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.





We Can’t Afford To Turn Away

31 05 2009
We pay a high price for refusing to look at the atrocities being committed all over the world. The atrocities continue…bodies, minds, and hearts are destroyed…and we bear a collective responsibility and guilt for allowing them to continue.
 
My family members and friends rarely visit my blog and read my posts. Most never have. They don’t want to read about what I write about…particularly the abuse and injustice toward women and children all over the world. I try and talk with them about it and they don’t want to hear.

To refuse to see and acknowledge what is going on winds up hurting all of us at a very deep level. We deny the humanity of others who have less opportunity and more injustice than we do. How can we live with that? By staying incredibly busy and tuning out the inconvenient and raw truth? How authentic are our lives when we constantly do that? How authentic is our humanity?
 
Here’s an excellent New York Times op-ed column on this posted May 30. What are your thoughts?

“Holding On to Our Humanity” by Bob Herbert

Overload is a real problem. There is a danger that even the most decent of people can grow numb to the unending reports of atrocities occurring all around the globe. Mass rape. Mass murder. Torture. The institutionalized oppression of women.

There are other things in the world: a ballgame, your daughter’s graduation, the ballet. The tendency to draw an impenetrable psychic curtain across the worst that the world has to offer is understandable. But it’s a tendency, as Elie Wiesel has cautioned, that must be fought.

We have an obligation to listen, for example, when a woman from a culture foreign to our own recalls the moment when time stopped for her, when she was among a group of women attacked by soldiers:

“They said to us: ‘If you have a baby on your back, let us see it.’ The soldiers looked at the babies and if it was a boy, they killed it on the spot [by shooting him]. If it was a girl, they dropped or threw it on the ground. If the girl died, she died. If she didn’t die, the mothers were allowed to pick it up and keep it.”

The woman recalled that in that moment, the kind of throbbing moment when time is not just stopped but lost, when it ceases to have any meaning, her grandmother had a boy on her back. The grandmother refused to show the child to the soldiers, so both she and the boy were shot.

A team of female researchers, three of them physicians, traveled to Chad last fall to interview women who were refugees from the nightmare in Darfur. No one has written more compellingly about that horror than my colleague on this page, Nick Kristof. When I was alerted to the report that the team had compiled for Physicians for Human Rights, my first thought was, “What more is there to say?”

And then I thought about Mr. Wiesel, who has warned us so eloquently about the dangers inherent in indifference to the suffering of others. Stories of atrocities on the scale of those coming out of Darfur cannot be told too often.

The conflict has gone on for more than six years, and while the murders and mass rapes have diminished, this enormous human catastrophe is still very much with us. For one thing, Sudan has expelled humanitarian aid groups from Darfur, a move that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told Mr. Kristof “may well amount to genocide by other means.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and the systematic sexual attacks on Darfuri women have been widely reported. Millions have been displaced and perhaps a quarter of a million Darfuris are living in conditions of the barest subsistence in refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights, to be released officially on Sunday (available at darfuriwomen.org), focuses on several dozen women in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad. The report pays special attention to the humanity of the women.

“These are real people with children, with lives that may have been quite simple, but were really rich before they were displaced,” said Susannah Sirkin, a deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The conditions in the refugee camps are grim, made worse by the traumas that still grip the women, many of whom were witnesses — or the victims — of the most extreme violence.

“I don’t think I was prepared for the level of just palpable suffering that they are continuing to endure,” said Dr. Sondra Crosby, one of the four interviewers. “Women were telling me they were starving. They’re eating sorghum and oil and salt and sugar.”

Dr. Crosby and her colleagues had a few crackers or cookies on hand for the women during the interviews. “I don’t think I saw even one woman eat the crackers, even though they were hungry,” she said. “They all would hide them in their dresses so they could take them back to their children.”

The women also live with the ongoing fear of sexual assault. According to the report, rape is a pervasive problem around the refugee camps, with the women especially vulnerable when they are foraging for firewood or food.

“It is so much easier to look away from victims,” said Mr. Wiesel, in a speech at the White House in 1999. “It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.”

But indifference to the suffering of others “is what makes the human being inhuman,” he said, adding: “The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”





Mommy Died in the War

9 04 2009

Since 9/11, over 8,000 U.S. children have lost a parent in the military, according to the Department of Defense. These are the young casualties of war that we don’t talk about or even think about very often. Today I watched a 2007 movie “Grace is Gone” on HBO and I thought about it and cried…a lot.

grace-is-gone-movieIn the movie, John Cusack plays the stoic and sad father of 8- and 12-year-old girls whose mother Grace is a sargent in Iraq. He is notified that Grace died in combat and is at a loss for how to tell his daughters. He impetuously decides to take them on a bonding adventure, a testament to the love and sacrifice of parents that we try to ease the pain of our children in any way we can.

