By Paul Ndiho
July 2, 2010
Two former child soldiers from Africa are using their experiences to counsel other child soldiers and to bring justice to those affected by decades of war. Here are their stories.
Child soldiers have been documented in several African nations, countries with a history of unstable governments and long civil wars. In Chad, barefoot children in torn t-shirts play with a deflated soccer ball. Nearby, men in uniform walk through the area – a common site in the capital city where soldiers are everywhere. Ishmael Beah is a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war and UNICEF’s advocate for children.
“There’s always a bit of sadness. I feel like I can bring some assurance to some of the young kids there.”
Beah is author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” a bestselling book. He is one of 16-hundred Sierra Leoneans who immigrated to the United States to escape the war there. The United Nations says children are still being recruited and used in combat in Chad. Orphaned by war, child soldiers find a new kind of family in the military. Robert, a 17 year-old former child soldier, says he was given literacy and language classes, three meals a day and medical care.
“I joined the national army when I was 12 and fought for them for four years and then I joined the rebels, I was a soldier, a soldier of war.”
In Tanzania, another former child soldier – now a prosecutor at the International Tribunal for Rwanda – finds motivation for his work in his past. Alfred Orono is pressing his case against a Catholic priest accused of bulldozing a church and murdering the 15-hundred people sheltered inside. He was outraged by the priest’s original sentence of only 15 years.
“He was moving events, and the events happened and that makes him a direct perpetrator. He committed genocide.”
Orono says he is committed to prosecuting these crimes because his own childhood ended cruelly 30 years ago. He was not yet a teenager when Tanzanian forces invaded his native Uganda to oust Idi Amin. Amid the chaos, he encountered Tanzanian soldiers who persuaded him to join their ranks. As an interpreter, he was given an AK47. When Alfred was 18, President Milton Obote was overthrown, and Alfred again feared for his life.
“I knew I was going to die. I was thinking I was going to die – but then something in me said no.”
Alfred Orono escaped death and turned his life around, eventually winning a scholarship to study law in Canada. He was later recruited by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Today, the boy who once held a Kalashnikov helps prosecute criminals from the 1994 Rwandan genocide.