Long march to normal life for a former child soldier

By Andrew Gumbel

Ishmael Beah first opened up about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s to Esther, a nurse who gave him a Walkman and a Run-DMC CD.

He had been away from the fighting for about three months, in the care of a Sierra Leonean child rehabilitation programme sponsored by Unicef.

He and his fellow teenage fighters, who had been voluntarily given up by their Government army unit, had taken weeks to overcome the worst effects of years of brainwashing and exposure to unspeakable violence.

When they first arrived at the rehabilitation centre, they couldn't stop fighting - with former child soldiers on the rebel side of the conflict, and even with each other.

For years, they had been kept high on marijuana and "brown brown", a crude cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder, so they were all undergoing horrible withdrawal symptoms.

Beah had already met Esther, after he had cut his hand punching through a window. This time, though, he was seeing her for a routine checkup.

She asked him about some nasty scars on his left shin. He told her casually that they were from bullet wounds. She asked him for more details, and he found himself giving them to her.

At the time, he convinced himself that by telling her the shocking story he might deter her from asking him anything else. But the little acts of kindness she offered him - and the memories that the Run-DMC CD stirred of his love of American rap music before the civil war - might also have had something to do with it.

Beah told her how, in his second year as a child soldier, he and his unit decided to raid a rebel-held village for supplies - something they did on a regular basis.

The village appeared to be empty, but the unit soon realised that was because it was being ambushed. The fighting lasted 24 hours. At one point, Beah was trying to grab some ammunition from a hut when the gunfire started up again and he was shot in the leg. Two bullets passed through his shin and a third became lodged in it.

He was carried to a former Government base several hours' walk away, where an Army surgeon gave him some cocaine and then removed the bullet with a crude blade.

Beah fainted from the pain, and did not wake up until the next day.

That was when things got really sinister. A lieutenant brought in a group of rebel soldiers he said were responsible for shooting Beah.

"I was not sure if one of the captives was the shooter, but any captive would do at the time," Beah writes in his new memoir, A Long Way Gone.

"They were all lined up, six of them, with their hands tied. I shot them in the shins and watched them suffer for an entire day before finally deciding to shoot them in the head so that they would stop crying.

"Before I shot each man, I looked at him and saw how his eyes gave up hope and steadied before I pulled the trigger. I found their sombre eyes irritating."

Nurse Esther kept repeating the same line he had heard over and over from staff at the rehabilitation centre: "It's not your fault."

She also suggested that he leave the Walkman with her for safe-keeping and invited Beah to return anytime he wanted to listen to it.

Beah was defiant and angry.

"I threw the Walkman at her and left," he writes, "putting my fingers in my ears so I couldn't hear her say, 'It's not your fault'."

But Esther proved to be the human bond to keep Beah sane and put him on some sort of path to recovery. He was barely 16 when he met her, and he saw her for just a few months before he was reunited with an uncle, who lived in Freetown, and eventually made his way to the United States.

"At first, I detested her intrusions," he writes. "But slowly I came to appreciate them, even looked forward to them. It was like this at the centre; most boys found a staff member whom they eventually began to trust. Mine was Esther."

Music was the key to Beah's recovery: the only times he found peace then was when he heard song lyrics reconnecting to his life before the war.

When he first stopped being a child soldier, he couldn't remember anything about his former life. It took almost five months before his slaughtered parents and brothers first reappeared - in his dreams. Many child soldiers never recover that memory, or any sense of purpose in their shattered lives. As Beah has written before: "I realise that I had a great determination to survive."

Beah has been a familiar figure for years among United Nations officials and non-governmental groups dedicated to ending the use of child soldiers in warfare around the globe. Because of his passion, and his singular ability to articulate his experiences, he has been in high demand as a speaker and witness before committee hearings and press conferences. His first contact with America, where he now lives, came in 1996 when he was invited to speak at the UN in New York.

But the publication of his memoir looks set to be something else entirely. Already it is being covered extensively in the US media, even though it is not being published until next month.

Much of this attention is being lavished for laudable reasons - helping to fulfil Beah's goal of bringing child participation in civil conflicts to an end by putting a human face on the practice. But clearly Beah also has hit a deeper cultural nerve. US coverage of the Sierra Leone war was almost non-existent while it was raging. Now, though, it has become a subject of uncommon interest.

The Hollywood film Blood Diamond has been largely responsible for laying the groundwork.

Not only does it throw the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly into the vicious struggle between Sierra Leone's Government forces and the RUF rebels, it is also a classic Hollywood conscience-pricker - suggesting as its starting point and the driving force of its plot that the diamonds adorning the fingers and necks of the entertainment-world elite might well be responsible for financing the carnage of a decade ago.

The film has not been a huge commercial or critical success in America, but it has generated Oscar buzz for DiCaprio and - perhaps more significantly - carried over into the broader culture. No Hollywood actress in her right mind is going to be wearing diamonds to the Academy Awards this year.

Numerous NGOs, such as Global Witness and Amnesty International, have latched on to the film to try to publicise the sorts of issues it raises - starting with the (now much-diminished) trade in conflict diamonds but extending to all sorts of other questions concerning Africa and its multiple tragedies.

All these strands feed into Beah's story.

It was, indeed, Sierra Leone's diamond mines that helped finance the rebellion and created the upheaval that uprooted him from his village, separated him from his family and put him on the run for almost a year before he discovered that his parents had been killed and he turned to the Government military for help.

The Government, though, did not want to help him. It wanted to recruit him.

He was given rudimentary military training, encouraged to take drugs and subjected to a steady diet of violent Hollywood films from Rambo to Commando.

The first time he found himself in combat, he froze, unable to fire his AK-47. But then he saw two of his fellow child soldiers killed before his eyes, and he started firing.

That night, he had a dream that a rebel gunman was standing on top of him and holding a gun to his head. Beah woke up firing every last round in his rifle, to the alarm of his superiors, who threw water on his head and shoved some white pills - he never discovered what they were - down his throat. From then on, killing became much easier, to the point where it became almost automatic. He was just 13 years old.

Three years later, it was chance that put Beah in a group of child soldiers selected for the Unicef-sponsored rehabilitation programme. When, in 1997, the rebels seized Freetown, where Beah was then living with his uncle, it was luck of a different kind that enabled him to survive.

Because of his trip to the UN the previous year, he had a contact in the US, Laura Simms, a divorced Jewish woman who worked at the UN and had kept up a correspondence with him.

Beah called Simms from Guinea, where he had fled, and she arranged for him to come to America permanently. She became, in fact, his new mother - sending him to a good school in Manhattan and from there to Oberlin College in Ohio, where he graduated in political science.

He now lives near Union Square in Manhattan and, aside from his writing, is making plans to enter a masters programme in fine arts.

"I live knowing that I have been given a second life," he told one interviewer recently, "and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can."

Preying on the young

Child troops

There are an estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18 serving in Government forces or armed rebel groups. Some of them are as young as 8 years old.

Worldwide problem

It has been reported that child soldiers are or have been involved in 33 on-going or recent armed conflicts in almost every region of the world.

Easy to recruit

Children are uniquely vulnerable to military recruitment because of their emotional and physical immaturity. They are easily manipulated and can be drawn into violence that they are too young to resist or understand.

Easy to arm

Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers. Lightweight automatic weapons can be used by children as easily as adults.

Life after war

Few peace treaties recognise the existence of child soldiers, or make provisions for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. As a result, many end up on the street, become involved in crime, or are drawn back into armed conflict.

- Human Rights Watch

- INDEPENDENT

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