Ishmael Beah: Former Sierra Leone Child Soldier

5 07 2009

At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah was forced to become a child soldier in a horrific civil war that started in 1991 in Sierra Leone. Rebels had ishmael_beah burned many villages and killed everyone in them, including his family. He and a group of boys roamed from village to village looking for food and shelter, just trying to stay alive. They had many close calls when they were mistaken for rebels and were almost executed. They saw things that children shouldn’t see…mutilated dead bodies (including those of other children) in piles and blood soaking the ground…and they cheered each other with boyish games to avoid feeling the pervasive fear and despair that drenched this war-ridden country.

They thought they had finally found safety at a military encampment in Yele. Ishmael was given food and stayed in a cement brick house with over 30 other orphaned boys between the ages of 7 and 16. For a while, it seemed idyllic as he helped prepare food and played his beloved soccer. One day everything changed. Lieutenant Jabati announced that the boys were needed to fight the rebels and told them “This is your time to revenge the deaths of your families and to make sure more children do not lose their families.”

Sierra Leone Child Soldier - Credit: Foreign Policy Assn

Sierra Leone Child Soldier - FR: Foreign Policy Assn

And so it began. Ishmael and his friends…upon threat of death if they tried to escape…became child soldiers. They were given AK-47 assault rifles, trained in how to attack and kill, and given marajuana, amphetamines, cocaine, and brown-brown (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder) to dull the horror of killing. They believed their commanders had juju…magical skills…and they did what they were told, which included execution style killings, slitting throats, and many other horrendous acts to prove their loyalty and soldiering ability.

Ishmael survived many harrowing scenes in which less clever and determined men and boys perished. He was rescued after almost three years by UNICEF and sent through an 8-month rehabilitation program, which required his caretakers…especially the very caring Esther who became like a mother figure to him…to be willing to see him and other former child soldiers as children and not as willing killers. He had a really difficult time withdrawing from all the drugs and facing what he had done. He suffered flashbacks and nightmares and had to relearn to trust adults.

He was repatriated by going to live with a long-lost uncle and his family in the city of Freetown. He was one of two children chosen to represent Sierra Leone at the United Nations First International Children’s Parliament in New York City. There he told his story of being a child soldier and the effects it had on him and other children.

Ishmael returned to Sierra Leone, attended school, and continued living with his uncle. On May 25, 1997, soldiers entered Freetown and raped, killed, threw tear gas, and plundered. Ishmael’s uncle suddenly became ill and died. With war raging around him, Ishmael knew that he needed to escape or he would be killed if he refused to become a child soldier again.

He made the decision to never go back to that soul-killing way of life and called Laura Simms…one of the NGOs (non-governmental officials) he’d met at the New York conference…and asked if he could come live with her. She said yes. With a few clothes and some money she sent him, he started the very dangerous path out of the country and escaped (barely) to Conakry, Guinea. From there he was able to get to New York and Laura became his foster mother.

Ishmael finished his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School in New York and went on to get a degree in political science in 2004 at Oberlin College. The book he eloquently wrote about his experiences…A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier…was published in 2007. I just finished reading that book and found it moving, disturbing, and in the end, hopeful.

There are hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who are forced to be soldiers. Since Ishmael was liberated from soldiering, positive changes have been happening in Sierra Leone. Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008 states that “A landmark in international justice was forged by the conviction in 2007 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone of four people on charges that included the recruitment and use of children during the civil war.” It goes on to laud Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and Liberia for establishing truth commissions to address the issue of child soldiers.

The report names these countries as having used child soldiers in armed conflict between April 2004 and October 2007: Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Southern Sudan, Uganda, Yemen, and the UK (which sent under 18-year-olds to fight in Iraq). Under pressure from the United Nations and human rights organizations, some countries have ceased deploying child soldiers, but these victories have been limited. There is much work to be done.

