For thirteen weeks, former child soldier Ishmael Beah has seen his memoir, A Long Way Gone, hover in the top-ranks of the New York Times' bestsellers list. For a young man whose village and family were burned, who evaded capture amidst the war-torn landscape of Sierra Leone, and finally was given an AK-47 and coerced to join the government army, a best-selling book comes as quite a twist in the road.
As a child soldier, Ishmael heard his commanding officer frequently tell him and his comrades, "Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you." In their drills when they did not properly bayonet a banana tree, the officer reprimanded them by saying: "Is that how you stab someone who had killed your family?"
As Beah's story unfolds, one cannot help but wonder about the fate of such children, suckled on revenge from such a tender age. What is strong enough to overcome that kind of past? The answer does not come as a surprise. It is the power of forgiveness and unconditional love.
When UNICEF forces showed up one day and negotiated with Beah's commander for the release of the children soldiers in his command, Ishmael and others found themselves suddenly transported to a rehabilitation camp. One would think that these children would be grateful for release and embrace these workers for their role in their redemption. But, you're wrong. It would take months for these children to lose their appetite for brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gun-powder), for violence, and for revenge. Day after day these young kids would lash out at the workers and the other children. Day after day, the workers would respond with forgiveness and love.
Beah recounts the story of one of the workers in the rehabilitation compound named Poppay, whom the children beat, stabbed and left unconscious. Several days later, Poppay returned from the hospital, limping, but with a smile on his face. "It is not your fault that you did such a thing to me," he said. As Beah recalls, "Most of the staff members were like that; they returned smiling after we hurt them. It was as if they had made a pact not to give up on us." Wittingly or unwittingly, they were displaying the turn-the-other-cheek kind of love that Christ taught. And through their display of grace, they sent a powerful message: Revenge stops here.
But Beah's horrific tale is, sadly, too common. There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. Recently, U.S. Senators Durbin and Brownback introduced The Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007 to help protect these exploited children. This bill would curtail U.S. military assistance to governments that do not work to demobilize and stop the forcing or recruiting of children into military service. I want to encourage you to call your Congressman to support the bill.
Meanwhile, Ishmael Beah has a lesson worth learning for all of us. As he says, "To forgive is not to forget but to transform all that happened into something positive because the other route can only bring more suffering to [ourselves] and to those around [us]."
From BreakPoint®, July 5, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship