at a camp where Nigerian authorities brought them before repatriation, Olumefun said.
Most of the children worked at a granite quarry near Abeokuta, the hometown of Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's president.
The government intervention may have been prompted by increased international attention to child labor, said Frans Roselaers at the International Labor Organization in Geneva. The attention includes threats to boycott Ivory Coast cocoa, which is often harvested with the help of trafficked children.
"We've noticed that the governments in West Africa have increased commitment to eradication of the root causes of child trafficking and labor," Roselaers said.
"They weren't that much aware or focused on it before. They felt the heat of being denounced for having unacceptable labor practices," Roselaers said.
Nigerian police believe at least 6,000 children from Benin alone still labor in the country's granite pits in the southwest.
Yesterday, Benin sent teams back across the border into Nigeria to find them, said Latoundji Lauriano, Benin's families minister.
Nigerian police returned the 74 children to Benin late Wednesday. The boys told social workers that quarry operators were gone when police arrived to free them.
In Cotonou, the port capital of Benin, social workers and health workers scrubbed the children, dressed them in clean clothes, and gave them injections to prevent disease.
"The children must be washed, dressed, and allowed to rest a little before social workers can start interviewing them to find their parents and return them to their families," Lauriano said.
The children's parents had put them in the hands of labor traffickers for as little as $35, said Philippe Duamelle, an official with the United Nations Children's Fund in Cotonou.
The children were paid 35 cents a day for breaking stones with mallets, said Olumefun, whose group, the Women's Consortium of Nigeria, tended to the children immediately after their rescue.
Some had been working in the quarries up to four years, she said.
"They were subjected to work and very harsh conditions. You can imagine a 7-year-old boy being compelled to crush a [truckload] of gravel. They were poorly fed," Olumefun said. "And in the process, some of them fell sick and died."