As I’ve been thinking more and more on this project of child soldiers, and life after child-soldiering, I keep coming up against the major sticking point: how to draw a line between victim and perpetrator. In the past, I’ve usually begun a project because I had a point to make, a conclusion already in hand. In this case, I have no idea where this research will take me or where my thoughts on the matter will end up.
To illustrate the challenge with examples, we need only look at two high-profile child-soldiers whose lives turned out very differently: Ishmael Beah and Dominic Ongwen.
Active as child soldiers in different conflicts (Beah in Sierra Leone and Ongwen in Uganda), they both began young and got a taste for violence.
Beah wrote his memoirs detailing how the conflict left him without a family and led him into the heart of the fighting at the age of 13. He wrote about his feelings of acceptance and family within the army, and about the difficult struggle that was returning to civilian life when he was turned over (unwillingly) to UNICEF after years in the bush.
Eventually, Beah moved to the US, attended university, and began work for Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee. He has spoken before the UN, and in 2007 was named UNICEF’s first Advocate for Children Affected by War. By most standards, he’s made a good life for himself and works towards improving the welfare of others.
Ongwen, abducted at the age of 10 and forced into the LRA rebel army, on the other hand, is currently considered one of the most wanted men in the world, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including conscripting child soldiers. Like many child soldiers, including Beah, Ongwen took on the army as his new family and peer group and their acceptance and satisfaction with him was important to his self-esteem. He rose quickly, to become one of the highest ranking leaders of the LRA.
Beah and Ongwen are about the same age (by most accounts both were born in 1980), both were young and vulnerable to the “dehumanizing” that happens when children who have not already developed a full sense of self or a functional moral compass are indoctrinated into collective violence.
The significant difference in these two stories is that Beah was extracted from his ‘army family’ and compelled to undergo psychological counseling while Ongwen continued in the life that was forced upon him, scared of what might happen to him if he left the bush. Beah reports that he and other former child soldiers like him who were ‘given up’ and moved to a rehabilitation centre were told over and over that it was not their fault that they acted as they did. The ICC indictment of Ongwen communicates that his actions are his own and that he bears responsibility for them.
Tongue-in-cheek conclusion: being rescued and rehabilitated is a major deciding factor for who is a victim and who is a perpetrator?