Former child soldier: Kids form most brutal & merciless force in war

For too many children around the globe there is no family or love. Their world consists only of violence and the killing they are forced to commit to survive in the harsh reality of war. Their family is their commanders, and their only school is the battlefield. Having gone through desperation, cruelty and non-stop bloodshed, can a child soldier subsequently lead a normal life? Or are these kids truly the “lost generation”? Why are some young people, even in the West, fascinated by radical ideologies that perpetrate death and destruction? Can you teach “peace” to a child if the only thing they have known is violence? Today, we stare into the ugly face of war through the eyes of one former child-soldier, a man who fought in Sierra Leone at an age of 11. Ishmael Beah is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Ishmael Beah, a writer, former child soldier from Sierra-Leone, welcome to the show, it’s so great to have you with us. Now, Ishmael, you were 11 when the civil war in Sierra-Leone started. Your parents were killed, and you became a child soldier fighting against the rebels. How did you join the army?

Ishmael Beah: Well, I lost everything that was dear to me, my family was killed, and the place that I knew as a child has changed significantly. So, I ended up going to military base, looking for safety along with other young boys and girls, and this is where we were forced into fighting. We pretty much had no choice – it was either this, or you die. Being a soldier was a way to buy a day to live, a minute, a few more seconds to be alive and also to be able to protect yourself and be in a group of people who can protect you and have access to limited resources that were available. So, this became my life very shortly.

SS: But, like, child soldiers are hardly ever trained, right? They’re just given guns and sent into battle – when this happened to you, did you feel scared, or did you feel powerful, on the other hand?

IB: Well, initially, at the beginning you’re scared a little bit, because, you know, maybe you’ve seen films about violence, but you’ve never been part of it, you never knew that you’re going to participate in it – and all of a sudden you are part of it, so you’re scared. But as time goes on, you become accustomed to it, you “normalize” the situation to be able to live. Now, of course you are not trained like regular soldiers that would train for years before to go to fight. You’re trained in the middle of war, so you have very little time to master whatever you’ve been told. The basic thing is that you know how to shoot a weapon, you know how to operate it and remove the magazine, ammunition, and reload it and all of these things. Perfection comes by actually going to the battlefield to test out the skills that you’ve been taught. So, the first time that I went to fight I was very scared, but I quickly learned that it was either shoot and kill, or you’re killed. That was as simple as that.

SS: Now, obviously another horrifying factor, something you’ve said, that you were constantly drugged. You were given marijuana, cocaine mix with gunpowder – were they trying to get children addicted? Was that how the Command motivated kids to fight? I mean, “you fight well, so you get a doze”?

IB: I think, initially there’s this psychological manipulation, which is, of course, playing with this idea of revenge, anger that you feel as a child, and then belonging to something… and then, in addition to that, drugs really came in as a way to make you be able to cope with a level of violence that you were exposed to at that age. Even for the adults, they were not able to handle… so, in the beginning, for example, people were killed in front of you, or you were given a bayonet to slit somebody’s throat and you do it – and then you vomit, you will nauseous, you have nightmares about it; but then, with the drugs, there’s a way not to even think about it, or feel anything. So, at some point, you not only get an addiction, but it becomes a way for you not to think about it, because so much happened that if you allow yourself, it will paralyze you, completely. So, it’s introduced initially for that, but then you become addicted to it – sometimes we had to fight for it to get it – so that becomes also another reason to go out and do whatever you’re told.

SS: So, it was coping and addiction that were two biggest factors in this whole drug thing.

IB: Yes.

SS: But, I’m thinking, if Sierra-Leone army couldn’t afford adult soldiers, how did they afford all those drugs to feed the kids?

IB: Some of the drugs that were being brought in and the ammunition were not because Sierra-Leone army had money or the rebels had money. At some point in Sierra-Leone war - you have to realize there was no central command in government or in the army itself. So, something came about “sobels” -soldiers behave like rebels. So different groups – battalions that were cut off from the main army structure did whatever they wanted to do on their own, wherever they were. This meant that there were people who also were interested in getting the access natural resources and to do that they brought these sorts of things: drugs and ammunition in return for fighting to secure particular area where they then will dig the minerals that they wanted. So, it wasn’t that they had the money to finance that thing; but the thing about children, also, is that when you recruit children, you don’t have to pay them. They don’t want to become politicians, they don’t want to gain position if you take over, they’re not looking to be paid for diamonds or whatever minerals that have been dug. They just want to belong to something. They’ve lost community, they’ve lost structure, they want to be part of something that has a semblance of community and protection and care and these sort of things.

