The most difficult ones to deal with, the earnest UN official told me, are the “teenage ruffians.” I was talking to him in Monrovia, capital of Liberia, in 2004. A large UN force, 15,000 strong, was desperately trying to disarm the mostly deranged combatants who ravaged the place for over a decade. Many people had thought that the disarmament would be fairly easy because a large number of the Liberian militias have gone through such a process before, some of them twice. There had been the incomplete process, supervised by Ecomog (the West African intervention force) just before the shambolic 1997 elections, and some of the Liberian fighters had actually been disarmed as fighters in Sierra Leone during that country’s (earlier) UN-supervised disarmament process. But the first attempted demobilization turned chaotic after the militias, desperate for the small cash incentive to hand in their weapons before Christmas, stormed Monrovia. At least eight people were killed in the ensuing violence. In the event, the UN paid 12,000 soldiers but received only 8,000 weapons.
The UN official calmly told me about a two-hour long meeting he had had with “48 Generals”. “Most of them were children, of course,” he added. “And the trouble is that these bush Generals are absolutely jealous of their ranks! It makes the word ‘feral’ meaningless.” The official suggested that I go with him to Gbarnga to see for myself. With some reluctance I agreed. Gbarnga was once the headquarters of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which started Liberia’s war. It had become an immense ruin; and the pathos of its decrepitude was that it had now edged itself, once again, towards the centre of Liberia’s woes: the militias encamped there had become frighteningly restive and violent. A long line of them had formed at the cantonment site to hand in old AK 47 rifles and collect their money by the time we got there. Things seemed to be going well when suddenly a scrawny teenage fighter with bandana around the head jumped ahead of the queue, raised his old rifle and started shouting abuses at the UN officers. “Mother fuckers…Give us our money now or we’ll go to Sierra Leone, to Guinea, to Ivory Coast, and start fighting all over again…” I sneaked quietly away.
I found myself put to mind of this chilly incident recently when I started reading Ahmadou Kourama’s haunting novel Allah is Not Obliged. Its obscenely loquacious central character, Birihima, an ex-child fighter who has seen service in the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, happily describes himself as “rude as a goat’s beard,” and given to swearing “like a bastard.” He continues: “I don’t give two fucks about village custom any more, ‘cos I’ve been in Liberia and killed lots of guys with an AK-47 (we called it a ‘kalash’) and got fucked-up on kanif [cannabis] and lots of hard drugs.” He is now, he says, stalked by “the ghosts of many innocent people I killed,” and this is not “an edifying spectacle.”
The novel was first published in France in 2000, and its Ivorian author died three years later. It was a huge success in France, but its English edition, published by William Heinemann last year, got a few respectable mentions and then was quickly forgotten. The novel’s liberal and somewhat foolish use of the word ‘nigger’ was probably too off-putting, and doubtless it makes the story – a powerful psychological exploration of the terrible phenomenon of child soldiery – less exalted for a reader of the English edition than it actually is. The narrator says at the outset in the novel that the “full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is Allah is not obliged to be fair about all things he does on earth.” It is an insight of sort, capturing the kind of cynicism that has, until recently, surrounded the phenomenon of child soldiery.
The use of children in armed combat is probably as old as warfare itself, and it has never been limited to irregular armies. Even Clauswitz, the great theoretician of conventional warfare, joined the Prussian army at age 13; and there were hundreds of thousands of children in all the major armies that fought the two World Wars. After much foot-dragging, in 1989 193 countries signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets 15 years as the minimum age for recruitment into armed forces. Incidentally the US (and Somalia, no doubt because it didn’t have a government) signed but refused to ratify the convention. This Convention was largely ignored even by those who signed it, and there was no legal instrument to enforce it. In the 1980s Renamo, a uniquely brutal (and mercenary) rebel group in Mozambique which anticipated Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the use of amputations as a war tactic, had made widespread recruitment of children into its militia (also anticipating the RUF) a core part of its insurgency. Other African rebel groups, also markedly mercenary, followed this pattern; and the spectacle of drug-addled children armed with AK 47 rifles and gamely inflicting terror against defenceless civilians became a ubiquitous part of African warfare: it became a metaphor for the continent’s underdevelopment and mindless brutality. After an intense campaign – led by Graca Machel, the Mozambican wife of Nelson Mandela, with the active support of then Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy – against this appalling new reality, the UN Security Council in 2000 passed the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which made no distinction between formal militaries and non-state militias, and which defined the recruitment of children under 18 (instead of 15) years of age as a war crime.