To learn more about Ishmael Beah, you can visit the website http://www.alongwaygone.com. He has established the Ishmael Beah Foundation, which is “dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.” He was a long way gone, but now he’s a long way positively influencing the lives of others through his work with the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, speaking before the United Nations, serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and doing other work to bring to light the effects of war on children. Here’s Ishmael speaking on CBS News on June 4, 2007.

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Raped? Pay Up Now! And Then WAIT

11 05 2009
Credit: HRW

Credit: Human Rights Watch

Rape victims having to pay for their own rape kits. Rape kits sitting on shelves by the tens of thousands and not being processed. Women being revictimized by governments and criminal justice systems that don’t take rape seriously. This disgusts me.

I was dumbfounded during the presidential campaign with the news that when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, rape victims had to pay for their own rape kits. And now it seems that many raped women in the state of Texas (where I live) are receiving letters threatening their credit if they don’t pay for the processing of their own rape kits, which can cost from $1,200 to $1,800 to process. This is outrageous. In what other crime do we make the victims pay to collect and process evidence?

 Joe Cutbirth, Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, wrote an article about this for the Huffington Post site. He cites the U.S. Violence Against Women Act, which says that states must pay for rape kits if they want to get other federal funding. He also mentions how Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott remarkably tries to defend the letters to victims, saying the Texas Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund—which collected almost $100 million in 2007—would go broke if it didn’t put some restrictions on the payout from that fund. In that same year, the fund had a $58 million surplus—money just sitting around that could go to pay for the processing of these rape kits. Governor Rick Perry—who has talked of secession—continues to embarrass and outrage me and many other Texans every single day with unbelievably insensitive and stupid words and actions such as this.

And to add another layer of insult to these women, even when they are courageous enough to report a rape, often these rape kits can sit on shelves for months…or years. Nicholas Kristof wrote an article about this in the New York Times and quoted a Human Rights Watch report, which said that in Los Angeles County, at last count there were 12,669 rape kits in police storage that had not been processed. Some unprocessed kits were more than 10 years old and the statute of limitations for being able to prosecute the case and use the results as evidence had expired.

The Human Rights Watch report Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County puts a human face on the tragedy of this delayed testing through real stories such as this:

Catherine was in her forties, living with her young son. She was awakened at midnight by a stranger who raped her, sodomized her, and forced her to orally copulate him—repeatedly. Thankfully, her child remained asleep. When it was over, the police brought her to the Rape Treatment Center. Like all rape victims, her body was one of the crime scenes. She consented to the collection of evidence.

The detective was told by the crime lab that it would take at least 8 months to analyze Catherine’s rape kit. The detective said he knew from the “MO” in this crime that the rapist was a repeat offender. Eight months was too long to wait. He personally drove the kit to the state lab—where the kit still sat for months. When it was processed, they got a “cold hit.” Catherine’s rapist was identified. He was in the offender database.

During the months Catherine’s kit sat on a shelf, unopened, the same rapist attacked at least two other victims—one was a child.

Does any of this alarm you? Piss you off? Sadden you? Evoke any emotion at all? It does for me. I have known in my lifetime several women who have been raped. It is absolutely devastating. And without exception, these women experienced the legal system raping them all over again. We must stand with these women and support those who have the courage to report what happened to them.

Want to do something about this? Contact Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott at greg.abbott@oag.state.tx.us or the U.S. Department of Justice at AskDOJ@usdoj.gov.

Here’s the CNN report on Texas billing women for their own rape kits. Below the video, please note an update to this post.

UPDATE 5/15/09: I was incensed about this and wrote the State of Texas (where I live) Attorney General’s office. Here’s the reply I received:

Dear Ms. Beeler:

Thank you for your recent message. We appreciate your contacting the Office of the Attorney General.

There has been much confusion regarding a Houston television station’s recent report regarding the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. In response, we have posted on our website a message which addresses inaccuracies and misinformation contained in the report. Please read “Notice To Crime Victim Advocates” on our website at

Rest assured, the Office of the Attorney General is committed to protecting and serving Texas crime victims.