SS: Ishmael, you were fighting an actual war as a soldier, at very young age and that all lasted 3 years, the actual war. At any point, did you understand, what you were fighting for?

IB: In the beginning it was the idea for fight was to stay alive, the idea for fight was also this idea of revenge. But at some point, the political motif of it was just to get rid of the people who are responsible for what have happened to all of us in this country. That was the idea that was introduced. That was this sort of rhetoric that we bought into completely. But of course, after the war, you realize that it was rubbish, because encountered other young children from other groups who have fought against you and were told the same thing. So, you could not really believe that this was true. But, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, whether it was true or not. What mattered was that now you are in the group of people, group of young boys, group of young girls, group of some adults, who can protect you, whom you know, you rely upon them that they will fight for you and, this became the new family, and to become part of this new family requires violence. Violence became the way to show your loyalty, your way of belonging to this group and that was pretty much the base line of it.

SS: Now, you’ve just said that in battle you actually also were up against other children from rebel groups, right? One mercenary, who fought against child soldiers in Africa told me kids are the scariest enemy. They’re more cruel than adults. Were you like that?

IB: Absolutely. First of all, you have to realize something. When you are part of these groups, in this kind of war that were in, the civil war – each time another group attacked you and you retaliated, you escalated the level of violence to show that they could never be able to come back at you again, and if you didn’t succeed completely, which often was the case, then they would come back at you. Children have nothing to loose, they have no homes to go to, they have no families left to go to, and they have no moral or ethnical compass around them. They can become infused with the tremendous hatred and a way to be very violent. And I became one of those children, and I became very good at it, because this was also required to function within that group, to gain position and power and have access to certain resources or have a little bit more food, to have a tent for yourself. This requires doing violent things that the commander asks. You also had so called “small boy units” so if you are a young boy – which I was a junior lieutenant, and you’re in charge of other kids: 20,40, 50. You command them to go and do whatever the commander asks. If you aren’t a strong person, you don’t show them that you’re willing to do extreme violence – they are not going to listen to you. So these things became part of our lives.

SS: I spoke to another child soldier from South Sudan, Emmanuel Jal, I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard of him, he was also very young when he was captured and one of his brightest memories, actually, from that time, was wanting a bike. Was there anything normal you dreamed of? Like, a bicycle? He was dreaming of having a bicycle. Was there anything that you dreamt of, like normal kids do?

IB: Yes, I know Emmanuel very well, actually he’s a good friend of mine. Of course, when you’re in that environment, you dream about things, but you don’t let those dreams to be known to anybody – because this, of course, will be perceived as a sign of weakness. For me, you know, I grew up to love Reggie music, Bob Marley particularly, and I grew up playing football. So I dreamed of moments when I’ll be able to listen to those things and have access to those things. But of course, there wasn’t a moment for that, until after I left the war.

SS: Is friendship something that could be possible among children fighters when you’re that young? Did you trust each other or was it a constant competition for food and weapons, drugs…

IB: No, actually for friendship, there was the strong basis for it. I think, for any soldier – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a child or an adult – when you fight with somebody in war, you get to see the best and the worst of each other. So, friendship that gets formed is very deep; and for children, particularly, we trusted each other, not the adults. We’d abide by what our commanders love, we looked up to them somehow, but our commanders were very shifty characters. One minute you were good friends with them, the next minute they wanted to kill you, or something was off with them, you know. So, the “amount of stability” was only between children because you trust in each other’s friendship. For my part, I had ran with some other kids I joined with, I had ran from the war with them for about a year before we ended up being recruited. So, we knew each other through this different struggles and so there was a desire to protect each other and to keep each other alive. I think, that deeper friendship… even some of the kids who survived the war, in part, I’ve remained friends with them for all this time.

SS: So you’re still friends with them at this point.

IB: Yes, absolutely. The friendship that I have with them is deeper than even blood relations, because when I shake hands with them, there’s so much in that handshake. They know me in ways that I don’t have to explain myself. They know my temper. They know that if my eyes go sad, there’s a meaning to it. There are a lot of things that I don’t have to explain to them; there’s sort of kinship, a bond that has formed and that goes beyond anything. It’s hard to explain. I think you see this even with adult soldiers as well, those who have fought in other wars.

SS: Now, what happened if a kid was wounded in battle? Were you ever wounded?

