Ishmael Beah, a United Nations advocate for children affected by war, meets… (Brian Sokol, UNICEF )
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When Ishmael Beah looked at the dazed faces of child soldiers in the Central African Republic, dark memories rose inside him.
He'd been in a similar situation as a boy soldier in the West African country of Sierra Leone in the 1990s during a war in which combatants routinely chopped off people's limbs. Now he had traveled the corrugated back roads of the Central African Republic to the remote town of Ndele, where he was present last week for negotiations with militia leaders on the release of child combatants.
"The work is hard because when you get there, [militia leaders] hide the children because they don't want to give them up," said Beah, who in 2007 became UNICEF's first advocate for children affected by war. He spoke during an interview in Johannesburg on his way back to New York, where he lives.
"We showed up looking for [the child soldiers] and [militia leaders] would say, 'Well, they're not here. Maybe they are in another camp.'"
Ten children, including three girls, were surrendered to UNICEF last week by leaders of a rebel militia named the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace. Under pressure from a United Nations task force on children associated with armed groups or forces, the militia agreed at the end of last year to stop using children as combatants.
In all, 45 youths were freed recently, including 35 who were released before Beah's arrival, and taken to a shelter managed by the Danish Refugee Council.
"I understood the feeling of being in the army and being released, and it's a daunting feeling: 'Where am I going and where is my life going?' I could see that in their faces and I was telling them, 'It's all right, I've been through this,'" said Beah, 31, author of "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."
He knew there would be difficult times ahead for the children: boredom, frustration and even loss of pride at their loss of rank.
"As a soldier, you are used to getting things done fast because of the power of the gun. It can be very frustrating when things don't just happen straight away," he said. "One of their questions was, 'Is it really possible to have a normal life?' I was very honest with them. I told them, 'It really is possible, but it will take a long time and you will be frustrated.'"
He talked to the children at the center about loss and recovery, and read to them from his book. His family members were burned in their village hut and he fled rebels in Sierra Leone, eventually seeking shelter at a military base, where he was forcibly recruited into the army at 13.
At times, he felt assailed by memories. "Traveling in the bush, seeing burned villages and people walking around with weapons brought back my own past," Beah said.
"Whenever things [from the past] were coming up in my head, and I'd walk away and sit by myself, one of the kids would come and sit with me and they would sing or dance or be funny," he said. "I felt like they were trying to help me, as well as me trying to help them."
Beah, who was removed from the army after a couple of years and placed in a rehabilitation home with UNICEF help, says not enough is being done by governments to help the tens of thousands of child conscripts in militias and armies.
Estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 child combatants globally are often cited, but the Child Soldiers Global Report in 2008 found that it was impossible to establish the number. The report was by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a coalition of human rights groups.
Last month, the International Criminal Court sentenced former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in prison for using child soldiers in war, after his landmark conviction in March, which set a legal precedent that using children in war, even as volunteers, is a war crime.
Another militia notorious for its use of children in battle, the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, operates in the southeast of the Central African Republic. Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005.
Beah said he sometimes feels angry that people with a burning interest in his personal story are equally capable of ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of children remain in captivity as child soldiers.
"I find it very strange," he said. "There's a kind of hypocrisy that comes with the issue. The problems still exist and people ignore [them]. It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, which is why I continue to tell my story and go on telling the stories of kids who have no voice.
"Typically kids go through rehabilitations and most of them don't have very good re-integration and they don't have very good opportunities, like in Sierra Leone, where you have a lot of restless young people hanging around with nothing to do."
Beah, who is scheduled to become a U.S. citizen Friday at a ceremony in New York, draws a parallel between child soldiers and youth gangs in the United States.
He worries that no matter what he does, he will never be seen as anything but a "former boy soldier."
Beah said that though his book has given him the means to look after his grandmother, who lives in rural Sierra Leone, it has also taken a toll.
"It's exhausting writing nonfiction, particularly when it's personal," he said. "It's tiring, always speaking about things that are not necessarily fun retelling. It brings up different things.
"Those first few months [after the book's publication] were really difficult. Some questions that were asked really pierced certain places," he said.
"One of the questions that hurt me was, 'How many people did you kill?' It's not like a film. It's not like you go around and kill and count it up.
"People say, 'How does it feel like to kill?' I say, 'It's horrible, you can't describe it.' I didn't write the book to make a bravado out of war."
His next book, finished but untitled, is fictional.