Sincerely,

Carlos Ibañez

Public Information & Assistance

Office of the Attorney General of Texas

http://www.oag.state.tx.us/victims/advocate_notice.shtml.





LGBT (Gay) in Iraq: A Horrible Way to Die

28 04 2009

Captured, mutilated with a glue applied to seal the buttocks and then fed a powerful laxative. The result: a horrible way to die.

Credit: CNN

Credit: CNN

That’s the way an article starts about what is being done by Iraqi militias to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people in Iraq after a fatweh was issued against them there.

Several LGBT people have been found dead in Iraq and it is reported that there is a movement to wipe out LGBT people in Iraq altogether. I wrote about the danger for them there in my post entitled LGBT (Gay) in America…LGBT in Iraq.

Read the whole article about this horrific sexual cleansing and torture.

I hope you’ll take the time to sign online the Protect Iraqi LGBT petition to ask President Obama to get involved to stem the killing and torture of LGBT people in Iraq.

This is horrendous. Spread the word. Sign the petition or go to www.whitehouse.gov and ask the White House to speak out about this. It’s bad enough how gay people are treated in the United States. This is worse.





Tis the Season…for Cutting Girls

5 12 2008

This is not a joyful time of year for girls in Kenya. It’s the cutting season.  Girls 10 years old or younger have their clitoris and sometimes their labia removed so they will be “clean” and to prepare them for marriage. This process is called Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This barbaric practice, considered a human rights violation by the United Nations, is done to girls as young as two years old with no anesthesia and a razor blade, knife, or even broken glass. Besides the initial severe pain, girls often experience lifelong problems and effects such as shock, excessive bleeding, infection, infertility, higher death rate for newborn babies, and even death.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100 – 140 million women and girls have experienced FGC. 2-3 million more are at risk every year, mostly in 28 countries in Africa, some Middle Eastern countries, some ethnic groups in South America, and Indonesia. FGC is a long-practiced custom and it is difficult to convince women to stop having it done to their daughters or granddaughters. In places where it is common, girls who are not cut are often ostracized.

The country where FGM is most prevalent is Egypt, with 78-97% having experienced it, followed by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Mali. Egypt passed a law banning FGM in 2007, as have many other countries. The U.S. passed a federal law banning FGM in 1996.

February 6, 2008 marked the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) fifth International Day against Female Genital Mutilation.  The UN has launched a multi-million dollar program to reduce the practice by 40% over the next seven years.

This video features some village women in Lunsar, Sierra Leone talking about the practice of cutting. Amongst their many startling (to our way of thinking) assertions is that if a girl bleeds excessively from being cut, it means that she is a witch.

Many girls in Kenya have recently fled to churches or rescue centers to wait out the November to December cutting season and escape forced genital mutilation. At this time of joy and celebration, if you’d like to do something to help protect the rights of these girls and women all over the world, consider making a donation to Americans for UNFPA.





Bush: Remained True to His Values – And Authorized Torture

28 11 2008

Bush, who authorized torture, wants to be remembered for remaining faithful to his values. He says that he “…did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the  political process,” according to CNN.

Jane Mayer, who writes for The New Yorker, wrote a book about how the Bush Administration used 9/11 to justify absolute authority to do whatever they pleased in a book called The Dark Side:  The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I heard Jane speak in Austin at the Texas Book Festival and bought and read this book. It is shocking and eye-opening.  

PBS is holding a documentary called “Torturing Democracy,” about the Bush Administration ordering coercive interrogation techniques and torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. They say they cannot find a place on their schedule for it until January 21st, 2009, the day after Bush leaves office.

Watch for yourself at http://www.torturingdemocracy.org and ask yourself if you ordered what is depicted in this documentary, if these are values you’d be proud of. Here is a clip from the documentary.