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Leonardo, Diamonds and Child Soldiers (Part I)

What have recent books and movies taught the world about the tragic fate of child soldiers?

March 12, 2007

What have recent books and movies taught the world about the tragic fate of child soldiers?

When Edward Zwick's Academy Award-nominated film “Blood Diamond” first came out, it stimulated considerable controversy over the actual degree to which diamonds are used to fund conflicts. Human rights groups claim, for example, that as many as 15% of all diamonds come from conflict-affected states, while the industry itself puts the figure at 4%.

To me, however, the most interesting aspect of the film is not the focus on how wars are financed, but on how children are increasingly recruited, coerced and induced into becoming soldiers. To watch a boy hold a gun to his father's head, — while his father slowly tries to revive the boy's memories of home, school and family — is jolting, to say the least.

Set against the backdrop of the civil war that took place in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001, “Blood Diamond” is about South African mercenary Danny Archer's (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) promise to help a poor West African fisherman, Solomon Vandy (played by Djimon Hounsou), find his family. Archer is prepared to do so in exchange for a diamond worth millions of dollars.

Solomon found the diamond while enslaved by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which was exploiting the diamond trade to fund its insurgency. Together, Archer and Solomon embark on a perilous journey to find Solomon's family and the stone he hid from the RUF.

Along the way, Archer develops a conscience — and Solomon finds his son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers). Abducted and brainwashed by the RUF, Dia has become a trained killer. He can no longer recognize his father, let alone understand what he has become as a member of the RUF.

Children did indeed play a prominent role in the civil war that raged in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001. Altogether, there were approximately 10,000 child soldiers engaged in the conflict. They fought mostly for the RUF, but they were also recruited into the government's forces, as revealed in a new book entitled “A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ismael Beah.

In the book, Beah, now a 26-year-old living in the United States, describes how he was recruited into the government of Sierra Leone's army at the age of 13, after his village was burned by rebel forces and his family killed.

The first time Beah was ordered to kill, he couldn't do it. But after watching his two friends die, he "shot everything that moved" — and never had a problem shooting again. Summing up his experience as a child soldier, Beah writes, "My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector and my rule was to kill or be killed."

When he wasn't out raiding villages and killing people, he was watching Rambo movies and sniffing cocaine mixed with gunpowder. At the age of 16, the RUA handed Beah over to UNICEF, which took him to a rehabilitation center.

When he first arrived there, Beah writes, "Whenever I turned on the faucet, all I could see was blood gushing out." It took almost half a year for him to forgive himself, regain his humanity and sleep without the help of medication.

The use of children in Sierra Leone's conflict was not an anomaly. As Brookings Institution analyst Peter Singer argues in his study “Children at War,” over the past decade the most basic laws of war have changed, allowing children to increasingly become both its victims and perpetrators.

In contrast to a century ago — when only 5% of war casualties were civilians and wars were generally fought between soldiers — today more than 90% of those killed and wounded as a result of conflict are civilians, and about half of them are children.

Over the past decade alone, more than two million children have been killed in war, one million children have been orphaned and almost 25 million more driven from their homes. According to Singer, approximately 50% of the refugees in the world are children.

All things considered, in many of today's conflicts, it would seem that children have three choices — to be killed, to join one of the armed groups, or to become a refugee. In two new books — “God Grew Tired of Us” by John Bul Dau and “What is the What” by Dave Eggers — the authors document the mass migration of 25,000 displaced and orphaned children during the Sudanese civil war (1983-2005).

“God Grew Tired of Us” is a memoir that Christopher Quinn turned into a moving documentary of the same title, which won this year's Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. “What is the What” is a novel of sorts told from the perspective of a single boy, Valentino Achak Deng.

Valentino was one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" who made his way to Atlanta, Georgia after having walked across Southern Sudan to a temporary shelter in Ethiopia — and then to a vast refugee camp in Kenya. Along the way, Valentino confronted inter-religious strife between Christians and Arabs, starvation, soldiers from all sides of the conflict, landmines — and lions and crocodiles.

In the book's preface, Valentino explains that he told his story to Eggers over a period of years and that the author then turned it into a novel using the basic tenets of Valentino's life. The title of the book comes from a Dinka legend as told by Valentino's father. According to the legend, when God created man, he said, "You can either have these cattle as my gift — or you can have ‘The What.'”

When asked what is “The What,” God said that he could not say, but man must nonetheless choose between the two options. The Dinka could see the cattle in front of them, knew that they could live in peace with them and that, if treated well, they were a tangible source of milk, meat and prosperity.

They could, in short, appreciate what had been given them — and would not trade it for the unknown. The Arabs, on the other hand, picked the mysterious and hard to define "what," — which became a source of tension between the two from that moment forward.

Children join armed groups, as Ishmael Beah did and Valentino might have, because they have no home or family — and see it as a way to get food and clothes. They are also kidnapped, as Dia was in Blood Diamond, because children can make very good soldiers. They tend not to ask a lot of questions, and when infused with drugs or religious fervor, will fight with an absolute disregard for their own lives.

Like other child soldiers, both Dia and Beah went through a process of indoctrination that involved the sustained use of drugs, which subsequently made it difficult for them to give up their lives as child soldiers.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part II here.

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