“It was 1989, I was in 7th grade, and my father asked me, ‘who do you want to be?'” Which would be the very African way of asking “What do you want to do when you grow up.” He said a pilot, and his father said “Very well then, from this day on I shall be putting some small monies away for you.” One month later that man was dead, as well as his family, the house they lived in, burned, and the village gone. At the age of 12, the boy who wanted to be a pilot joined the ranks of 1000s of other children who would become the soldiers of Liberian Civil Wars (1989-1996; 1999-2003).
Its Tuesday morning, so I’m co-teaching one of the Leadership III classes at Ashesi. Andres has warned me that we might have some special guests today coming to speak to us from Mediators beyond Borders [click here]. I’m talking about the flywheel and doom loop, from the Jim Collins book Good to Great when suddenly the door opens, and Andres comes back into the lecture hall, followed by a rush of men. Instantly I sense danger, as something dark or evil has entered, and I move to better understand the situation, and access. It’s the child soldiers, now 20 years later, who are coming to speak to the class.
Question: “Knowing what you know now, would you have preferred to die then?” It’s a question that had been on my mind, but I lacked the courage to ask it. We’ve listened now for an hour, and I’ve watched as they talked and sometimes seen that far away look in their eyes, wondering I’m sure, if this will ever be over for them. These boys have lost so much, their families, their past, and their childhood. I’m eating lunch with them afterwards, and one pulls out his camera and shows me pictures of the refugee camp in Budaburam where they are from, about an hour west of Accra.
I’ve passed through Budaburam 100s of times, but never stopped. Here in his camera I see these same men working with kids in one of the Ghanaian schools there. “Those are small boys,” I say, and he goes on to tell me about how working with kids this age helps them recover a lost childhood. Interesting, I think. I expect the lecture to be mostly about the things they were forced to do, but instead they seem to focus on, or maybe its what I focused on, the bigger dangers, which is recruitment, or what they call re-recruitment. “Even today they know where to find us,” one says and another adds, “and if you can one, you can find 1000s.” In the wars in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Darfur, people were sent to re-recruit us child soldiers.”
Question: “How were the supply lines established?” A confused look appears, wondering what the student is asking. Its clear to me that these men have talked about what happened to them, and have done so many times, but this question catches them off guard. The answer centers around bullets and petro the two things they couldn’t get, and finally it dawns on the student who asked that as soldiers, they could take whatever they wanted, they pillaged, and in the process recruited more soldiers like themselves. “Children are taken from terrible situations,” he says. We see that sometimes these conditions already existed, other times they were created for that purpose. He tells of the feeling of loss, “Charles Taylor has taken our history. He went to our villages and killed our elders and chiefs, and burned them so that we do not know where we came from, or who we belonged to, or now what they were even fighting for.
“How can we return to the communities where we killed people, or tortured and beat them? We will not be welcomed.” He talks about how he is always considering what he has done, what he has seen. “There were 2000 people, and now just one left, just one left,… just one left.”
As I’m listening I’m doing the math, trying to figure his age. If he was in 7th grade in 1989, that would make him 32 now, and that’s when I realized he was the age my Anna is now, 12, and she is in 7th grade, and it all becomes so much more real. How could she be taken? There were boys and girls in the ranks of child soldiers, the girls first taken as sex slaves, who later took up arms for protection. It was either join or die, they never had an option.
Eating lunch together afterwards, I stop fearing them, as we talk and joke, exchange email addresses, and I ask about the food and climate of Liberia. About the same time as Suzanne and I will head back to the states, they will be heading to Liberia, in the first wave of re-emigration to come from Ghana. Here I am sure it is easier, and there I worry for them. A deep prayer emerges, praying for forgiveness, that they can forgive themselves, that Liberians can forgive what they did, that this will be the last generation of fighters like them, but I know they wonder if this will last, or will they too become mercenaries, fighting as a profession when no other presents itself.
It was an odd day to be lecturing on the flywheel and the doom loop because that is the great hope for these men, that the flywheel of good in their life has enough energy so sustain them as they return home. Jim Collins believes that sustainable transformation follows a predictable pattern of buildup and breakthrough. Like pushing on a giant, heavy flywheel, it takes a lot of effort to get the thing moving at all, but with persistent pushing in a consistent direction over a long period of time, the flywheel builds momentum, eventually hitting a point of breakthrough. I pray that these years in Ghana have given you a breakthrough to freedom and forgiveness.
Godspeed to you all.