U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation aimed at cracking down on the recruitment and use of child soldiers by other countries. A former child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war testified before a Senate panel Tuesday about the horrors he faced after rebels forcibly recruited him to fight for their side. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Ishmael Beah was only 13 when he became a child soldier for the rebel Revolutionary Union Front in Sierra Leone. He says he had no choice; it was either join or be killed. His family had been killed in the civil war, and he had no other means of survival.
Now 26 years old, the soft-spoken Beah told his story to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who listened with rapt attention.
"I could not shoot the gun at first," he recalled. "But as I lay there watching my friends getting killed, the seven-year-old boys crying for their mothers as life departed their little bodies, and the blood from my friends who had died, covering my hands and face, I began shooting. Something inside me shifted, and I lost compassion for anyone. After that day, killing became as easy as drinking water. I had lost all sense of remorse. Our commanders gave us drugs, marijuana, cocaine, and brown-brown, a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder, before battle to anesthetize us to what we had to do."
Three years after he was recruited by the rebels, Beah was rescued by a grassroots rehabilitation organization for child soldiers. He immigrated to the United States and now lives in New York.
Beah has written a book about his experience, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and is an advocate for former child soldiers.
He came to Capitol Hill to urge changes in provisions of U.S. immigration law that prevent child soldiers who flee civil war from obtaining asylum or refugee status in the United States.
"Not only do we need to pressure governments to immediately cease its use of child soldiers, we need to also convince our own government to provide the humanity so sorely lacking, by not detaining those former child soldiers so fortunate to come to the United States," he noted.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, agreed that reforms to immigration law should be considered. Durbin has sponsored legislation known as the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007, which aims to press governments to end recruitment and use of child soldiers. The measure would limit U.S. military assistance to countries identified in the annual State Department Human Rights reports as recruiting or using child soldiers.
"I am sorry to say that recruiting and using child soldiers is not a crime under U.S. law," he said. "So the U.S. government is unable to prosecute perpetrators who are found in our country."
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says the bill is a step in the right direction.
"The loss of U.S. military backing would be a powerful political blow to these governments, and a strong motivator to ending any involvement in child recruitment," he noted.
Roth says the legislation could also have an indirect impact on recruitment and use of child soldiers by rebel groups.
"There is little hope of curbing child recruitment by rebel armies as long as they can justify their use of children by pointing to child recruitment by governments," he added. "The stronger we can make the international norm against the use of child soldiers, the harder it will be for rebel groups to pay the political price of using them."
There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world. Among the countries where child soldiers are known to be recruited and used are Burma, Laos, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Uganda, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.