Spoils of War

By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

Crouching in the bush, an AK-47 machine gun poised at the ready, an African boy is a portrait of icy detachment as he considers an interloper. It’s the now-hardened image that has come to symbolize the recruitment of children into armed conflicts since the 1990s.

Experts say that outdated and narrow picture obscures present-day conditions, where both boys and girls are deployed in war not just in Africa, but also Asia, Latin America, and now Syria, where civil war has raged since 2011. While global pressure to curb the use of children in combat has worked in some places, the persistent challenge for local governments and international organizations such as the United Nations is to find ways to integrate damaged former soldiers back into the communities they were led to violate and abandon.

Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone and the author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” said that too often the signing of resolutions has been the primary focus of many intergovernmental organizations, and that more practical approaches are needed.

“A lot has been done on paper about what can be done and how can we address the issue. But where the problem lies … is in the implementation of some of these things,” Beah said during a panel discussion Monday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s JFK Jr. Forum. “Oftentimes when they sign these things, they don’t even have the capacity to implement them.”

Leila Zerrougui, the U.N.’s special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, agreed that the successful reintegration of former child soldiers has been more complicated than first understood. But she defended the resolutions, saying the documents provide vital recognition by both the international community and local governments that using children in armed conflict is unacceptable. She said such resolutions also lay the groundwork for future action.

“All this is true. And I’m not saying everything is perfect,” she said. “Every day I see the report that [shows], still, children are being recruited. But we can do more, and all of you can help us in making it better and more efficient and effective on the ground.”

Beah now works with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as an advocate for youths affected by war and is a member of Human Rights Watch Children’s Advisory Committee. He said that little progress has been made to improve or expand the economic opportunities for former soldiers and others in war-torn communities. Many of the same lackluster offerings that existed when he left the war in the mid-’90s are still being promoted by NGOs and others, he said, without input from local communities.

“There’s no market research to really determine what is it that can yield better economic opportunity for people coming out of war,” Beah said. “We were sitting there, some of us, thinking, ‘How come nobody is asking us?’ But nobody is interested in engaging them about, practically, what they want to do because I think there’s this assumption that maybe because they’ve been through war that we don’t have the intelligence to actually think about our situation.” read more

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Ishmael Beah and Leila Zerrougui

Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone and the author of “A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” spoke with Leila Zerrougui (right), the U.N.’s special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict

Photo Credit: Jon Chase

“A lot has been done on paper about what can be done and how can we address the issue. But where the problem lies … is in the implementation of some of these things,” says Ishmael Beah.