Parents are often confronted with the attention-grabbing question, “Do you know where your child is tonight?” Normally, this question is raised to shock or jolt parents into remembering their responsibilities. But tonight there are many parents around this globe who will not be able to answer that penetrating question. They simply don’t know the location of their children because of the ravages of war. This month I want to share with you the very real and heart-rending dilemma of little boys in a small country with big problems. This faraway tragedy has very near and dear consequences for every Christian.
These young and precious lives came to light in the article “Saving Sierra Leone’s Ex-Child Soldiers” in the Los Angeles Times October 18, 1999. Times staff writer Ann M. Simmons paints a sobering picture of how children were “used up” by adults in the midst of a civil war and how a devastated society is trying to rehabilitate these “veterans” of war-the best they know how.
Meet Sergeant David Samai
Simmons sets a tone of understanding by writing: “The crackle of gunfire, the pride of being in charge, the experience of attacking a village and being allowed to keep some of the spoils. This is what used to give David Samai a thrill. He ran away from home at age 12 to join forces fighting to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. By the time he was 14 he had been promoted to sergeant, primarily in charge of other young combatants and fighting alongside some of the toughest, most notorious rebel commanders in one of Africa’s cruelest conflicts.”
David’s reaction? “ ‘It was fun to be in the bush,’ recalled the scrawny, deceptively reserved teenager with deep-set eyes, now unhappy living with his adoptive parents. ‘I liked being a sergeant.’”
Sgt. David, as he was popularly known, is among thousands of children who either volunteered or were forced to join the ranks of the rebel army during this West African nation’s eight-year civil war. But this portrait stretches far beyond the framework of one person or country. The United Nations says about 300,000 children under age 18 are serving as regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, scouts, laborers, human shields and sex slaves in conflicts raging in over 50 countries.
Meet “Short but Old”
The story continues by spotlighting the plight of Abibu Gandoh. During his eight months in rebel captivity, he learned how to assemble, dismantle and shoot an AK-47 assault rifle. Nicknamed “Short but Old,” the illiterate 10-year-old was kidnapped from his home and forced to lug ammunition to the front and fight. To numb his nerves, he was given marijuana and hard liquor before each attack.
Young Abibu recounts, “Sometimes we would kill some soldiers or capture their weapons.” Remember, he’s only 10 years old! His diet consisted of dog meat soup, wild snails and snakes, which most likely contributed to his bout with intestinal worms. The same rebels who killed his parents turned him into their pawn to do their bidding.
“In terms of child-soldiering, Sierra Leone is among the worst,” said Olara Otunnu, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, after a recent visit to the nation. While some children, like David, volunteered to join the insurrection, others were kidnapped by rebels and forced to fight, kill and commit atrocities.
Last January alone, about 3,000 youngsters between the ages of 5 and 18 were reported missing during a rebel offensive against Freetown, the capital. Human rights officials maintain the children were kidnapped. Imagine these modern day Pied Pipers leading children off, not with flutes full of promises, but with machine guns full of terror.
We in the West are reared with such literature as David Copperfield and Anthony Adverse . But such Dickensian classics illustrating the grime, grit and woe of children during Britain’s industrial revolution of the mid-1800s take a back seat to this outright demolition of the human spirit. These children were not simply hauling coal, but hauling bodies! It’s both a crime against humanity and a sin against God.
The words of Christ keep ringing in my ears. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matthew 18:6-7 Matthew 18:6-7 6 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 Woe to the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
American King James Version×).
Make no mistake and consider deeply. God does not take lightly the mistreatment of children.
They Have a “Lot of Baggage”
Long ago, philosopher Edmund Burke stated, “War never leaves, where it finds a nation.” Simmons verifies that timeless sentiment by reporting, “The war in Sierra Leone is over for now, but thousands of civilians suffered brutal amputations as the rebels spread their terror. The future remains perilous. The just announced peace pact presented by the new administration addresses the special needs of child combatants as it tackles disarmament, demobilization and re-integration. Weaning child soldiers, who committed some of the war’s worst atrocities, from a diet of indiscipline and violence and bringing them back into society is one of Sierra Leone’s most difficult and pressing challenges.”
