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February 25, 2007

Impressions After a Reading by Ishmael Beah

ChildSoldierThailand.jpgAt first the topic - child soldiers in Sierra Leone's civil war - seemed eerily out of place in this beautiful, yet simple, Berkeley church with its vaulted ceiling and muted walls. A few moments after Ishmael began to speak about his experiences, though, it seemed like the perfect setting for such a conversation. We would all be trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, and where better than in a setting where the incomprehensible is commonplace?

Ishmael Beah, the author of his recent book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, seemed ill at ease for a moment as he sat down in a rather grand chair on the raised sanctuary to begin the interview with several hundred people sitting quietly in the pews below him. He smiled self-consciously and immediately connected with his audience. This was a young man who is quickly learning how to work a room - a good thing to know if you want to make a difference in the world.

He looks much younger than his twenty-six years with his slight build and boyish smile. Perhaps it was his diet as a boy. Maybe it was the "brown brown", concoction of cocaine and gunpowder that he snorted as a boy soldier. Perhaps he just seems young for his age. All these thoughts and more ran through my mind as I watched him center himself, become more grounded, and begin reading a passage from his memoir.

The passage he read was a lovely vignette about being with his brother at his grandmother's house and how the boys tussled a bit to gain control of a hammock, and how one brother tricked the other into getting his way. It was all so mundane, so touchingly ordinary.

I could not help but think about the fact that not long after that day with his family, Ishmael was carrying an AK-47 and killing rebels in villages across his country - many of whom were boy soldiers like himself getting high and watching Rambo films when they were not being Rambos themselves.

Ishmael spoke sparingly about his time in the army, coyly urging the audience to buy his book to learn more about that. At one point he spoke about a meeting he had a few hours before the reading. This really got my attention because he told of his time that afternoon with some boys in the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro just south of Oakland. He described his meeting with "these children" in very loving terms. The publisher of his book had sent copies to the youth there, and they had read about Ishmael before he met them. Because of his experiences with violence he was/is able to see past what they have done, and could still see the childish innocence that is buried deep beneath the wounds that come with being a boy soldier - be it in Freetown or Oaktown. In a strangely compelling way, for perhaps the first time I could see that it is all the same.

During the interview that was being conducted by Ishmael's mentor, Priscilla Hayner, Co-founder of The International Center for Transitional Justice, they spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation process that was occurring in Sierra Leone. Again, just as I did when I heard how the South Africans are doing it, as I listened to them describe how it works, I was in awe of the Africans' capacity for forgiveness and for their resilience. If we ever did in the past, we in the United States today have no structures now in our culture to reclaim and redeem these young soldiers. We just see them as criminals, as gangbangers. Nothing more. We want them to disappear. We say, Lock them up and throw away the key. But we are not throwing away keys. We are throwing away our children. The Africans have figured that out, and they are reclaiming as many of them as they can.

As fate would have it, when I returned from the reading that evening, I came across a story about three boys who killed a homeless man in Milwaukee a few years ago. They had asked him to buy them beer, and while drinking the beer with him the boys began to beat him, kick him, and eventually kill him. In a taped interview the youngest of the boys (who was 15 at the time of the killing) spoke about it in ways that seemed so similar to what Ishmael spoke of. It all happened so fast... We smoked some marijuana... We hadn't slept all night... I didn't think about what I was doing... I just joined in... It all happened so fast...

That boy is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence. He is a few years older now, but still thinks and talks much like a fifteen year old. I'll grow up here in prison... I've never driven a car... I've never had a job... He doesn't say it in a self-pitying way. Just matter of factly. As if he is speaking about someone else at an incomprehensible time and an incomprehensible place.

Sort of like Ishmael.

February 15, 2007

Facing Violence WORLD FORUM 2007

WORLD Forum 2007 Facing Violence - Justice, Religion and Conflict Resolution
Argent Hotel, San Francisco

Some thoughts on the conference

Thursday afternoon:
This World Forum is the first one presented by the RockRose Institute, a local Bay Area group, and right off the bat I must say that they are working at a very high level. They are thoughtful and have worked hard to set the correct tone for the conference with music from various parts of the world, fabulous multi media and images. It is well organized, and running very tightly - it is even on time!

The first in a series of conversations on the dais was with Elie Wiesel. The interviewer was Stan Unger, a local radio personality in San Francisco. He had one of those seemingly manufactured voices that almost felt disembodied. But I thought (and so did John) that he asked great questions, and that Mr Wiesel, and the other panelists who came up later really didn't address. His questions about facing violence were fairly practical ones - the "how-to questions", that may actually be impossible to address.

Elie Wiesel is such a small and seemingly fragile man. I began to think about how impossible it must be to predict who might survive such deprivation as he did. I imagine there were many who looked stronger, but who could not endure what he had. I was touched by how he spoke if children, and how he still held hope as a possibility. And how he values the time he has because so many of those he knew had so little. It was good to be in the same room with him. Then later he was joined by a young woman who survived the Rwandan genocide, and a Rabbi who does a lot of work in Africa.

On a less happy note one of the things I noticed most strongly was how done I am with taking the hit for "America". There were a number of references to Rwanda, and how Clinton did nothing to stop the genocide. (This is in fact true, and Clinton admitted as much and apologized to the Rwandan people.) But it also belies the historical context - he was reeling from the Somalia "Black Hawk Down" fiasco, and he was dealing with a hostile Congress. The question I was left with was: Where were the Europeans while Rwanda was descending onto hell ?

Then there was a moment when I thought back to many conversations I have had with various people in the Whitman community about the multiplicity of stories we tell ourselves as we make up our worlds, and figure out how to get through the day. The wonderful young woman, named Joy I think, had a marvelous smile that seemed to have guarded the floodgates that are holding back an ocean of suffering. Her story - what little she told of it - was truly horrifying. At one point she attempted to explain how the genocide could happen. Centuries ago Rwanda was a peaceful and prosperous country. Then in her frame some time ago the evil came from Europe. The colonial powers carved up Africa (certainly true enough) and over time the country devolved into chaos and violence.

Like I said, the colonial powers from the last few centuries certainly created a historical context for much of what is happening in Africa, and the Middle East for that matter. Yet, at the same time it is also true that the Europeans are gone, and now Africans were and are killing Africans.

The gift that this young woman gave me in that moment was the realization of how quickly I am given to creating a story of the evil that is "out there". Not a new realization to be sure, but it was more powerful this time. Maybe because hearing her tell her story in that way, I found myself eager to forgive her because there was really nothing to forgive.

More later. Thoughts and impressions about dialogue and beginnings and such when I have had a chance to chew on the events of the day.

[Update: On the evening of the first day of the conference, Elie Wiesel was attacked in the hotel elevator by a man who was evidently stalking him for several weeks. Mr. Wiesel managed to get away from the assailant unharmed. The SF Police took Mr. Wiesel to the airport immediately after the incident. The incident is still under investigation.]