Former child soldier Ishmael Beah, the author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” spoke at Yale Law School Tuesday about his experiences during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.
Beah discussed the traumatic experience of becoming a child soldier and how such soldiers can, out of necessity, grow accustomed to settings of war. As a result, Beah said, rehabilitation programs are needed to help former soldiers ease back into civilian life. He also called for greater attention to the issue.
Africa is currently home to approximately 100,000 child soldiers, more than any other continent, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. In many cases, children are recruited by the military and forced into brutal armed conflicts, and they may be given drugs or other substances to help them overcome fears or inhibitions. Children who are rescued by international aid organizations — like Beah — are placed in rehabilitation programs in an attempt to ease their psychological and physical transitions back to a non-violent daily life.
At the age of 13, Beah, who was born in 1980 in Sierra Leone, became a child soldier for government forces. He was removed from the conflict by UNICEF aid workers, moved to New York in 1998 and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.
Beah said many child soldiers are forced to kill their own families in order to prove their allegiance to their unit.
“Everything they know is destroyed,” he said. “[A lack of] community structures is a form of coercion to make a kid come to you.”
In discussing his own experience in a rehabilitation program, Beah stressed the importance of community involvement during a child’s rehabilitation period.
“If they go and [work] in the community, the child begins to feel that they are useful to the community and they don’t feel stigmatized in any way,” Beah said.
He added that these communities need to serve as especially strong supports because outside aid organizations eventually leave the areas.
Beah read a passage from his book about a nightmare involving memories of his life as child soldier. As Beah described how he dragged a mangled body wrapped in a blood-stained sheet through a town that smelt of “blood and burnt flesh,” almost everyone in the room moved uneasily in their seats. One older man held his face in his hands, shaking his head.
Audience members said they were deeply affected by Beah’s speech.
Lara Takasugi ’09 said Beah’s method of “putting a [human] face on warfare” was extremely important because trying to understand warfare merely through numbers, groups and categories is dehumanizing.
“We need to think about what we’re thinking about the world,” Takasugi said. “We’re talking about 300,000 children soldiers in the world … and how many families are broken up by that. How many Yale campuses of children are not having the possibility to be all that we can be?”
Neela Ghoshal GRD ’07, who is studying international relations, said she found Beah’s impassioned, graphic approach to raising awareness to be effective. Those who have never lived through times of conflict should not criticize those who have or their means of sharing their experiences with others, she said.
“I don’t have any problem at all with him being public about his experience,” Ghoshal said. “I don’t think that he’s exploiting himself.”
Beah, who lives in Brooklyn now, is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee. He appeared on “The Daily Show” in February.
The lecture was hosted by the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School.