Regarding the re-integration of children warriors, social worker Roisin De Burca soberly observed that “the child that left is not the child who’s coming back. They have a lot of baggage. Just saying, ‘welcome back’ is not enough.”
What is to be done? Reporter Simmons fills in the details.
The Precious Key of Education
The people of Sierra Leone believe that education is the key! Kingsley Amaning, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, warned, “Many of these young people have lost the sense of the meaning of life.”
Arthur Tucker, a local social worker who counsels David and scores of others, echoed Amaning’s concerns. “There is going to be so much trouble in Sierra Leone if these boys are not taken care of… We need to get them to do something immediately.”
These officials may not know that they are implementing a powerful biblical principle. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21 Romans 12:21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
American King James Version×). God does not operate in a “vacuum of inaction” and neither can nations or individuals. Remember the old childhood chant of “out goes the bad air, in goes the good.” Choking on the foul air of civil war, Sierra Leone is striving to do just that.
The country’s infrastructure is a shambles. Education is a privilege. Employment is a luxury, even for adults. Local observers believe that education is key to saving their “lost young souls.”
Simmons mentions the thoughts and frustrations of Paul Kamara, editor of For Di People, a Freetown daily, who tells it like it is. “The youth have been marginalized by successive governments. Education has been a privilege, not a right, and this created a youth body who, because they were illiterate, have been used on both sides of the divide.”
Under terms of the new peace agreement, the new government is obliged to provide at least nine years of free and compulsory education.
Where Does the Cleanup Really Begin?
The same U.N. agency that offers counseling, education and training in social skills, has encouraged the practice of traditional cleansing rituals to absolve the children of crimes. In reading this, while recognizing the sincerity of local customs, I had to ask the big question: “How much will the water really scrub away?”
The great Russian author Tolstoy long ago made an astute observation. He said, “Drain the blood from men’s veins and put water in instead, and there will be no more war.” He recognized that the problem lies deep within the nature of man!
Your Bible recognizes this as well. James 4:1-2 James 4:1-2 1 From where come wars and fights among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?
2 You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war, yet you have not, because you ask not.
American King James Version×pinpoints the source of the problem. “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war.”
James was just amplifying what Christ had initially taught His disciples. The Jewish religious community of His day was also sincerely involved in traditional scrubbings and cleansings. The object lesson this time was over utensils such as pitchers and cups. A lot of energy and time and, yes, education was devoted to this tradition-laden practice.
Concluding His lesson in Mark 7:21-23 Mark 7:21-23 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
American King James Version×, Christ boldly proclaimed, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” Surface cleaning is simply not enough.
Why Always the Children?
Robert E. Lee, the American Civil War general, once said upon viewing the carnage of the previous day’s battle, “It is well that war is so horrible, lest we should grow fond of it.” Consider Isaiah 4:1 Isaiah 4:1And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by your name, to take away our reproach.
American King James Version×, “And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, ‘We will eat our own food and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by your name, to take away our reproach.’” This verse indicates that in the future there could be a devastating shortage of adult men, whether through war, famine or pestilence. Who will take their place on the front lines? Could it be the children?
Beyond this time of woe, the good news is found in Isaiah 2:3-4 Isaiah 2:3-4 3 And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
American King James Version×. A marvelous training facility will draw people from around the world. An academy for world peace! An institution for human survival! Not a West Point, or a Sandhurst, or a jungle barracks in some far-off country. People are going to be “trained in peace.” I truly believe there is going to be a disproportionately large number of children among them.
Are you preparing and planning, now, like the citizens of Sierra Leone? Another Sgt. David Samai and another “Short but Old,” and countless others like them, will say, “ ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.… Neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Meanwhile, a young lad in Sierra Leone named David, who for such a long time was bored and could only think of returning to “the bush,” is now considering vocational car repair training. And the young man nicknamed “Short but Old,” whose mother named him Abibu, is considering becoming a mechanical engineer one day. For now, especially after a civil war, there are more than a few cars to repair and a nation to rebuild.
In their own way the people of Sierra Leone, including David and Abibu, say to us: “This is the way. We’ve got to start somewhere, somehow, and our time is now.” To the reading audience, our time is also now. Maybe we just need to be reminded of it. By the way, “Do you know where your child is tonight?” WNP