IB: Ah, yes, I was wounded. It’s an interesting question, actually, because we didn’t have trained medical doctors or people like that in the army. There were people who pretended to be doctors, there was a sergeant who said he was a doctor, although I don’t think he ever went to medical school, but he had his ways of dealing with you. If we attacked a town and we went to the hospital and got whatever we could so that if something happened…but they only attended to you if, first, you were a good soldier, and if there was a possibility that if you’re saved, you could be useful. But if you looked damaged, they just left you there or sometimes they even shot you so that you wouldn’t slow down the rest of the group. There wasn’t such a strong point about “nobody gets left behind” – none of these things existed. When somebody died, you took their weapons and ammunition and ran off. That’s it – or their shoes, their combat gear, that’s it. I was wounded a couple of times, fortunately for me, it wasn’t something that wasn’t fatal, so I wasn’t shot or left behind and I was able to heal and recover after the war. Now I have scars where bullets went in and out, and things that have stayed in and they were removed… in fact, in my left foot there are some veins that have issues, because when it was removed by this self-proclaimed “doctor” – he didn’t know how to pull it out and ended up destroying some things in my foot, you know, so.

SS: You know, you’ve said many times that all of you kids were sort of trying to please your commanders because they were the only family you had, and you wanted an approval and to be protected… did you feel like your commanders cared about you at all? Or you needed family so badly that you grabbed to love even those people who were actually sending you to die?

IB: Well, when I was in the war, because I had nothing else, this became my life, I sincerely looked up to my commanders and I revered them and I wanted to be like them, and all of the children looked up to these people, they were our role models – in the place where there was no order, violence became the currency, where everything has fallen apart – these people, sort of, served the role of father, uncle figure, big brother figure; so, we looked up to them and I did that very well, as a kid, I really did.

SS: Did you feel at any point that they cared about you as well?

IB: Yes, I did feel that my commander cared about me, particularly, because one of my commanders had a great love for Shakespeare, and I grew up loving Shakespeare – so, sometimes, he will sit with me and we will recite Shakespeare that I’ve learned in school before the war. So, for me, this meant, this access to a kind of normalcy that I knew as a child. Of course, after the war, I don’t feel that way anymore, I never felt that way after the war. But at the time of the war, when I was there, I completely bought into that, I believed that what they were doing was the right thing. You have to understand, in this instance, they were the only people there to protect you at this point. Everything has collapsed. No police, no law, no schools, no communities, no home, everything has been destroyed, no hospitals – these became the only people who had a semblance of security and some of kind of foundation of something functioning, somehow. So, from a perspective of a child, you are attracted to this kind of thinking.

SS: When you at it, humans, they can adjust to anything, and especially kids, you know. They will find joy in any situation they find themselves in. Was there any happiness, any celebration at that point for you?

IB: Yes, of course. I think, often when the idea of war, child soldiers and things like this, when difficulties are presented, people on the outside of view often view it as “Doom and Gloom”: everybody is walking around, dragging their sorrow, everybody looks sad all the time– this is not necessarily the case. Of course, things were horrible, but at the same time, we were with each other. We found moments of joy. For example, if we had time to play a short soccer game or we had time…when we attacked a town and found a generator or some old batteries and tweaked them so we can watch television. We watched Rambo film, or something like that. We were excited, we watched “Commando” film, we watched film that we used to watch when we were kids and we would laugh at this. Sometimes when we fought and took over town, we went swimming in the river somewhere and these were things that were moments… they were very short, but these were the moments of happiness, you know. Sometimes, just sitting together and chatting as young boys, dreaming of what we would do in war – these were some moments of happiness. So we weren’t just walking around, looking defeated, looking sad all the time. We were hardened, of course, but we still had our moments.

SS: Now, later on, UNICEF negotiated your release along with some other kids and you weren’t happy about that, you didn’t want to leave. You actually attacked the aid worker. Why was it so hard to accept their help and them caring for you?

IB: First of all, I’ve come to know war and violence and the environment that I’ve come to know required being part of a group, having a weapon to protect yourself. And all of a sudden some people say: “We will protect you” – but they don’t have a weapon and they don’t have any of guarantee that they can actually do that. So this was not logical to me. In my mindset at the time I was a soldier, I was thinking: “These people cannot protect me?” or “Can they really protect me?” or “What form of protection are they going to give me?” – because the environment that I’ve come from… they didn’t seem like the type of people who would really be in that position. So you can see my reluctance to trust them or to go with them, and most children feel this way, you know. There’s a sense of… you don’t know where your life is going to go; whereas, you know how to function in the violence, you learned to do that very well, and then there’s this new path that’s completely unclear where it’s going to go. So, that was my reluctance, initially. Of course, when I got to know who they were and what they were doing for me, I changed my behavior, but initially I didn’t trust anybody.

SS: So, when you were headed to New York to speak at the United Nations, did you have any idea where you’re headed?

