Former Child Soldier Left With Little More Than Stories

By Lane Hartill

It usually works like this: The call comes in. There’s a little small talk about school and work. But Hassan knows what they’re after. So he waits for the question.

Then it comes.

“Hassan,” they ask, a little hesitant, “they want to hear your story.”

Hassan puts up mild resistance, but usually caves in. Maybe, he thinks, this will be the one who helps.

When the journalists show up, Hassan starts with his childhood. But he knows what they want, so he gives it to them.

“We started hearing gunshots close to our village. Everyone was just trying to run. I put a box full of clothes on my head. I had to run with my uncle to the bush. In the bush, we found a thick forest, where we spread mats. The forest was atop a hill. At night, when we were hiding, we couldn’t sleep. At night we saw light, like fire, the houses were burning. I realized our village was burning.

Hassan, not his real name, feeds the journalists the juiciest bits. Journalists scribble and nod. This, they think to themselves, is good copy; the editor will love this.

On our way coming (back from fetching water), we met a group of rebels. We were stopped. (Members of the rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)) started searching our trousers and pockets. You must take off everything you have. If we find out you have money … we will kill you. If you cannot tell us where your parents are, we’ll take you along with us to the village and kill you all.

Then, ever so gradually, he sprinkles in the horrifying detail.

I saw my village. Some houses were burning. Some houses had already been burned by the rebels. One of my uncles who was paying my school fees at primary school, the rebels captured him. The rebels asked him to stop running, but he didn’t. When he later stopped, the rebels said my uncle challenged their authority so he must be killed. My uncle was laid down on a floor and slaughtered like a cow.

After they killed my uncle, they threw the remaining parts in the gutter.

After that they said: Since you are all young men, we are going to take you people along with us.

Hassan, baby faced and pencil thin, was 10 years old.

Each village we arrived, (the rebels) would kill people; they would amputate. Each village we arrived in, they would adopt children, as young as 9 or 10. They would adopt girl children too. Those who were 13 or 14 years, they were used as housewives. At night, they would sleep with the commanders.

My commander trained me how to use the gun, how to shoot, how to crawl in an ambush. Later we were taken for food finding. There were six of us boys.

At some point in the interview, journalists ask about drugs. Most have read Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”, the recounting of a former Sierra Leonean child soldier. Did he take brown-brown, the cocaine and gun powder mix?

(Before attacking a village) there were two options. Either I drink the palm wine or smoke the marijuana. When I was growing up, most of my friends were Muslim, so they were preaching against the alcohol, the palm wine. I was indoctrinated not to drink palm wine.

My commander was threatening me. He said, you must take this.

I said please, I don’t want to take this.

If you refuse my command, I’ll kill you. When taking this and going on ambush, you will have confidence in hearing the guns, even if you are shot, you will not know. Even if you are killed, you will not know.

He himself tasted it. Ok, here my friend, continue smoking it.

After smoking it, I became dizzy, my eyes became smaller.

(After smoking marijuana, we went to) villages where we attacked villages and many people ran away. We gathered the food stuffs. Sometimes my grand commander would go get children and rape them in front of us.

At night, I had to guard my commander; I should not sleep. I was covered in scabies.

* * *
Hassan tells journalists about his failed escape attempt, about how his commander punished him by stripping him naked and beating him with a machete. And then, to drive home the point, Hassan stands up, pulls up his shirt and shows them the scars across his back.

He tells them about Caritas Makeni, a Catholic Relief Services partner during the war. They helped demobilize, document and counsel former soldiers. They also tracked down the families of children like Hassan.

He tells them how Caritas helped save his life after Foday Sankoh, the RUF commander, was captured in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

(The RUF) decided to capture UN personnel. They stripped them naked. (The rebels) wore their UN uniforms. They were about to go to Freetown to attack. We received information at the (demobilization) center that they were coming. We didn’t want to be recaptured by the rebels so the Caritas staff mobilized a kind of trip. We walked on the road. When we hear the (rebels’) vehicle sounds, we moved from the road and we go to the bush. We lied flat on the ground. The Caritas staff was with us. When the convoy passed we continued our journey. At night we slept in the bush.

He tells them about life as a foster child, how locals sneered at him, how the school kids mocked him. He shut his mouth, kept his head down. He did his best to dissolve into the background.

And that’s where he remains today: Invisible.

* * *
That’s it. That’s the story of a former child soldier in West Africa. The journalists feign concern, promise help, then leave. As the stories and deadlines pile up, Hassan recedes from their memory.

After emotionally exposing himself, after waking up the demons that had fallen asleep in his head, he’s done it again. He’s shared those two years of hell in hopes that this time maybe something would change, maybe the journalist would come through with some help. An internship or a job is preferred, but even a few bucks would suffice.

And then he waits. But the promised phone calls don’t come, the emails never materialize.

