It was sometime in 2008, in New York City, at Lava Gina, a divvy international bar I used to frequent in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when I met Ishmael Beah, the New York Times bestselling author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier. Beah’s book about his years as a child soldier during Sierra Leone’s atrocious civil war had just been published and he was touring to promote it.
As I sat listening to Beah talk about his experiences as a child solider and how he had been given the chance and support to overcome the trauma of those turbulent years and turn his life around, I found it inspiring to see how far removed from his brutal past Beah had obviously come.
And, having almost being forcefully conscripted into a rebel army as a child soldier during Liberia’s civil war, but was only spared the fiendish deflowering of my childhood innocence by the unwavering intervention of my Aunt, I was extremely interested in Beah’s story. So I asked him a few questions and talked to him briefly after the event.
Beah came across as quite an intelligent young man and there was nothing about him that stood out as someone with the heinous past which he writes about in his riveting book.
But, if ever I harbored any lingering doubts about the possibility for complete transformation in the life of someone like Beah who’s childhood had been so grotesquely desecrated by the coarse brutalities of war, that all evaporated when I met Morlee Gugu Zawoo, Sr.
A Former Child Soldier Forges A New Path
Like Beah, the cloak of Zawoo’s childhood innocence was also violently torn asunder when he was abducted and forcefully conscripted into a rebel army during Liberia’s civil war.
When I first met Zawoo in Liberia last summer and he invited me to his office to interview him about his experiences as a child soldier, it was almost impossible to believe that the handsome young man with a calm demeanor who sat behind his desk across from me, had the violent past that he told me about.
I had met former child soldiers before, but most of them were roaming the streets of Monrovia, Liberia’s straggling capital city, hooked on drugs and struggling to eke out a living for themselves by begging pedestrians and worse yet, committing various criminal acts.
In his book, The Mask of Anarchy, Stephen Ellis poignantly describes the situation of war-affected youth in post-war Liberia: “…Liberia today has problems without precedent, chief among which is the presence of hundreds of thousands of young people with little education, little aptitude for employment, and consequently, little reason to be confident in the future. Tens of thousands of them have experiences as fighters.”
As the interview proceeded and Zawoo told me more about his years as a child soldier, I struggled to envision him as another young man with a similarly violent and depraved past like all those other young men I had seen roaming the streets.
“When I tell people that I too was also once a combatant hooked on drugs like some of those other street youth, they find it hard to believe,” Zawoo told me.
And, that is an affirmation to the amazing transformation evident Zawoo’s life. That is why, the more he shared his story with me, the more I saw him as the personification of resilience and hope for a war depraved generation of Liberian youth still struggling to overcome the trauma of war.
But to doubt that Zawoo suffered the most depraved form of violence and trauma of war as a child soldier is not to have seen and been jolted by the lurid scar on his upper left arm from a near-fatal battlefront injury.
It happened in October 1992…
Zawoo, along with a band of his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel compatriots had set up an ambush overnight to attack the position of ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping troops who were defending Monrovia during a push by NPFL to overrun the capital city.
“Early the next morning, around 4 am, the general gave the order for us to attack. We were only a handful of fighters and when the attack commenced, we realized that we were in the midst of the more heavily equipped ECOMOG troops. And they responded viciously, firing heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades on our position,” Zawoo recalled.
One of the rocket-propelled grenades landed right in the middle of the NPFL fighters, killing most of them and mortally wounding Zawoo when a piece of shrapnel from the grenade hit him in the arm, shredding his flesh and bone.
Falling unconscious from the excruciating pain, Zawoo would later regained consciousness. And bleeding profusely, with chumps of flesh dangling and his humerus bone splintered, he staggered away from the twisted corpses of his dead compatriots to safety where he was able to receive medical attention to save his life. (To read more about Zawoo’s experience as a child soldier, go here.)
There Is Hope For A Generation Of War-affected Youth
But while Zawoo may still bear the permanent physical scar of his war injury, not unlike Beah, he too was given the opportunity and support to overcome his traumatic war experience. And since then, Zawoo has not only obtained his college degree but more than that, he has committed himself to helping other young Liberians overcome the trauma of war to turn their lives around.
That is the reason why Zawoo, along with a friend, founded the Network for Empowerment and Progressive Initiatives (NEPI) Inc., which was formerly called National Ex-Combatants Peacebuilding Initiatives in 2000 to help rehabilitate former fighters and reintegrate them into society.
Now, as his war-addled nation struggles to consolidate peace, after a bloody 14-year civil war which ended in 2003 and caused the death of over 250,000 people, NEPI is working to launch what it calls a Transformation Program focused on reaching out to a greater number of war-affected and at-risked Liberian youth to help them overcome drug abuse and other challenges they are faced with.
“We really have a passion to see the youth in our country get some support as a way to support the consolidation of peace in Liberia. The Transformation Program’s goal is to help give young people the tools and show them that there’s a way out of their situation. And we are also able to use our stories about what we’ve been through as an empowering factor to help young people turn their lives around,” Zawoo said.
Though Zawoo’s experiences as a child soldier are as riveting as Beah’s, he does not enjoy the prominence that comes with being a New York Times bestselling author and therefore, it can be challenging to get the word out to potential international partners and others to support the critical work that NEPI is doing in Liberia.
But you can help to spread the word by sharing this article with others. And, if you are interested in supporting or finding out more about NEPI’s work, go to www.nepi-liberia.com or email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.