Since then, UN-sponsored war crimes trials, like the one in Sierra Leone, have included recruitment of children into armed groups as a crime against humanity. As I write, however, it is estimated that 300 000 children are serving in various armies or militia groups around the world. During Sierra Leone’s war, the RUF would have its child recruits branded with red-hot bayonets: the figures R-U-F were literally carved on their body, making defection – because RUF fighters caught by government troops and sometimes by civilians were often summarily executed – almost impossible. These children – hysterical, flagellant, and immensely lethal – would then roam the countryside, destroying every living thing they encounter.
Shortly before the Optional Protocol was issued, I attended a conference about child soldiers, organised by Axworthy (and graced by Marcel) in the Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2000. In one of the sessions, I attempted to make a distinction between children kidnapped and inducted into militias (like the RUF did) and those who, orphaned and left homeless by the terror campaigns of insurgents voluntarily join armies or pro-government forces, finding for themselves a home and some kind of security. The Liberian activist/politician Conmany Wesseh, who was actively engaged with the problem in West Africa, took me aside and remarked: “This issue does not admit of such a fine distinction. Recruitment of children into any armed group is bad, full stop. You provide a loophole for all kinds of opportunists by fudging: what moral and professional difference is there between some armies and all these rebel groups?” His point was unanswerable, and I kept quiet about the issue henceforth.
Ishmael Beah’s phenomenally successful A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007) makes this same point in another way, though his pained but fluent account does not exactly resolve the central dilemma that the issue poses. Beah served as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone Army during the country’s decade-long war. His book, which recounts his traumatic experiences during the period, has been on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks now, and it is being offered by Starbucks in its thousands of coffee shops in North America. It has been a sensation. While reading my copy on the plane during the short flight from Chicago to New York City recently, a handsome teenage girl leaned over my seat and, giggling, asked me whether I found it interesting. “I heard him [Beah] speak yesterday and I bought a copy there and then,” she said. “I am so excited about it!” It was the most unalloyed compliment that can be made of a recently-released book, pure in its curiosity and innocence; and it almost made one – someone who has also written about the war of which Beah’s memoir is concerned – almost green with envy. This can be read as a full disclosure. So let me say at once that I found Beah’s astonishing story both unsettling and hugely satisfying: the author, who is now 27, emerges as a highly intelligent young man with remarkable literary flair. But his account has obvious flaws.
Beah was just past ten when the war in Sierra Leone started. He was attending school in a village in southern Sierra Leone, which became one of the key theatres of the bloody conflict. At that age, he had already read Shakespeare, and could quote passages from Julius Caesar from memory. He had also become interested in American Hip Hop. The book is a sustained study in such contrasts: high culture versus low, a Shakespeare-loving teenager committing barbarous atrocities, frightened civilians versus red-eyed murderers, a friendly people versus brutal politics, demented cruelty versus pure kindness, poverty-stricken Sierra Leone versus affluent New York. And it is soon clear that the book is aimed, first and last, at an American readership. No problem with that: for Beah tells us early on that he intends to address the curiosity of his former schoolmates who had always suspected that he was not telling them all about his past. And this past, therefore, comes to include his memory of some “nice summer days” in Sierra Leone – the torrential rains in the country (I would talk about a rainy season, wouldn’t I?), which should surely form one of the most vivid of experiences for a barefoot straggler in the bush there, is barely mentioned (and when mentioned only perfunctorily). Hip Hop is evoked throughout – and why not? It can be readily associated with gun violence and drugs in America, core aspects of Beah’s experience as a boy soldier. One should not quibble overmuch here, even when Beah calls Yele “a big village with more than ten houses” (p.101) – it is actually a small town with over a hundred houses.
The area that Beah lived, somewhere in Moyamba District in Southern Sierra Leone, was largely unaffected by the war in its early stages, but then rebels – aided by rogue government troops – attacked the Sierra Leone Rutile Mines, where Beah’s father worked, in 1994. They killed some of the people (apparently including Beah’s parents) and kidnapped some European expatriate workers and Sierra Leonean senior staff. Beah was then living in a village not far away, and soon his village was also attacked. He fled with a few friends, and then began a traumatic trek through the bush to virtually nowhere. Beah devotes a lot of space to this depressing bush trek – the night spent in the forest living bare, grim encounters with the rebels in some places, the death and destruction they encountered along the way, the occasional kindness he and his friends got along the way, the more general fear that people they met had for child stragglers who could well have been rebels, the debilitating hunger and near-collapse into insanity – about three times more space, in fact, than for his actual experience as a child fighter. The intention is plain. Without this background, without knowledge of the hopelessness of Beah’s situation, one would be far less prepared for this:
My face, my hands, my shirt and gun were covered with blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly, as if someone was shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two young lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved, until we were ordered to retreat because we needed another strategy.