IB: I grew up listening to American hip-hop music, so through hip-pop videos I knew a little bit about the U.S., particularly about New York. I wasn’t looking forward going there, because in the rap videos it was portrayed as a place where people drove fast cars shot at each and gang violence…so I wasn’t looking forward to go into another place that I was going to be on guard again, so I actually wasn’t happy. I didn’t believe that I was going to travel: you have to imagine, I came from a war and I didn’t have anybody, only my uncle who lived in the capital city, it was the first time I was in the capital city of my own country, Freetown and not so long after that I was on a plane, going to New York. So, none of these things seemed real to me; I didn’t want to believe it, and when I arrived there it was even more shocking to me, how this place was.

SS: So you also stayed in New York, you were adopted by chance, then went to school, to college, you became an author. What about those rescued child soldiers that stayed in Sierra Leone? Did you know what happened to them?

IB: I didn’t necessarily just go easily to the U.S… I went to this conference, I returned… anyway, eventually I got adopted into a family and I went to study and had an opportunity. A lot of other young people got left behind and actually were re-recruited into war, second time around again, because the war reached the capital city, and that’s one of the reasons why I left my country.

SS: Now, this is just mind-boggling – how amazingly you area actually coping with your past, because you were brainwashed as a child and taught to kill your enemies. Now, the same thing is still happening today. The Islamic State recruits and educates children to become soldiers. Is there hope for these kids, if killing is embedded in their heads?

IB: Of course, there’s hope for everyone. If there was no hope, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you. That being said, it’s not an easy thing. And also, I didn’t just come out of war and I was doing better… I spent about 8 months at a rehabilitation center just learning how to function as a normal kid, learning even how to sleep. And then, it took years before I could even say anything to anybody about who I was. I built another life for myself and for people who came into my life. So, yes, it’s possible, but it requires creating a family foundation. But, to go back to what you’ve mentioned about the Islamic State and all these things that are happening: often when these things come to forefront, people are not looking at what are the root causes of these things. Why would any young person, anywhere in the world, succumb to these kinds of ideologies? What is broken in their countries, in their cultures, in their homes, to allow them to look for something out somewhere… Nobody looks at that, you know. For example, let’s take what happened in France, when Charlie Hebdo was attacked. These were French kids who bought into this ideology and went and shot and killed people. Now, France didn’t want ask that question: what happened in France if the kid from France, born and raised in France, French citizen, succumbed to that idea. It means that something is not functioning, socially and economically, in their countries, to allow that. But nobody wants to look at that, because that’s a tough question. It requires everybody looking at each other. People don’t feel belonged, they’re looking for community, they’re looking for some answers somewhere, and unfortunately they come across people who have this kind of fanatic ideologies, but nobody is looking at some of these things.

SS: But how do you think people like you, who’ve been through hell and sort of overcame it – can they help these other children and people who are in the same situation as you overcome that? How can you contribute, people who are in your position right now?

SS: Well, myself, Emmanuel Jal you’ve mentioned earlier, and bunch of other people coming from this experience, we live by example, we want two things: we want, first of all the public, the people who may think… there was a time, when I came from the war, when everybody called people like us “the lost generation”, which meant that nobody believed that we will be able to recover, we were finished because we went trough so much violence at young age, we will never be able to function, we’re going to be bad adults, we don’t have any moral and ethical compass… and then when I was living in the U.S., going to university, people who didn’t know about my background, in their wildest imagination would not know. I became an author, I did these things, I studied political science – so for us, we’re trying to show people that it’s possible if certain things are done, so that you have a family, strong family foundation, you have real opportunities, not just pretense of it, like being a mechanic. If you want to be a mechanic – sure, fix the tire here, but really give you an access to opportunity, like I had, and then you can rediscover your intelligence and what you can be useful to yourself. With that, I was able to use my experience. In addition, to show that young people who have come out of this experiences, I work with the UN, particularly with UNICEF, and go to places around the world to participate in negotiations for release of children from armed groups. When I’m there and I talk to them and I explain to them where I am coming from, the difficulties of the work that lays ahead, but also I explain to them…that any child that comes from any abuse, particularly war, violence, anything – to survive these things requires remarkable intelligence. That intelligence can be re-focused and re-used to live, not just to survive. So, for me, that’s the message I try to give young people and people working with them to see that.

SS: Ishmael, thank you so much. You almost leave me speechless with your bigger-than-life personality. Thanks for sharing your story with us, and we wish you all the best in all your future endeavors. We were talking to Ishmael Beah, author, former child soldier who fought in the army of Sierra-Leone during the country’s civil war, about his experiences of spending childhood years fighting and transitioning to a life in peace after. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.