In the 1990s, child combatants were a hallmark of West Africa’s wars. Drugged and dangerous, they manned roadblocks in Liberia. In Ivory Coast, they served as servants and hired henchman. Now, more than a decade later, the conflicts have cooled. The child soldiers have grown up into frustrated men and women. Some still pledge allegiance to former commanders. Others throw their back into manual-labor jobs that well meaning organizations have helped them start. But most are unemployed or underemployed. They are day laborers at markets or slouch in the saddles of motorcycle taxis, waiting for customers, barely getting by.

But occasionally, there’s someone like Hassan, someone who has aspirations beyond driving a moto taxi or pushing a handcart.

The rebels freed Hassan in 2000, which coincided with a surge of media interest in the country. Journalists wanted the ghastly details of life as a boy rebel. Hassan, with his solid English (Krio is the lingua franca in Sierra Leone), boyish face, and ability to spin a juicy yarn about his time in the jungle, was the perfect interview.

He was so good, in fact, that in the fall of 2001, he was bundled up in a United Nations sweatshirt and UNICEF flew him to New York. He rode through Manhattan’s concrete canyons. He couldn’t believe the size and the wealth of the place. It was less than a year before that he sprayed bullets at villagers and relieved them of their hands, stoned out of his 11-year old mind.

He pulled up to the 760 United Nations Plaza and was escorted into the Security Council chambers. As the world’s top diplomats looked on, Hassan stepped up to the lectern. The 14 year old then calmly delivered a 5 minute account that made the men in dark suits and women with tastefully applied perfume shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

“During those attacks, we killed people, burned down houses, destroyed property and cut off limbs,” he told them. “I did bad things in the bush and saw very bad things done to both children and adults. I am easily reminded of my past when I make mistakes.

“Above all,” Hassan continued, “we want our parents to be able to work and educate us and to become useful citizens. We want peace. We are counting on your continued support for this.”

The diplomats from China, and Iraq, and Egypt and Israel listened politely. When the floor was open for comment, the representatives from Egypt and Israel got into a diplomatic sparring match about the plight of children in their region. Hassan listened, his story already slipping away, replaced by an age-old international dispute.

Before Hassan left the chamber, the Israeli representative said something prescient.

“When it comes to the education of our children, we must take a long view of the situation and consider the well-being of children,” said Yehuda Lancry.

* * *
Hassan carries his souvenirs from New York in an old plastic bag. He pulls out a photo, dog-eared and faded with age. In the photo, the sky is flannel gray. Hassan remembers the bite in the air that autumn day.

Hassan is holding the attention of three of the world’s most well known men. On his right is Pelé, the Brazilian soccer star. Next to Pelé is Joseph Blatter, the Swiss president of the World Association of Football Federations, better known as FIFA. On Hassan’s left is Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations at the time. Hassan is smiling as he hoists the 2002 World Cup trophy above his head. The same one Brazil would hold the next year as champions.

It was a photo op, announcing the partnership of UNICEF and FIFA. The World Cup’s cause that year: children. And Hassan was the center of attention. Once again, he was being used for someone else’s purpose.

Looking back on it now, Hassan says all he got out of it was a soccer ball from Pelé, which was eventually stolen. And this old photo, moldering in front of him.

* * *
Nine years later, the baby face is gone. So are the trips to the posh hotels and the exotic American food. Hassan is back to rice and cassava leaf stew. He still lives with the same host family that Caritas placed him with after he was released from the rebels (but he is in touch with his mother and uncle).

He’s studying peace and conflict studies at Fourah Bay College in Freetown. But he’s getting nervous. He owes $375 in tuition for this year, and he still hasn’t paid. He isn’t sure how he’s going to afford it. His failure at finding financial support for his undergraduate degree doesn’t bode well for his desire to pursue a Master’s. He’s ironing other people’s clothes and doing odd jobs in hopes of paying tuition, room and board.

When he falls short of money, which is most of the time, he turns to the clutch of business cards he’s collected over the years. He sends emails to the journalists, researchers, and humanitarians. He makes a plea for money, support, anything that can help him finish his studies. But Sierra Leone’s war doesn’t make headlines anymore, which means Hassan’s only currency, his story, isn’t worth much anymore.

“I’m angry with those who will make promises,” he says. “After collecting the ingredients from me, for what they needed, they just left me. I was just left out.

“One thing I’m tired of is nothing is given to me, but I’m giving my story,” he says. “They say, ‘Come and tell your story.’ That will help others. Not me.

Knowing the slim chances of a Master’s, he and another former soldier approached Ishmael Beah about assistance in starting an organization in Sierra Leone to help former child soldiers. He shakes his head in disgust. That went nowhere.

So he’ll keep telling his story.

And hoping someone keeps their promise, and, like the Israeli diplomat said, takes the long view of children like him.

CRS is helping Hassan with his university fees.

Lane Hartill is CRS’ regional information officer for western and central Africa. He’s based in Dakar, Senegal.

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