Alice Reviews a Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, an autobiography about being recruited as a child soldier, and discusses how the recruitment of child soldiers relies on a vicious cycle of hate.
Shaw defines war as being a form of organised, reciprocal violence, between combatants; viewed as being socially legitimate. Conflict is regarded as illegitimate therefore, when it becomes one-sided and civilians are targeted. Child soldiers are often not considered when the legitimacy of warfare is debated. However, the oxymoronic term ‘child soldiers’ should always be seen within the realm of illegitimate warfare.
Regardless of how developed or under-developed a nation is, it has an inherent duty to protect its civilians. This protection is particularly important for children, because they are unable to protect themselves. Therefore, the use of children in conflict is arguably one of the highest possible humanitarian failures of a state.
It is estimated that there are around 250000 children working as soldiers in the world today – recruited by both rebel groups and governments. After having read Ishmael Beah’s autobiography a Long Way Gone, accepting this figure becomes even more of a challenge. A Long Way Gone depicts Ishmael’s desperate attempt to escape the conflict his country Sierra Leone was experiencing in the light of the civil war there in the 1990’s. He is forced to leave his family and friends behind, and go on the run – however it is clear throughout that he is uncertain what he is running to. Although we cannot underestimate the generosity Ishmael and his newly acquainted friends encountered on their journey, including one man who risked his life to hide them in his fishing hut, bringing them ‘water and food every night’; they lived in constant fear of the unknown. Ismael explained that ‘one of the most unsettling things about my journey, mentally, and physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end… To survive each passing day was my goal in life’.
By retelling his story, Ishmael brings to light the devastation inflicted on to a child when they are recruited as a soldier. He also illustrates how significant the cycle of hate is when conditioning young children – as young as nine – to believe that pitilessly murdering their ‘enemies’ is the only solution to avenging their family’s deaths and resolving their country’s conflict.
The inevitable eventually did happen, and the boys were recruited by government forces to fight the rebels. The rate at which the young boys were indoctrinated into brutally killing was extremely disturbing. When they were first captured Ismael felt ‘nauseated’ at the sign of a dead man, and although the casual remark from another soldier that ‘You will get used to it, everybody does’, is shocking, sadly it foreshadows how quickly these young children would become desensitised to the most deplorable violence. The boys are continually told that the rebels ‘killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.’ This constant inculcation led to the young boys violently murdering anyone they were told was a threat by their lieutenant. During Ismael’s first mission he ‘shot everything that moved’, and declared ‘I was not afraid of these lifeless bodies; I despised them and kicked them to flip them’.
A strong recurring theme of the autobiography was one of irony. The child soldiers were brainwashed to such an extent that they believed they were ‘not like the rebels, who kill for no reason.’ Instead they were led to believe they fought for ‘freedom’. Yet moments after declaring this, Ismael explains how they ‘would fight for hours… for no reason at all.’ Ismael was so convincingly led to believe that he was fighting for the good of his country, yet his and his soldier’s actions which he recalls, were just as wicked as those of the rebels. This is most movingly expressed by Ishmael himself when he reflects on his experience, and explains that ‘revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge will never come to an end.’ This is the most important quote of the book, in my opinion, because it epitomises how brutal violence can so easily become a vicious cycle of hate – one which is very difficult to break.
When Ismael destroys the theory of revenge, the irony which was present throughout his entire experience as a child solider almost becomes irrelevant. While the irony very much still exists, it doesn’t matter anymore, because Ismael has acknowledged that revenge does not achieve the desired result that he was programmed to believe it would. The complete admiration we have for Ismael is overwhelming. Sadly however, the reality is that not all child soldiers were even given the chance of rehabilitation because they were killed first, or are still fighting.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to continue to support charities and NGOs, such as UNICEF who helped save Ismael, and to demand that we live in a world where no child should ever have to be a soldier. Regardless of if fighting is presented as being legitimate, the instant a child is given a gun, fighting becomes illegitimate. We must not ever stray from the fact that we created the notions of states, and governments in order to advance the progression of humanity. If we are failing to protect the children within these societies, then arguably we have failed to fulfil the aims of creating institutions to protect people in the first place.
Feature Image: blxentro
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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