Meeting Ishmael Beah is a disorienting experience. Here is someone who once competed with other child soldiers to see who could slash the throats of captured prisoners most quickly. Beah won. It's one of many chilling scenes in his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier.
And yet here was Beah when I met him, courteously holding the door of an elevator for me to enter. That was in March, during the Vancouver leg of his book tour. In our conversation, Beah proved to be charming, eloquent and humorous. He was also a publicist's dream: dressed in a hip maroon shirt and blue jeans, with Gap ad good looks and a smile that would make a room full of dental hygienists swoon.
It has been a remarkable year for Beah. His book rides high on bestseller lists. He has graced American talk shows and starred in Bling'd, a VH1 documentary that takes American rappers to the diamond mines of Sierra Leone. Even Jon Stewart has paid tribute.
And about Omar Khadr:
...whether Khadr was a lawful or unlawful combatant, one thing is certain: he was 15 years old when American soldiers captured him. Should a child soldier be tried for war crimes?
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Layne Morris argues that Khadr should be treated as an adult. For proof, Morris described Khadr's behaviour in the battle in which Khadr allegedly killed an American soldier. (Morris was injured in the same clash.) Trapped in a compound besieged by American troops, Khadr chose not to escape with a group of women. The Americans then bombed the compound, killing most of Khadr's companions. When American ground forces entered, the injured Khadr threw a grenade at them. "Anyone who thinks those are the actions of a child, I can't even take them seriously," Morris told the Canadian Broadcast Company''s show The Current recently.
Had he read Ishmael Beah's book, Morris would know that this is exactly how a child soldier would act. They are fierce fighters and suicidally loyal to superiors -- that is why child soldiers are used. Moreover, international legal convention, psychological research, and common sense all tell us that most youths are easily manipulated and therefore not entirely responsible for their actions. Indeed, David Crane, the former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said that he would not prosecute child soldiers because they were "as much victims as the people they raped, maimed and mutilated."
Ishmael Beah committed much more heinous acts than those attributed to Omar Khadr. Now Beah is on talk shows and Khadr remains in indefinite incarceration. Were their situations really different? Or is it just that Beah killed Sierra Leonean civilians, while Khadr allegedly killed a single American soldier?
I've had this discussion may times on this blog with people who believe Khadr, first of all, is already guilty without ever being tried and who, secondly, place absolutely no weight on the fact that he was an indoctrinated child soldier. Those who debate these points often then go on to refer to Khadr's sordid family history which, in the context of his alleged behaviour, ought to bring some light and understanding to his circumstances.
Instead, it is used by those who have written him off as a terrorist (having bought into Bush's rhetoric) as being indicative of the supposition that despite his young age he was fully in control of what he was doing and deserves to rot in Gitmo while some Canadians have even loudly proclaimed that he should be stripped of his Canadian citizenship. When asked why, they have no good reason. Perhaps it's that Khadr doesn't exemplify what a Canadian is supposed to be - whatever that is. It's an attitude that dismisses, as Tenove notes, all of the positive and difficult work done with child soldiers around the world.
Is he right in suggesting that it's because Khadr is accused of committing a war crime against an American - a soldier - a westerner - that gives license to this idea that he is forever hopeless and unable to be rehabilitated? That he should not even be allowed to come back to this country - his home? That he doesn't deserve any justice or compassion? Could it be that we devalue the lives of dead African civilians while elevating the life of an American soldier as somehow being more important? How do we judge the value of a human life? And how do we judge those who allegedly decide to end one in a war zone? Who is guilty of murder and who is guilty of self-defence? How were those fatal situations created in the first place? Those are fundamental questions that deserve some serious thought.
I haven't yet read Beah's book but I hope that people who have such staunchly negative opinions about Omar Khadr's worth as a human being and a Canadian would consider Beah's path:
Beah and the other children find themselves in a village protected by a government-aligned militia. The commander gives the boys a choice: join his forces and help fight the rebels, or continue to wander the countryside in fear of the next attack. Soon the boys are carrying AK-47s and sneaking through the jungle toward their first battle.
In the months that follow, the new recruits are kept high on drugs, whether engaged in combat or watching war movies at base camp. Killing soon becomes a routine, and often a game. As the boys advance on one village, Beah's friend decides to use a tactic he learned from the Rambo movies. He smears himself in dirt and crawls toward the huts. Beah watches as his friend sneaks behind a man, covers his mouth and slices his throat open. (I felt like photocopying this page in the book and mailing it to Sylvester Stallone with the words: "Sly, you must be proud that so many kids look up to you.")
Then, one day, some men from UNICEF arrive and take the youngest child soldiers away to be decommissioned and rehabilitated. Beah is one of them. He was 15 at the time -- the same age as Omar Khadr was when captured. But while Khadr was put in a military prison, Beah was taken to a rehabilitation centre called Benin Home.
The staff at Benin Home are the real heroes of Beah's memoir. In the first weeks the former child soldiers suffer excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and they self-medicate with violence, attacking each other and the centre's staff.
When Beah returned to Sierra Leone last year, he visited Benin Home and thanked the counsellors. "Those people were amazingly strong," Beah told me. "We would do all kinds of things to them and they would come back and help us. Their only goal was to show us that we were trusted and that we could get hold of ourselves. They rekindled our humanity."
And that is the last thing being imprisoned indefinitely at Gitmo is doing for Omar Khadr. It's amazing he's survived there all of these years, especially if his tales of torture are true, while some people would rather sit back in their comfy Canadian armchairs and judge that he ought to be persona non grata - and that includes our own Conservative government officials who are playing faith-based games with the idea that the Bush administration will somehow treat Khadr appropriately. They haven't until now. Why would anyone expect that to change?
The bottom line is this:
He was a child in a war zone.
For some reason, that fact seems to make some people very uncomfortable. And so it should.