NEW YORK, USA- Ishmael Beah, Grace Akallo and Kon Kelei know the consequences of war. All three have lived through and participated in conflict in their native countries of Sierra Leone, Uganda and Sudan.
They share not only common experiences as former child soldiers, but also agree that it was education that enabled them to become the writers and advocates they are today.
During a podcast recorded at the UN Radio studios in New York recently, the three survivors spoke about a recently-launched network for young people affected by conflict. The This is a core principle of the network is that all children, including those affected by armed conflict, have a right to be protected and educated.
The network, which includes other child survivors, aims to reach out to all children whose lives are fractured by war, not only former child soldiers like themselves.
Empowering former child soldiers
Mr. Beah spoke of a recent trip to Northern Uganda where he visited a school to speak about his experiences in Sierra Leone. He relayed the story of one boy who was astounded by his accomplishments as the author of the bestselling memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier’.
“’You were only in the war for over 2 years. I was in the war longer. I can write a book, I can do anything that you did.’ And that’s the kind of empowerment we want to see, that’s the kind of motivation we want to bring to young people,” said Mr. Beah.
Ms. Akallo remarked that their vision is to create “a world that is just inclusive and supports the participation of young people in bringing about change.”
By working together they hope to raise awareness of the plight of children in conflict zones and to serve as role models for children who are currently struggling to recover from war.
‘Double work’ for girls
In civil conflicts and protracted crises, young women are particularly vulnerable.
“Some of my friends had to give birth while fighting. Some of them were going with children on their backs, some of them pregnant – and they still fight,” said Ms. Akallo. “It’s like double work.”
In many countries, armies on both sides of a dispute refuse to give up girls until the last moments of fighting, because they are seen as being valuable.
“When they give up girls you loose the functioning capacity of your squad because the men would no longer have sexual partners- you don’t have people who can cook and carry those loads,” said Mr. Beah.
A key component of rehabilitation
Education factors largely into the plans for the future work of these young activists, as it has had a profound impact on each one of them.
“If I just come back from a war, or I have been affected by war, and you just rehabilitate me without giving me direction or something to look up to- more or less you’ve have done nothing. I am just going to be back in that society, which is violent, without a future without a hope of changing that society. And I become helpless,” said Ms. Akallo. “So If you give me education, give me a hope, give me something I can look up to; it can change everything.”
Mr. Beah said: “For me, education is absolutely important because without it we cannot be in a position to understand one another, to move forward, to build societies, to have future leaders.”
Kon Kelei unequivocally agreed. “The only way we can integrate into the real world is through education.”
Listen to the podcast
UNICEF advocate for children affected by war and author of the best-seller ‘A Long Way Gone’ Ishmael Beah; co-author of ‘Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children’ and a masters student in International Development and Social Change at Clark University Grace Akallo; and spokesperson for War Child Holland and a masters student of International and European Law in the Netherlands Kon Kelei.