Sunday, February 15, 2009

The horrors of Sierra Leone

Ishmael Beah's book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, recounts his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war during the 1990s. He was twelve years old when the war engulfed him in 1993. He was away at a town called Mattru Jong with his brother and a few friends when his village was attacked by the rebel forces. Unable to return to his village, he was on the run for months. He had to eat whatever he could find in abandoned villages or rely on raw cassava and coconuts. When they reached occupied villages, he and his companions were often suspected of being killers, since both the rebels and the government troops were regularly recruiting children and turning them into killing machines. During those months, he endured horrors most of us can barely imagine. Beah saw a lot of the aftermath of rebel attacks, in addition to barely escaping them several times. Severed heads, hands chopped off, a baby shot while on her mother's back - these are some of the sights he chooses to mention. He keeps the descriptions to a minimum, but does not shy away from the blood, gore and horror.

After a few months and several providential escapes, Beah finally made it to a village called Yele, held at the time by government forces. A few days of calm resulted. Those days were short-lived, since the government soldiers in the town were battling rebels. Soon, Beah and other boys were conscripted. They were given automatic weapons and very rudimentary training. They were pressed into battle almost immediately. Having already endured sustained fear, violence and death, the boys were barely cognizant of what they were doing. As Beah describes it, they were further desensitized by watching Rambo movies and doses of drugs - "white tablets", marijuana, and "brown brown" (supposedly a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder). The result was that they turned into deadly killers. The description leaves little doubt that the boys had no choice - they would be dead if they hadn't become killers themselves.

After being a child soldier for about two years, Beah was turned over by his lieutenant to a UN program aiming to redeem children like him. What followed was a long and painful process of being weaned away from the violence and drugs. After almost one year, Beah's Uncle took him to live with him in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. He interviewed for a trip to be a representative at a UN conference in New York. There, he met a sympathetic American lady named Laura Simms, who was to later become his foster mother when he emigrated to the US.

In May 1997, the war that Beah had left behind in the countryside came to Freetown. His Uncle died. Knowing that he could not take this any longer, in late 1997, he made his escape to Conakry, capital of the neighboring country of Guinea. His book ends there, but he made it to the US eventually. He finished high school and obtained a college degree. He is now a member of an advisory committee for children's rights for Human Rights Watch and regularly speaks out on issues concerning child soldiers.

In the book, Beah is able to present the horror of the civil war graphically, without making it appear dramatic. Nevertheless, the descriptions are revolting. Much to my surprise, I found that I was able to stomach the violent episodes more easily as I progressed further into the book. Either I was getting inured, or my mind was prepared for the shock, having encountered similar shocks earlier. Perhaps that mechanism reflects, in a small way, how people in the middle of it all managed to cope without losing their minds.

There is some controversy, raised by Australian journalists, about how autobiographical the book is. Beah has strenuously defended his account of events. This may not be unlike what happened with Rigoberta Menchu. To me, it is not terribly relevant that Beah may have incorporated the experiences of others into what he claims to be an account of his own life. The horror that he and others endured needs to be told as a story. News accounts, reports by the UN, and human rights groups have also done a great deal to document the horros of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Somehow, a personal narrative such as the one written by Ishmael Beah brings home the reality in a much more powerful way.

The civil war in Sierra Leone continued after Beah left the country in 1997. The capital Freetown experienced terrible atrocities in 1999. The war was symptomatic of the chaos of the post cold war decade, with all sorts of groups from around the world being involved. Among these were mining companies, diamond traders, mercenaries and weapons dealers. Indeed, the mercenaries and gunrunners were involved in other conflicts during the decade as well. The diamonds from Sierra Leone were used by the RUF rebels to buy weapons and supplies. In this, they were helped greatly by Charles Taylor of Liberia, who was a friend and sponsor of the RUF leader Foday Sankoh. For more than a decade, Taylor and Sankoh managed to make parts of West Africa a living hell for its people. Sankoh died before he could be tried and convicted, while Taylor is being tried by an international tribunal.

Sierra Leone's civil war ended in 2002, and the country has seen peace for the last few years. According to this report, Ishmael Beah managed to revisit Sierra Leone in 2006.


Blogger brendan said...

Hello- I just found your blog from a link on another blog that I read. You might be interested in this article by anthropologist Paul Richards:

PAUL RICHARDS, 2006, “An accidental sect: how war made belief in Sierra Leone ”, Review of African Political Economy, v. 33, No. 110, 2006, 651-663, 2006

He has also written a book about Sierra Leone, the civil war, the RUF etc, called "Fighting For the Rain Forest: War, Youth, and Resources in Sierra Leone"

4/04/2010 7:43 PM  

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