Africa

Boy Soldier: Salifu in Search of Peace

"I was not born a boy soldier; my captives forced me to become one. I had to obey them to stay alive today," Salifu said.

Salifu was born in Sierra Leone, a tiny West African nation about the size of Maine. He was only 9 years old when members of the Revolutionary United Front abducted him in 1996 at the Wesleyan primary school at Bafodia, Kabala, a northern Sierra Leonean district. He was stuck in captivity for about two months. Those horrible months seemed like an eternity to him. The R.U.F. detested the nomenklatura—the rebels considered themselves freedom fighters or the people's liberation army. In a vicious whirlwind of death, Salifu lost his family: parents, Fatu and Hamidu Kamara, and six siblings. The R.U.F. bandits raped his sister Kadiatu before his eyes, and then took her away to become a wife. She is believed dead as nothing has been heard about her survival since that fateful day she was whisked away.

Speaking with his dimmed eyes and a subdued voice, Salifu said, "I hope and pray that day will never come again." Whenever he remembers the injustices and agony he endured, he's paralyzed with despair. "I wish I had [had] the might to challenge the R.U.F.," he said. But a voice inside him always said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." His Christian values had not yet evaporated into thin air.

The civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone lasted from 1991-2001 and razed it to mere rubble. Today, the Atlantic sea breeze is blowing with refreshing vitality and cautious optimism, under a dynamic, newly elected President Ernest Bai Koroma. But it will take time for the pendulum of transformation to teeter toward a dramatic rehabilitation. Right now, the impoverished nation is chronically chocked with overwhelming basic needs.

To transform Salifu into a boy soldier for the R.U.F., a miracle herb similar to the drug ecstasy was slipped into his tea. This made him bold, fearless, and eager to venture into daring adventures. He was given a mandate to protect the R.U.F.'s commandos, armed with his AK-47 on a 24-hour shift. Several other boy soldiers who had resisted or tried to escape were pinned down screaming, while thugs carved the initials A.F.R.C.-R.U.F. on their bare chests with a sharp object.

Although brutalized and often tied up, Salifu miraculously escaped one day and began a protracted arduous trek from Kabala to Freetown in order to earn his desired freedom. United Nations peacekeeping forces found him after the end of the civil war, but he was not without physical and emotional trauma.

Now 21, Salifu is disabled and walks with a crutch, but his mental prowess like his vision for the future is as clear as his glaring, youthful eyes. He's the pioneer of the Global Network for Disabled Youths in his homeland that caters for the needs of young disabled and traumatized war victims. He arrived in the United States on March 15, 2007, through the help of philanthropists. Like most newly arrived immigrants, he deals with culture shock daily. At his United States home, he stared at the well-lit house, "When will the lights go off," he asked. His friends chuckled, "The lights in America stay on 24 hours-a-day," Francis his roommate said.

But in Sierra Leone, electricity is still sporadic, where most people in the capital, Freetown, have gone without electricity for a long period. The next day, Salifu was invited to breakfast. Breakfast! Surprised he said, "What are you talking about?"

"Here we eat breakfast in the morning, please come and join us," said Junior, his new friend.

Salifu eyed the generous and delicious food with a smile like a hungry child, "You guys are blessed here in America," he said.

Salifu contacted me through my Web site (www.rolandmarke.com) by posting a long message. I responded promptly, as he was eager to share his story with me. We bonded almost immediately. His search for a Sierra Leonean writer mysteriously led him to me. But because of his horrible experiences, it's hard for him to trust people in a hurry. After being robbed of his childhood and family, he still struggles to come to terms with reality. But his predicament did not paralyze his life or his vision to chart out his own destiny.

After several conversations with him, I believe that his mindset does not represent a normal 21 year old. He has earned a second class division in the General Certificate of Education Examination (GCE) in Freetown, Sierra Leone—the equivalent of a high school diploma in the United States—despite all the emotional turmoil he has weathered. He's taking preparatory classes to get ready for college, through the help of United Nations officials and well-wishers in the United States.

His transition has shifted into overdrive as he seeks to emerge as a roving peace seeker who tours American cities on request to speak about the dangers and plight of child soldiers around the world. "Children should not be used as pawns in wars that adults choose to fight," he said, stressing that the enormous resources expended in futile wars could be diverted into education, poverty reduction, and job training for neglected youths around the world. The demand for his services as a speaker is increasing.

Speaking at the United Nations, Salifu's appeal fell on fertile ground. Utilizing the smoothened innocence of a child, he addressed the world's peace making body on the need to alleviate the appalling conditions around the world that fuel wars. He's a testament to the assaults of wars on children in Sierra Leone. It is illuminating witnessing a child-victim of war narrating his heart-piercing message that resonates universally. His conviction, like his intelligence, is rooted in passion. He has lived a life of trauma, violence, and destitution. He concluded by saying that his "dream is to become the United Nations secretary general after the completion of his education." He received thunderous applause as he shared his ambitious dream.

At Binghamton University in Upstate New York and New Paltz in the State University of New York his message was well received. At question time students asked him about blood diamonds and ways they could help victims of the war. They offered to help Salifu get settled down in the United States. Salifu said that images showing victims of war and the violation of their human rights feature daily on American TV screens, but that these images are perceived as routine news. Child-soldiers who have been abused are no different from other children who desire love, affection, and protection.

At the Quaker High School in Pennsylvania, he spoke to about 700 students at a special devotion, followed by focus group discussions. The discussions were lively and based on Sierra Leone and the wild seeds that germinated into the harvest of warfare, including reckless governance, poverty, and neglect of the youths. A student asked, "How were you able to survive the war?" His explanation was as passionate as it was inspiring.

"I was not born a boy soldier; my captives forced me to become one. I had to obey them to stay alive today," he said. "When you have nothing left but God that is the time you realize that God is enough," he added. Some in the audience cried as he spoke. Teachers and students decided to raise funds for child-victims of Sierra Leone, by printing T-shirts and raising awareness throughout their community. Some students expressed their desire to visit Sierra Leone to get a firsthand account of the impacts of war on children. To say that Salifu has the ingenuity to humanize conflicts or warfare is an underestimation.

Salifu's message is gaining attention and momentum in the United States. "With the help of the international community I hope to find peace and happiness," he said. "I believe that even a child can change the world through non violence but through a peaceful process."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Roland Bankole Marke.

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