The movie was scored with beautiful music by Clint Eastwood, who was nominated for two Golden Globes for the score and one song. I could really feel the emotions of the father as he agonized over the loss of his wife and his daughters’ loss of their mother.

Over 8000 children have felt that loss due to our being in Iraq and Afghanistan. They already were made to sacrifice while the parent was away from home, but with a sudden death, they aren’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent. That parent will never come to their future soccer games and ballet recitals and graduations and weddings and baby christenings. That parent will never again hug them or tuck them in at night or comfort them when they’re scared or tell them they’re proud of how well they’re doing in school. All that is gone.

The child(ren) and the remaining parent are left to carry on…to grieve, to find some new normal in life, to wonder why this happened to them, and to ache for the loss of someone who can never be replaced.

It is important to remember that sacrifice comes even from small children in these wars we are fighting. And children suffer not only here in the U.S., but also in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than five million children (at the end of 2007; source: Iraq’s anti-corruption board) are orphans, mostly due to the war.

Take the time to watch Grace is Gone on HBO or rent the DVD. It is moving. It will touch you. If you want to help out families who have lost a loved one in the war, consider donating to one of these organizations.

  • Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund – provides unrestricted grants to families of fallen troops
  • Fallen Patriot Fund – provides financial grants to the families of those killed or seriously injured in Iraq
  • Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – provides services to all who have lost a loved one while serving in the U.S. armed forces
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society – provides financial assistance and emergency grants to families and survivors.




  • Women Suffer Atrocities Silently in the Congo

    23 11 2008

    You see it in their eyes. Blank stares. Emotional and physical pain. Hopelessness. Witness to unbelievable violence and cruelty. Abandonment. Silent suffering. Tens of thousands of women of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and tortured.

    Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, herself a victim of gang rape, traveled to the Congo and interviewed women there who have experienced these horrors. She also spoke to armed itinerant gangs who are the rapists, doctors who help the women, and those advocating for the women and trying to help them. The result is a moving and unforgettable HBO documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. I watched this documentary for the second time today. It is beyond comprehension what these women experience. Here are a few of the women featured in the film and the descriptions given about them on HBO’s website about the film:

    congo-woman-marie-jeanne-mbweshe1

    Marie Jeanne M’Bweshe, 42 years old, mother of 8
    Raped and viciously beaten by the Interahamwe after witnessing the murder and dismemberment of her husband.

    congo-woman-safi1

    Safi, from Bunyakiri, 12 years old
    Raped at age 11 as her home was being looted by soldiers.

    [The film showed her with a baby, which was the result of the rape.]

    congo-woman-alexandrine

    Alexandrine M’Kajibwami, mother of 9
    Raped by Rwandan soldiers, her husband was murdered trying to protect her.

    A brutal war has raged in the Congo for ten years and over four million people have been killed as a result. Tens of thousands of women have been raped and brutalized. They are usually cast out by their husbands, families, and villages after being raped. They are often left with lifelong injuries that leave them incontinent and worse. They are also often infected with AIDS and/or become pregnant as a result of the rapes. Some women have been forced into sexual slavery.

    The rebel forces – and often the Congolese Army soldiers who are supposed to protect people – justify the rapes by saying they have needs and if a woman won’t submit, they must take her with force. There is no consideration or thought about how their selfish acts ruin women’s lives.

    You can watch the HBO trailer for the film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo here:

    congo-displaced-people-camp-nov-12-081Refugees have been forced from their homes and live in squalor in camps such as these due to the decade-old war. This photo and 38 others are shown on the Boston Globe’s website in an article about this on 11/21/08.

    The Doctors without Borders organization has created their own initiative called Condition Critical to “bring global attention to the humanitarian consequences of the intensifying war in eastern DR Congo.” The Boston Globe reports that the UN Peacekeepers are unable to do much to help. This is the shortened form of the video put out by the Doctors without Borders organization. Go to their website to see the whole video.

    There are many organizations trying to provide relief and help in the Congo. A partial list of them is located on the HBO documentary’s website. These women and children who suffer are continents away from us, but they are still our sisters. Their suffering is our suffering. Our hope for a better tomorrow can be their hope.

    UPDATE: Associated Press tells more stories of these women in this March 16, 2009 article. The stories are heartbreaking, but also show tremendous courage on the part of the damaged women.





    Remembering the Sacrifices of Many on Veterans Day

    11 11 2008

    Section 60 is where Iraq and Afghanistan casualties are buried in Arlington Cemetery. The “Section 60″ documentary on HBO is a moving reminder that war comes with a huge cost. This special takes a quiet look at mothers, wives, children, and others who come to visit the graves of their deceased family members. CLICK HERE to keep reading








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