Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Schools in Sierra Leone reopened today, having been closed since the Ebola outbreak in July. According to an NPR report, "more than one-third of the 10,000+ deaths have been in Sierra Leone."

When this year's harsh winter closed schools for several days in a row, some parents joked about how grueling it was to be trapped at home with stir-crazy children. Very few of us reading this blog can imagine what it's like to experience nine months of closed schools, especially amid a health crisis claiming thousands of lives.

Not that long ago, in 1991, Sierra Leone faced another horrifying crisis: civil war. A month ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a survivor of that war. Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was forced to become a soldier in Sierra Leone at the age of thirteen.

Photo courtesy of Brookfield Academy
Ishmael visited my children's school, where his book is required reading for the ninth graders. Students, teachers, alumni, and parents packed the gym to hear him tell his story. Sierra Leone culture cherishes storytelling, and Ishmael carries on his country's tradition powerfully.

This blog is dedicated to faithful parenting, so I would like to pass on two lessons Ishmael taught that relate directly to our work as parents.

Parents inspire hope

When Ishmael's community learned that soldiers were approaching his village, everyone ran. In the chaos, twelve-year-old Ishmael was separated from his family. He ran from village to village with friends and other lost children searching for news of their families. These children experienced unspeakable violence as they wandered around, sleeping in trees and eating whatever semi-edible items they could find.

Once in a while, the children would come across a village. They would try to enter the village, hoping the adults there would help them. Instead, villagers locked up their houses and hid from the children. What the villagers had already learned (and the children were soon to discover) is that soldiers were forcibly recruiting children to fight. Child-soldiers would be sent as bait into villages, drawing people out of their homes only to be massacred by the unlikely young killers.

Eventually Ishmael heard his parents and two brothers were safe in a nearby village. He focused all his thoughts and efforts on reaching his family.
The thought of his seeing his parents gave him hope and purpose.

He had been told that the war had not yet reached that village, but when he arrived, he learned the awful truth: every person taking shelter there had been killed. The soldiers locked many people in homes and set fire to them, burning the captives alive. Ishmael's entire family was dead.

I cried as Ishmael related the story to us. My heart ached for him as he described his thoughts at that moment. Ishmael wished he had been in the village with his family when the soldiers came. He wished he could have been slaughtered like the rest, rather than be left alive to grieve.

Listening to Ishmael's story, I understood how critical parents are to children. Knowing his parents were alive had given Ishmael hope and purpose. Their death brought despair.

Whether they know it or not, our own children have a reason to live: our heavenly Father. We parents can be marvelous earthly stand-ins for God, but, as Ishmael learned bitterly, parents die. Our work is to encourage in our children a vibrant, intimate relationship with God, a personal relationship that develops as the child grows.

At one point or another, we will all be separated from our children, whether by death or by thousands of subtle slippings-away. The best gift we can give our children is a healthy attachment to the Father who will always care for them, and perfectly too.

Family love provides long-term stability

Another lesson Ishmael shared is that early family stability makes hearts more human. After two years of soldiering, Ishmael was rescued by UNICEF and admitted into a Freetown rehabilitation center. The boys and girls in the rehabilitation home, ex-soldiers, had almost completely lost their humanity. They had no problem-solving skills whatsoever. For example, if the cook forgot to provide sugar for tea, the children would attack him, hitting and beating him. They had forgotten how to relate to other humans, how to ask for help.

Given the children's tragic military programming, rehabilitation didn't always succeed. Children who fared better than others, Ishmael explained, were children who could resurrect memories of a stable, happy family life.

The military recruiters had taught the children not to feel anything. During rehabilitation, children who could remember what it was like to feel love, to feel cared for in a family, were the first to rediscover their humanity. Slowly, painfully, they unlearned maniacal brutality and relearned how to speak and relate with their fellow country mates.

We parents have no idea what's in store for our children. Hopefully we will never encounter a reality as terrifying as Ishmael's Sierra Leone in civil war. Then again, Ishmael's family never expected war either.

No matter what form it takes, suffering will enter our children's lives. Parents cannot prevent that. But we can spend every last ounce of our energy creating an affectionate and stable home for the "little ones" Jesus gives us. We can pay attention to our children, offering them opportunities to grow as sons and daughters of our loving God.

Ishmael believes in God. He is firmly convinced God was caring for him, even in the darkest times of his early life. I marvel at the miracle of Ishmael's life and turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah:

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort
You will see and your heart shall exult,
and your bodies shall flourish like the grass.
(Isaiah 66:13-14)