Friday, March 16, 2007

'Cause ev'ry little thing's gonna be all right

In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, proclaimed "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." This is one of many sections of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law that condemn the use of child soldiers. Despite these laws, Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 300,000 children involved in violent conflicts around the world today - with 200,000 of those children living in sub-Saharan Africa.

I can remember the most minute details of the afternoon I spent at GUSCO in northern Uganda last June - with an 11-year-old boy that had escaped captivity the day before our arrival. I can see him sitting next to me right now, looking down, kicking at the dusty ground with feet that looked too large to be attached to his skinny legs. He is fumbling with a pack of gum - a gift from one of the American students. I remember the enormous smile that spread across his face when I rubbed his back, and then I remember putting on Leketa's enormous sunglasses to hide my tears when we were waiting for our matatu to leave. The small moments I spent with him triggered a landslide in my mind - shifting the war in northern Uganda from being something I simply read about to being something both tangible and horrifying.

Last week I finished reading A Long Way Gone, the first account of child soldiering actually written by a former child soldier - Ishmael Beah. I was lucky enough to meet him at a lecture and book signing at Politics and Prose on Monday night. I was immediately struck by his small stature - the way he looked like a child lost in his father's corduroy blazer. But as he began to speak to the age-diverse crowd of 300 readers, his presence grew to fill the entire room.

Beah's writing picked up where I left off that day at GUSCO - when I drove off on the dusty road with a pounding headache and a feeling of helplessness. He spends a great deal of time in the book relating details about his rehabilitation process at the UNICEF camp in Freetown. He speaks honestly about his roiling anger, his withdrawal from the "brown brown" that numbed his senses as he fought, his painful separation from the military unit that had become a family of sorts. When asked at the book signing "which was more difficult - learning to kill, or re-learning to lead a peaceful, civilian life?" Beah didn't hesitate - losing your humanity is easy - it's re-gaining it and healing that is the most painful process of all. While the boy at GUSCO was safe from the horrors of war, he had a battle to fight that I couldn't have begun to comprehend.

As conflict-ridden countries approach peace, they teeter on an abyss of psychological healing that is so vast as to be immeasurable. Individual stories like Beah's enliven the resiliency of the human spirit...and give us hope.

1 comment:

Zack said...

I like the passion you exude for this cause; a wonderfully written post this is! I support the "stop using child soldiers" campaign too and before i visited here at yours, was onto drafting something similar at my blog. If you don't mind, I will be linking you up to mine. Loved the blog too!