The Small Soldiers of Sierra Leone

By Heleen van den Brink:

“During the war, I was only a small boy. One time we were running. Then we met rebels. They captured us. They made us stand in lines. Then they shaved our heads and started giving us cocaine. They cut us above our eyes and put the cocaine in the wound. My brain was mixed up when I was drugged. I would see people double. I could easily shoot them. We killed many people – I can’t remember how many. Their bodies were put in a lorry.”    –  Child soldier from Sierra Leone, anonymous for security reasons

From 1991 to 2002 the West African country of Sierra Leone was ravaged by a brutal war. One of the horrible characteristics of this war was the fact that many children were forced to fight ?most of them with the rebel army.

In 2003 Rainbows of Hope began a work with children in the capital city of Freetown which, at that time, was crowded with tens of thousands of refugees from all over the country. From 2003 – 2006 our team ministered to many children and young people in refugee camps, brothels, juvenile prisons, and in many communities in and around Freetown. In 2006 it was decided that the project would be shut down. However, I decided to stay on to see if the Lord still had a work for me to do in this country. Soon I was invited to help out in a Catholic school for the deaf in a rural area. The school was reopened after the war, and, at that time, it was discovered that some of the boy students had been captured by the rebels and used as child soldiers.  Most of them had survived deeply traumatic circumstances, and the Sister in charge of the school asked me to spend some time with them.

This article is a short description of some of the activities the boys and I engaged in as I visited about once per month. Since I didn’t know sign language, and to ensure continuity during my absence, I asked the children to identify a teacher whom they trusted and whom they wanted to be part of our meetings. They chose a male teacher who proved to be a valuable friend and mentor to the boys.

The main objective of our meetings was to help the boys establish a new identity. In addition, we wanted to bring healing to their memories so that they could start dreaming of a brighter future.  The methods we used towards our objectives can easily be adjusted for any group of children who have experienced deep trauma.

Over a period of four months I met about five times with the boys. However, after my departure they continued to work with their teacher. During the meetings the following issues were addressed.

1. Who am I?   This was the self identity phase. During the first session we brought paint and large sheets of wall paper. Every boy painted their name on the paper and decorated it as they desired. One boy drew a vivid picture of an extremely traumatic experience he had in the war.  Most of the others decorated the paper with colorful dots and lines.

In the next session we offered each boy a simple workbook entitled “The Book About Me,” in which we wanted them to answer the following questions: What is your name?; Do you know the meaning of your name?; Why did your parents give you that name?; What are some of the things you enjoy doing?; What are the things you like about yourself?;  What do others like about you?  Each boy placed his own picture on the front of the book, and then could fill the pages with stories and drawings, etc. They could also invite others to write in their book as well, especially under the section “What do others like about you?”

2. What does God say about me?  This was the spiritual identity phase. As the healing process was just beginning, we felt it was important for the boys to know some of God’s thoughts about them.  To this end we discussed four basic truths and backed them up with scriptures.

I am made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27)

God knows all about me ( Psalm 139:1-5) God loves me and wants to forgive all my sins. (John 3:16; 1John 1:8,9)

God has good plans for me. (Jeremiah 29:11)

Often our first response to child soldiers is to see them as victims who need healing. However, many of them have legitimate guilty feelings that must be addressed.  Some of these feelings may be justified and some self imposed. As we worked with the boys we wanted to help them see that, on the one hand, they had no choice and were forced to commit some of the atrocities they felt guilty about.  On the other hand, we recognized that there may have been situations in which they did have a choice but still chose to do the wrong thing.  In either case, we wouldn’t be helping the children by denying or covering up their feelings of guilt. Rather, we offered the amazing gift of Christ’s forgiveness in His name, which brought a new and wonderful sense of freedom to the children.

3. Emotions   During this phase we identified five basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid and ashamed. Then we asked the boys to write stories, make drawings or tell about situations that induced these emotions.  We left it up to them as to whether or not the events they wanted to talk about were related to the war.

We did a similar activity with a group of sexually abused girls at the same school. In their case, we placed two baskets on a table with an image of the cross. We first invited them to bring the “happy pictures” and to put them in the basket marked “Thank You Lord”. Then we asked them to come forward with the drawings depicting situations of fear, sadness, anger and shame. As they put them in a basket marked “Help me, Lord”, we discussed God’s response to each of these feelings: Sad (Ps. 34:18; Ps. 62:8), Angry (Romans 12:19; Nahum 1:3), Afraid (Isaiah 43:1,5); Shame (Isaiah 43:4) Months later some of them testified how these Scriptures still encouraged them.

4. Family / Home   Reconnecting with family was important for the boys, but it was often times painful.  We asked the boys to share about their immediate and extended family and to draw pictures of their family members and their homes as they remembered them.  Many times this brought them face to face with their losses, but we knew that grieving was part of their healing process.

5. Stories of War   Throughout the sessions the boys would share some of their experiences with us.  However, we set aside time to meet with each boy individually to give them a chance to tell their own story about the war. We made sure that none of them left the session while they were still upset. One of the boys shared how he would always have nightmares after talking about war experiences.  We prayed for him and he told us later that there had been no bad dreams the following night.

6. New Beginnings  We wanted the boys to know that God had plans to give them a hope and a future.  Printed in large letters on the page following the stories of war in the boys’ books was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (NIV) We explained how God wants us to give each of us a new beginning-a new identity. We don’t have to live in the shadow of our past, but in Christ can be a new person. We then asked the boys to share their dreams for the future and they made drawings of their future lives as carpenters, family men, etc.

7. Closure   At the end of our last meeting the Sister who is in charge of the school (and who had a very good relationship with the boys) came in and affirmed her love and acceptance of the boys. The boys decided that the books they made would stay with her in a safe place in her office, but that they would have access to them at any time. The Sister then prayed for them and gave each of them a blessing.

Reflections   The above described intervention was very basic and in many ways imperfect, especially as some of the boys were very limited in their communication. However, months later, it was reported that most of the boys were doing reasonably well (and some very well). I believe there were several reasons for any such success.

The presence of a trusted teacher who was able to take off his teacher’s hat and put on his counselor’s hat to provide continued care. The presence of the Sister, a prayerful woman who was both strict and loving towards the boys. The fact that most of the boys stayed in the safety of the boarding home while in school. Their sometimes disruptive behavior was met by the staff with more understanding than their parents (often traumatized themselves) probably would have been able to give.

Last but not least, we believe that God’s healing presence made it possible for these small soldiers of Sierre Leone to face the realities of their past, and also to begin to believe that a brighter future was possible for them.

The film Blood Diamond and the book A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Bah (New York: Sara Crichton Books, 2007) give a vivid and accurate picture of what child soldiers went through in Sierra Leone.

Heleen van den Brink was trained in child & youth psychology and counselling. After working in a mental health care setting in the Netherlands for some years she joined the WEC/Rainbows of Hope team in Sierra Leone in 2003. When this ministry closed down in 2006 she stayed on in the country and is currently working with “City of Rest”, a Christian rehabilitation centre for drug addicts and mental patients.

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