Memoir Week

Rehabilitating Child Soldiers

Dear Mike,

What a great read your letter was. First of all, I’m going to use that word “ensorcell” from now on. Second, thanks for putting Ishmael Beah’s book in such a rich context. I got a sense from what you wrote about Johnny Mad Dog and Beasts of No Nation that their authors didn’t do as well with that “delicate choreography,” as you put it, “of knowing and unknowing in the authorial voice of the child soldier.” That choreography is what immediately marked Ishmael’s book for me—epitomized in his scant depiction of the Lieutenant, a laconic, intriguing character. He appears throughout in different guises, just as such a man would to a child: savior, fearsome authority, indoctrinator, father, traitor, human being. Ishmael never analyzes, instead he leaves us with a series of photographic impressions hinting at the fact that the Lieutenant lost his childhood, too: that luxurious time of life when the soul is more important than killing or dying—a time symbolized by the lieutenant’s constant companion, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s also, however, the Lieutenant who feeds Ishmael the addicting white pills to stave off pain, reflection, and sleep—where dreams can kill you. Ishmael’s portrait leaves us to glean the complex choices this man is faced with, so we can imagine the Lieutenant’s own tragic trajectory. Julius Caesar pops in and out of the book, just as Hip Hop frames what is essentially a three-act novel. Both allude to Beah’s unspoken theme: the simultaneous transformative power and powerlessness of art. 

And that is how I’ll begin answering your question about how to turn a killing machine back into a boy or a girl. I want to give you a few images that I recall from hanging around rehabilitation centers in Uganda with child soldiers and their counselors.

An army truck pulled into the yard of a World Vision center, and 15 wild-looking rebels spilled out. I watched one boy, about 10 years old, fold his gashed legs, exposing feet swollen like footballs. He never blinked. He stared out like prey looking for an escape. But he was intrigued by a sight a few feet away, where dozens of kids who’d been in the camp a while were laughing, clapping, slapping their knees while watching a video of The Gods Must Be Crazy. They were not yet transformed, however. Their Ugandan counselor told me that most of the children were still numb to the atrocities they’d committed. They’d say things like, “That hammer would be great in the bush for killing;” or, “Fat people like you are easy to hack to death. The skinny ones take more time.” She told me about a mother who asked a group of girls in the camp if they knew her daughter; they said simply, “Oh, that one. We killed her.”

Slowly, through skits, drawing, storytelling, music, dancing—some would become children again. But only if they had a safe environment willing to take them back. I knew of  one child soldier who escaped from the rebel army that had kidnapped him and headed straight home with no rehabilitation. A few days later, he was sitting under a tree watching his sister grind maize. He got up, hacked her to death with an ax, then sat back down under the tree. While I was at the camp, some schoolchildren were taunting a group of bush kids playing ball outside the trauma center. Immediately, the ex-rebels went back to war, surrounding the schoolchildren, spitting, circling, menacing. One grabbed a machete from a passer by and they all shouted, “LET’S START.” A counselor ran through the gates just in time to prevent the slaughter.

Then there was Susan, a 14-year-old girl who proudly told me she’d become a really great shot and a speedy looter. Then she told me how her commander forced her to kill a woman in front of her children. Susan tapped her collarbone and chest to show me where she’d shot her. But her pride vanished as she recalled the woman’s children screaming and crying. For months, the woman’s ghost stayed in her dreams, walking to Susan with blood on her chest, saying, “I am dying, I am dying, I am being killed for nothing.” Under the maternal care of her counselor, Susan finally vanquished the dream. Now, she said, she dreamt mostly of her mother and her life before soldiering. What blew me away was a little trick Susan played with her own identity. She lied about her name to the rebels, calling herself Susan Alum—which means “delivered in the bush.” Her real name was Susan Akello. So now she could tell herself that her two years with the rebels happened to Susan Alum, not Susan Akello. I’d seen this too in the artwork of children, where they drew pictures of a killing they’d perpetrated, but absented their faces from the drawings—showing sometimes just their arms with an ax.

Ishmael lets us in on a secret when he describes his rehabilitation: Time is constantly morphing. No matter how hard he battles to stay in the present, war and blood knock him into the past, either in dreams or intruding memories. Added to his other physical and mental torments, he must go through months of withdrawal from drug addiction. He wakes up punching the air, assaulted by migraines. He describes sitting on the verandah listening to some boys discuss a volleyball game, trying to recoup his childhood days. It was impossible. Instead, he’d get flashbacks of the first time he slit a man’s throat, “surfacing on my memory like lightning on a dark rainy night,” followed by a “sharp cry in my head that made my spine hurt.” He swings us back and forth with him, and takes us to what for me was perhaps his most gruesome act and experience.

It’s rainy season in Sierra Leone. He’s fighting the rebels for control of a village. Neither side is giving up. They fought all day and night to kill them all. They nearly did, but captured a few. He writes, “We were so angry with the prisoners that we didn’t shoot them but rather decided to punish them severely. ‘It will be a waste of bullets to shoot them,’ the lieutenant said. So we gave them shovels and demanded, at gunpoint, that they dig their own graves.” He and the others smoked pot and shot at the prisoners’ feet to get them to dig faster. Then they tied them, stabbed their legs with bayonets, and laughed as the rebels screamed. They rolled them into the graves and covered them with the wet mud. When the rebels tried to get up, Ishmael and the others pointed their guns at them. “They lay back and watched us with their pale sad eyes.” That was one of the most chilling lines. Ishmael, the child soldier, probably didn’t see their sadness then. He describes hearing their groans underneath the mud as they slowly suffocated. But by then Ishmael realizes he’s covered in wounds himself. “I was too drugged and traumatized to realize the danger of what had just happened. I laughed as Alhaji pointed out the number of bruises on my body.” And from there he simply jumps ahead in time to write, “In the morning I would feel one of the staff members wrap a blanket around me saying, ‘This isn’t your fault, you know. It really isn’t. You’ll get through this.’ ” He hates that mantra, resists it with every nerve in his body. The minute he hears it, he regrets having shared anything with Esther, his counselor. But eventually it seeps in, and takes on a meaning. That to me was amazing: How a despised cliché can slowly catalyze change and belief in the brain.

I guess I would argue that Ishmael Beah’s rehabilitation was finalized not only by his time in the camp, but also by writing this book—and that this is part of what elevates it out of the genre of “child soldier” narratives to take its place among the powerful anti-war novels, and films about loss of childhood like Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood—which I recalled throughout this book. I also kept thinking that soldiers returning from Iraq, Iraqis escaping Iraq, and Iraqis stuck in Iraq are all now living that time morph Ishmael Beah has depicted with such tautness and subtlety.

Well, Mike, there’s a lot more to say, and this conversation has really triggered a lot of questions and ideas in my own mind.

Thanks for that,