Advocates for Child Soldiers

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Former child soldier -- Ishmael Beah

In 1991 when the Civil war in Sierra Leone reached it's height, Ishmael Beah's parents and two brothers were killed. At the age of 13, he was recruited by the government army as a child soldier. He fought nearly three years before being rescued by UNICEF. Shortly after the capital of Sierra Leone was over run by the RUF and the Sierra Leone army, Beah fled to the United States with the support of his foster mother, Laura Simms. In New York City, Beah attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan. After high school, he attended Oberlin College, graduating in 2004 with a degree in Politics.

During his time in the government army, Beah was forced to commit horrible atrocities which included the murder of several people. He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder called "brown-brown". The influence of these drugs alowed Beah to commit countless acts of violence. The addictions, and the pressures of the army, made it impossible to leave on his own. "The only choice you had was to stay," Beah said. "If you left, it was as good as being dead."

During an appearance on The Daily Show on February 14, 2007, he said that he believed that returning to civilized society was more difficult than the act of becoming a child soldier—that dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task. Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, he found the transition difficult. He and his fellow child soldiers fought frequently. He credits one volunteer, Nurse Esther, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music, gave him a Walkman and a Run-D.M.C. cassette, and employed music as his bridge to his past, prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted her assurances that "it's not your fault."

"If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself," Beah said. "I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can.

While at college at Oberlin, Beah pursued advocacy work against the abuse of children in wartime. He spoke at the UN and met with world leaders including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

He currently works for Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, lives in Brooklyn, and is considering attending graduate school.

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