Children No Longer: Healing Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. This African proverb rings resoundingly true in the case of wars throughout history. It is always the more vulnerable members of society who are hurt the most. Most of the time, it is the children who make up the grass. Now, programs like the Child Soldier Initiative are working to facilitate healing child soldiers and reintegrate them back into society.

The War Against Children

Perhaps one of the ugliest examples of this was the case of child soldiers in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Children as young as five years old were held at gunpoint and forced by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to choose between killing or being killed. Those that resisted were either killed or maimed. Those who chose to live were drugged, armed and transformed into killing machines. Girls became sex-slaves. They were also used as human shields and mules, carrying heavy loads across far distances.

Having lost their families and any sense of normalcy or stability, these children were desperate for any kind of group, even if that group meant endless gunfire. Children often do not fight orders or demand wages. Hence, to the rebels of Sierra Leone, children were the perfect weapon for war. The infinite stories of trauma are paralyzing.

For child soldiers in Sierra Leone, there is no easy way back to life. In their villages, they are seen as murderers and often lynched or stoned to death in revenge for the lives they took during the war. Girls are seen as impure and cast away by all men. They are often doomed to a solitary life stained in shame. Many others remain disabled as amputees and have difficulty finding work. In a longitudinal study of 150 ex-child soldiers, one third were found to have PTSD, another third depression and the remaining some form of mental or behavioral disorder.

A Grain of Light

Although the picture is bleak, there is hope for these children who are now adults that have risen out of the war. Ishmael Beah is one speck of light in the midst of immense darkness. He lost his family at 12 years old. He fought for the RUF until he was rescued by UNICEF two years later. After eight months of rehabilitation at the UNICEF center, he was selected to go to the United States and share his story because of his remarkable progress. Ishmael has now attended law school and written a best-selling book on his experience as a child soldier. He works as a U.N. goodwill ambassador, sharing his story with other former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Ishmael Beah speaks as a voice for the voiceless everywhere.

As for the rest of the former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, many efforts were taken following the end of the civil war to provide counseling, but that help has gradually waned. Mental health services are very limited. In fact, Dr. Edward Nahim is the sole psychiatrist for Sierra Leone. Although technically retired, he has been treating patients for more than 35 years.

Organizations Helping Child Soldiers

The Lom Peace Accord was created in 1999 to provide support for the survivors of the war. It focuses on strengthening children’s rights, rehabilitating amputees and demobilizing child soldiers. While the detailed list of initiatives was promising, the current state of Sierra Leone does not testify to their success. One grassroots counseling organization seems to be making a dent. The Community Association for Psychosocial Services of Sierra Leone has helped more than 6,650 traumatized survivors. It focuses on healing trauma, rehabilitation, raising awareness and mental health issues.

For the impoverished country of Sierra Leone, some help for former child soldiers may need to come from the outside. One such program is the Child Soldier Initiative, developed by Canadian lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire. This five-year nationwide program aims to make children a priority and teach them their rights from a young age. It is a preventative measure to ensure that children are never again mistreated so violently.

Theresa Betancourt, a professor of Social Work at Boston College, has pioneered research about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. She seeks to provide more lasting and productive coping systems for them. She has run studies for nine years on these children, and now is looking to test interventions to help them. Her goal is to facilitate grassroots counseling and psychiatry services along with a greater awareness of how to help trauma victims.

A Case of Human Rights

If children are the grass in the proverb, they deserve plenty of sunlight, water and nourishment. For the child soldiers in Sierra Leone, childhood became war. Such is the case in many impoverished and developing nations. But, it is not too late to help these children, both those who are grown and those who are growing. By continuing to build awareness about the issue and cement the fundamental rights of children into all nation’s priorities, the change will come.

Hannah Stewart
Photo: Flickr

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