THE HAGUE – When children leave a warzone the most important aspect of their psychological recovery is to feel useful again and one way of doing this is by offering them real opportunities, an activist and former child soldier said.
Ishmael Beah witnessed the assassination of his father and two brothers aged 11 in the small village of Mobbwemo during the Sierra Leone civil war between 1991-2002 and by the time he was 13, he was taken by government officials and made into a child soldier.
“In my experience, what I’ve seen is when children come out of war, the psychological recovery, the most important part of it is feeling useful again. To yourself, to society, to your community,” Beah told EFE on Thursday.
“Which means that real opportunities have to be given,” he added.
As a young teenager, he learned to fire a weapon and, by his own account, killed many people.
He became an army general, developed an addiction to amphetamines, cocaine and marijuana – something he says made him more violent during this period – and ordered other children around.
Beah was rescued by the UN in 1996 and was transferred to a rehabilitation center in the capital, Freetown, where he started his journey back to what he called “the civilized world.”
He struggled to adapt to society because his experiences of violence and war had dehumanized him, he says.
“When I came out of the war I was living in that community with my uncle,” he said.
“But because I was a former child soldier and everybody knew, anything that happened in the community was my fault.”
When Freetown was invaded by rebel forces, Beah emigrated to the United States with the help of his adoptive family.
His entire world transformed as a result.
He attended university and was able to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a writer.
He now lives between France and the southwestern US state of California.
Two decades have passed since his traumatic experiences but Beah has vowed to not let the memory of his experiences as a child soldier fade.
“The reason I continue to remember it is because I feel it is a small price to pay to continue reminding people of the things they are not doing properly or the things they can do because I know what that silence can do to those that are coming out of this experience,” he said.
Thousands of children who have witnessed the defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria are trapped in a sort of limbo.
There is a legal void as to what to do with these children some of whom have been rejected by their states of origin because of the alleged risks involved in allowing them to return.
Many of them have been exposed to unimaginable atrocities or have been trained to fight in battlefields.
In the camps in northeastern Syria, more than 2,500 children from 30 countries are waiting to see what the future will hold.
They have no access to psychologists and their future is uncertain.
One such child, Omar Khadr, was captured by US forces in Afghanistan when he was 15.
He spent a decade in Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba accused of launching a grenade that killed a US sergeant.
For years Canada refused to repatriate Khadr, who is the son of a Canadian of Egyptian origin considered one the founders of Al Qaeda.
In 2010 the UN demanded his release because he was deemed to have been a child soldier.
Canada was forced to accept the young man’s return.
“If a citizen commits a crime you don’t just remove that citizen and make them stateless because there is a law that operates within your nation, but that is what is happening,” Beah warned.
“This is a very dangerous precedent that is being set.”