There may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s, in more than fifty conflicts around the world. Ishmael Beah, author of A LONG WAY GONE, used to be one of them. As a member of the Human Rights Watch Children Advisory Committee, he spoke to teachers and students at Hampton High School in Hampton, New Brunswick. It was here that I first heard Beah speak about his horrific, terror-filled childhood. He lived with his family in Sierra Leone until 1991, when rebels attacked and violently destroyed his village. They raped women and girls in front of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, took young girls as sex slaves, and killed the rest of their families. When most 12-year-olds were enjoying the innocence of childhood, including me, Beah was struggling to stay alive. I thank Beah for pouring out his soul to the audience. It is proof of Beah’s theory that “…children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance”.
At 12 years old, Beah’s parents and brother were all murdered by Revolutionary United Front rebels, and he aimlessly wandered around Sierra Leone in search of food and shelter. When he was 13, he was picked up by the government army who turned him into a mindless killer. Pumped full of drugs and shooting AK-47s, he entered a mad world. He tortured and killed countless people; he forced people to dig their own graves; he broke into houses, killed the people in it, and sat on their dead bodies while eating their food. He spend his teen years sleep-deprived and violent.
In 1996, Beah was saved when the army released him to a UNICEF rehabilitation center. There he struggled to regain his humanity in an unfamiliar world. He then moved in with an uncle in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York in 1996, he met a Jewish-born storyteller, Laura Simms, who later adopted him when he fled from Freetown to New York City.
He now works with the Human Rights Watch Children Advisory Committee to end the use of child soldiers worldwide.
He explained how easy it was to become dehumanized and his retrospective recognition of the terrible acts to which humans can acclimatize in their struggle for survival was disturbing; would I have become accustom to killing others in the face of survival? Would I commit unspeakable acts to save my own life or would I simply die? Would I physically and mentally be capable of such acts? Beah said, “When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” This young man was able to survive, physically and psychologically, under conditions which no child should be exposed and it reflects his remarkable resilience. He serves as a living example that rehabilitation is possible and imperative.