The first-hand account of a Sierra Leonean child soldier’s odyssey from three years of vicious fighting, via a United Nations-supported rehabilitation centre, to a prestigious United States university has joined the arsenal of weapons the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is mustering to fight a scourge that at present entraps some 250,000 youngsters.
A Long Way Gone, a memoir by Ishmael Beah, was launched at UNICEF headquarters in New York last night just days after the agency sponsored an international meeting in Paris at which 59 countries committed themselves to putting an end to the unlawful recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts wherever they occur.
In his book Mr. Beah, now 26, recounts the tortuous and torturous journey that took him from the searing and brutal battlefields of civil war in his homeland, where fighters, even child soldiers, cut off the hands or feet of their foes, through a UNICEF-backed rehabilitation centre, to the calm and serene halls of academe at Oberlin College, Ohio, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 2004. He currently lives in New York.
He tells how children, traumatized, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s have become the soldiers of choice, how as a 12-year-old he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence, how at age 13 he had been picked up by the government army and found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.
At age 16, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation centre he learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity and, finally, to heal in a story of redemption and hope.
“Terrible things happen to children, but children are also resilient,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict said at last night’s launch. “They need encouragement, guidance and support; and with the proper care they can become outstanding members of society.”
Radhika Coomaraswamy called Mr. Beah a “perfect example” of this. “His moving piece, painful in parts, is full of wisdom and understanding, pointing to the fact that children can heal, and when they do they can become a beacon of light for all of us. It is our duty to assist them and learn from them.”
Since the mid-1980s, UNICEF has played a key role in advocating for and securing the release of children from armed forces and other armed groups in conflict-affected countries across the globe, including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.
The agency provides life skills training, education, health care and counselling to support the reintegration of former child soldiers back into family and community life. UNICEF and its non-governmental organization (NGO) partners also provide care, technical guidance and financial support for the successful implementation of national programmes for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.
The ‘Free Children from War’ conference hosted by UNICEF and the French Government in Paris on 6 February adopted the so-called Paris Principles, offering a detailed set of guidelines for protecting children from recruitment and providing effective assistance to those already involved with armed groups or forces.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said some 250,000 children are involved in conflicts around the world, where they are used as combatants, messengers, spies, porters, cooks and girls are forced to perform sexual services, depriving them of their rights and their childhood.