“Kids are growing up too fast these days.” We hear it all the time, in all different contexts; competitive kindergarten applications, too much sex on television and a myriad of other causes likely elicit such a protest. A lot of these complaints stem from some sort of nostalgia.
After all, watching some of the steamier scenes in “Titanic” doesn’t really rob anyone of his or her childhood. Getting hooked on cocaine and being ordered to slaughter whole villages filled with innocent farmers, all at the age of 13 – that’s being robbed of your childhood. And that’s exactly what’s happening now to thousands of young boys and girls across the globe.
Most child soldiers will never live to tell their stories. For the most part, they’re considered temporarily useful but ultimately expendable by their commanding officers. Those who don’t die will most likely develop into emotionless, drug-addicted adult soldiers who’ve forgotten what it means to be loved.
Ishmael Beah is a different case entirely; he’s the one who got away, the one who lived and learned, and who can finally share his story with the entire world.
“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” is that story. In it, Beah writes of an almost idyllic childhood in Mogbwemo, a village in rural Sierra Leone, in which war exists only as a vague rumor of rebellious activity on the frontier. War comes to Mogbwemo as it always seems to come to the unprepared – suddenly, and without
Separated from his family, Beah and a few of his friends and schoolmates begin a cross-country trek toward what they hope is safety. As he pursues rumors of parents and relatives half-glimpsed in this village or that, Beah – at just 13 years old – is soon pressed into service with the Sierra Leonean army. Beah’s two years as a soldier were described as two years of thoughtless, drug-fueled violence, two years from which he will perhaps never recover. In base camps between murderous sorties, Beah and his fellow soldiers took drugs and watched American action movies, gearing
themselves up for their next homicidal orgy.
“We all wanted to be like Rambo,” writes Beah, capturing a naivete that stood in stark contrast to the events witnessed – and participated in – by him and his fellow boy soldiers.
Eventually, Beah was evacuated to a United Nations facility for the rehabilitation of child soldiers, in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. There, pride in his actions turned gradually to resentment, regret, sorrow and, eventually, some measure of acceptance. He was able to live happily for the first time in a long time, and traveled as far as New York City as a spokesman for his rehabilitation center.
But death would not give up its relentless pursuit of Beah so easily, and he was once again forced to flee for his life across the treacherous Sierra Leonean frontier. This time, he would not look back.
That Ishmael Beah escaped from war not once, but twice, is a miracle of tremendous proportions, that he managed to make his way to the United States, perhaps even bigger. But that he was able to write “A Long Way Gone” is perhaps the biggest miracle of all, the one that will finally lead to definitive action in the fight to end the forced militarization of children.
According to the Human Rights Watch, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children currently serve as soldiers worldwide. Not all of them will be as lucky as Ishmael Beah. Let’s bring them home.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.