Beah is describing his first real battle with the rebels after his recruitment into a contingent of Sierra Leone Army by an officer who, like Beah, would quote Shakespeare for fun. The recruitment, unlike those into the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was not coerced, but it was not voluntary either. It was also ad hoc: the new recruits were not registered as government soldiers, and were not paid; they accounted only to the officer, acting on his own whim, who had recruited them. After the months trekking in the bush, the starving young boys having completely run down to seeds, Beah and his friends really had no choice when, after spending some days in the village where the army had occupied in some comfort, they (along with everyone else in the village) were asked to help defend the village from the rebels who had started mounting attacks against it. Two of Beah’s very young friends were killed at the first encounter with the rebels. A line had been crossed: Beah becomes a killing machine. He tells us: “I grabbed [a] man’s head and slit his throat in one fluid motion. His Adam’s apple made way for the sharp knife, and I turned the bayonet on its zigzag edge as I brought it out.”
All this may be true, but what one remembers about one’s past is always a choice – a choice partly conditioned by what one feels one’s audience expects. It is hard not to feel, on reading something like the above, that Beah is keen on playing to type: there are all those voyeurs after adolescent terror and mindless African violence. This may be a curious judgment, but one thinks that Beah is perhaps guilty of a chilling excess of candour. Killing people becomes a way of life, an obligation: in war you have to kill to remain alive. The lieutenant who recruited Beah tells him: “Visualise the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” He would add: “[The rebels] have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them…It is the highest service you can perform for your country.” Beah takes the message to heart – so much so in fact that he is made an officer, having command over his own troop of child fighters. W.H Auden’s famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” about that “low dishonest decade” of “darkened lands of the earth” comes readily to mind:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return
It was terribly traumatic for Beah, all the same, and for months after his rescue from this murderous life by the UN and an NGO dedicated to rehabilitating ex-child soldiers, he suffered from nightmares and frequent bouts of migraine (the side effects of the heavy drugs they fed on daily). The rehabilitation turns out to be far more difficult than his induction into the army, and there were moments of extreme violence – fights broke out between child soldiers who had served with the Sierra Leone and those who had fought with the RUF (the Rehabilitation Camp brought militias of various factions together.), leaving to loss of lives. On arriving at the camp, Beah encounters another ex-child soldier who looked to him like a RUF rebel. Beah, who had hidden a grenade in his pocket, took it, and the boy pulled out a bayonet. Beah asked who the boy was. “We are from Kono district,” the boy replied. “Ah, the diamond district!”, Alhaji, Beah’s friend, responds. Finally the boy says: “I fought for the army. The rebels burned my village and killed my parents, and you look like one of them.” A deadly fight was averted. It is a telling moment, but quickly Beah relates another encounter which seems to make another, more profound point. He and his other friend, Mambu, accost another ex-child soldier who looks different in appearance. “What kind of army person wears civilian clothes?” Mambu asks of the boy. The boy responds: “We fought for the RUF; the army is the enemy. We fought for freedom, and the army killed my family and destroyed my village.” A nasty fight breaks out immediately, and several people are killed.
It does not really matter, in other words, on what side one fought during the war: all sides had reasonable claims to have been wronged: all the armed groups in the country committed atrocities, and all should be held to account on the same level. There is no difference, this incident seems to suggest, in the methodology of recruitment and induction into the various fighting forces. The problem is that this is not true, and it is clear from Beah’s account overall that this point is absurd: it looks like a sop to the campaigners against child soldiery. It is a noble campaign, but as I said at the Winnipeg conference, there was a marked difference in how the RUF recruited its child fighters and how the army and the Civil Defence Force (CDF) did. The end result may have been pretty much the same, but I doubt whether any official – UN or NGO – could have ventured in a RUF camp (as they did to many army and CDF camps, including Beah’s) to take away child soldiers for rehabilitation camps. The RUF fighters in the rehabilitation camps were, before the war ended, very few, and they certainly were not handed over by their commanders…
Beah’s book does not provide a history of the war or the background to the conflict (no one should expect a kid to do this). Its singular value is that it gives an insight into the thinking of the child soldiers, and it shows – in the subsequent career of Beah – that rehabilitation is eminently possible. Beah left Sierra Leone after a bloody in 1997 coup (he had earlier acted as a spokesman at a UN conference in New York on child soldiery). He returned to New York and was adopted by an American woman he had met during his first visit. There he attends college, earns a degree, and has now provided us this valuable memoir. For this reason alone, the book deserves the recognition it has been accorded.