The Story of a Child Soldier and the Importance of Education
“My squad is my family, my gun is my provider, and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.”
This quote, while conjuring up images of battle hardened professional soldiers, is actually taken from Ishmael Beah’s memoir, “A Long Way Gone”, which chronicles the brutal life of a child soldier forced to fight during the devastating civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone for most of the 1990s. Beah’s unique account recounts his traumatic experiences as a child forcibly recruited into an army unit after he was permanently separated from his family following a rebel led attack against his village. Trained to use an assault rifle and pumped full of a cocktail of drugs – that included amphetamines, marijuana and a mix of cocaine and gunpowder called “brown brown” – Beah and his squad (made up almost entirely of boy soldiers) were brainwashed into ‘avenging’ their families and fallen comrades by indiscriminately killing everyone their lieutenants labelled the enemy. This violence filled life where killing was “as easy as drinking water” consumed Beah for two years before he was rescued by UNICEF workers and sent to a rehabilitation center in the countries capital Freetown. Suffering from the nightmares of his own drug-crazed blood-lust and forced to overcome his addictions, Beah’s rehabilitation from a child soldier moulded to kill, back to some semblance of adolescent normalcy was in no ways easy. Yet Beah persevered and was even chosen to speak before the United Nations about the experiences of child soldier. Today Beah has settled in the United States and, after completing his studies at Oberlin College, dedicates his time as a writer and human rights spokesperson. However, Beah is by no means cured of his emotional scars and is still haunted by his memories, writing “I live in three worlds: my dreams and the experiences of my new life that trigger memories of the past”. Forever imprinted into his memories will be the experiences that destroyed his childhood, and while devastatingly tragic these experiences are by no means unique, as sadly today an estimated 300,000 children continue to be exploited in conflicts around the world.
The United Nation defines a child soldier as “any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group [acting] in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups.” Like Beah’s harrowing tale the majority of child soldiers are either abducted or coerced into government, paramilitary or rebel groups. They are used because they are often naïve, malleable, readily available and as such expendable, and while their involvement in these conflicts regularly sparks international outcry and denunciation, they are often neglected once the conflict has run its course. These children, both girls and boys, are forced to perpetrate horrible acts over and over again, often leaving them desensitized to violence and without proper rehabilitation they risk perpetrating the same violence long after the conflict has ended. ‘Liberating’ these children requires a lot more than just removing them from an army, as responsibility also lies in ensuring they are able to reintegrate back into society.
While both medical and therapeutic treatment are viable strategies in reintegrating former child soldiers one central tenant in ensuring this process is developing a stable education system that is able to cater and provide opportunities for the young victims. Inherent in the experiences of many child soldiers is their lack of access and opportunities to forms of formal education. These conflicts not only physically and emotionally scar these children, but they also rob them of their childhood and the incredibly important formative years of their lives. Vital socio-emotional skills are learned in a classroom setting, skills that are often lacking in child soldiers. Even alternative forms of educational play a vital role. Beah recounts how his early education and the stories told by elders in his community got him through some of the darkest periods in his life and how the thirst for knowledge implanted by his father slowly returned and facilitated his rehabilitation.
When indoctrinated to continuously fight, the identity of a warrior slowly consumes and dominates the life of a child soldier. A major hindrance to their reintegration back into society is the stigma associated with the soldier identity. The label often evokes fear and distrust and isolates former child soldiers from the communities they grew up in. Challenging these perceptions and reshaping these identities lies at the centre of the reintegration process, and once again education can have a key role in providing this. Speaking before students at Appalachian State University, Beah spoke of the power of education to transform lives claiming that education became “a journey for me to discover my intelligence, my own humanity, to discover myself”, following that through learning he was acquiring something that no one would ever be able to take away, namely the “capacity to have a voice and be able to challenge ideas, to create ideas”.
Education is not only responsible for shaping mind-sets to reinforce the moral fabric of fragile societies, it also provides former child soldiers the means to establish a new identity and a sense of self-worth separate from that of a soldier. Education can provide a link back to a life before violence and foster the social cohesion necessary to be accepted back into their community. These children are allowed to regain the years stolen from them and provide them with a semblance of safety and normalcy so clearly lacking in the life of a former child soldier. Attending school not only helps former child soldiers recover ‘lost time’ but enables them to hope for the future. The school system provides the opportunity to learn specific skills important for securing future employment, which could aid in breaking cycles of poverty and enhancing economic security.
Former child soldiers are subjected to horrific forms of violence and are often left physically and psychologically broken. While the trauma these children experience may never leave them, their strength and determination to overcome these barriers should not be underestimated.
As Beah so eloquently puts it: “children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance”. They need the chance to relive their childhood away from fear and violence and re-establish their identity so that they are not consumed by the horrors of their past. Providing the means to return to education can provide this chance and as such its importance in the rehabilitation process cannot be understated.
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