why did the rebels want civilians to stay in town, especially the women and children.
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The presence of women and children deterred military intervention. They were able to stay longer in the towns without any outside interference.
"They didn't want people to abandon the town, because they needed to use civilians as a shield against the military. One of the main aims of the rebels when they took over a town was to force the civilians to stay with them, especially women and children. This way they could stay longer, as military intervention would be delayed."
A Long Way Gone