Archive for Friday, March 16, 2007

A child soldier’s chilling story

March 16, 2007

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Here are three improbable facts.

Ishmael Beah is a star. Ishmael Beah is a best-selling author. Ishmael Beah is a star and a best-selling author because Ishmael Beah was a child soldier.

Beah, now 26, was in Philadelphia last week to promote his book, "A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier." Such topics don't usually carry a book to third place on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list so soon after its release. But Beah's description of how his life changed because of war in his homeland of Sierra Leone is transcending the distance and differences between the Philadelphia region and that West African nation.

On Thursday night, about 60 people jammed the upstairs of a Starbucks in Philadelphia, where Ishmael read from his book and autographed copies. The line continued downstairs, out the door and along the sidewalk. He spent hours talking with people of different ages, races and cultures.

He said that before the fighting, life was nurturing and pleasantly unremarkable. But war and the venal adults in it led ordinary children to commit extraordinary atrocities.

In the mid-1990s, beginning at age 12, Beah spent months hiding from rebels and watching as they shot, beat and knifed innocent women, children and elders. By 13, when the government made him pick up an AK-47, army commanders had little trouble persuading Beah he was being a patriot and avenging his loved ones' deaths by killing rebels and others.

(It is not just rebel groups that force children to become soldiers - governments do it, too. Both sides use the same tactics to mentally imprison children.)

"You are brainwashed to believe that this is your reality and you have to fully embrace it because there is no other choice," he said.

Beah's military service ended when he was 16 and his commander turned him and other kids over to men wearing UNICEF T-shirts. They were taken to a center for former child soldiers. Stupidly, the workers put the rebel and government kids together. Fights erupted, and children killed each other in a bizarre continuation of the war.

"The process of healing a child from war is not an emergency process," Beah said.

He is right. It is a long-term commitment that needs more foreign aid from the United States and other donors.

Beah was in that center for eight months, learning to trust others again, forgive himself, and talk about his experiences. He was impressive even then. When the United Nations announced a children's summit in New York, Beah was one of the youngsters chosen to represent Sierra Leone.

He returned to the capital of Freetown to live with the one uncle who survived the war but died of disease. When rebels entered the capital, Beah could not bear the thought of being sucked back into fighting. He escaped and made his way back to America in 1998 to live with friends he had made. He got more therapy, finished high school, and earned a bachelor's degree in political science. Oh, and wrote a best-seller that is educating a lot of folks about child soldiers.

This planet, unfortunately, has lots of conflicts and lots of children fighting in them.

UNICEF estimates that 300,000 young people under 18 are soldiers for government and rebel armed groups around the world - not just in Africa. Most are between 14 and 18, some as young as 9.

Beah is comfortable in his T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans and sneakers while joking with people at Starbucks. You'd never know what he'd been through in his young life. What you'd soon know is that he is full of hope his advocacy will persuade others to help protect kids caught in armed conflict.

Representatives from 58 nations met last month in Paris to draft principals and protocols for preventing children from being used as soldiers. The United States was not there, but that does not stop it from joining the cause later. If anyone can persuade our leaders in Washington to do so, it is Ishmael Beah.

- Carolyn Davis is a member of The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is cdavis@phillynews.com.

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