From Child Soldier to Peace Builder

When Lassana Kanneh was eleven years old he was kidnapped and turned into a child soldier.

Born in Liberia, West Africa, Kanneh survived the turmoil of two Liberian civil wars, one he spent five years fighting in. Now approaching graduation at Kent State University in Ohio, Kanneh studies applied conflict management and now shares his story on campus to teach about the transformative and healing powers of peace.

The First Liberian Civil War broke out in 1989 when Kanneh was three years old. Rebel groups had formed in an attempt to overthrow the government and take power. Within the first years of the war the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was being backed by the United States, killed Kanneh’s father.

“According to my mom my dad was the first person killed when rebel groups entered our community,” Kanneh said, whose mom took him and his two twin brothers away from their home to escape the ensuing violence. They started walking to the capital city Monrovia for refuge, but Kanneh’s mom was not able to provide them any food. During their journey his brothers died of starvation, leaving Kanneh and his mom to walk to Monrovia with very heavy hearts and desperation.

In 1997 the First Liberian Civil War ended and the leader of the NPFL, Charles Taylor, became President. Kanneh and his mother’s situation was very dire, and with no food supply or ability to go to school Kanneh decided to silently leave his mom’s house. His mom didn’t know his whereabouts, but Kanneh had joined a community of children living on the streets. He started gambling and stealing to survive.

In 1999, when Kanneh was 11 years old, the Second Liberian Civil War broke out. Street kids were being kidnapped by rebel groups and turned into child soldiers to fuel the war. They were being taken from schools, market places, movie theaters, and in Kanneh’s case, while gambling on the streets.

One day Kanneh and his friends were gambling outside when a group of four men approached them. They all had guns and one of the men knocked Kanneh to the ground. “Don’t move,” the man told Kanneh and his friends. He was taken to a place where around 20 other kids were being held in a big room. The kidnappers were part ofthe NPFL, the same rebel group that killed Kanneh’s father.

“The soldiers told us, ‘We want you guys to be part of us. We want you to join the fight,” Kanneh said. “I told them I had gone outside to play with my friends and I wanted to go back to my mom.”

The next day Kanneh and the other kidnapped children were taken to a training camp a few hours away. There they learned how to shoot guns and kill people for a few months. They were told it was to protect themselves and their friends from people coming to kill them. They were forced to take drugs like cocaine and marijuana to dull their thinking and make them more cooperative. Kanneh said they were given food, but not enough.

A child soldier holding a gun walked up to Kanneh while he was crying at the camp. “Why are you crying?,” He asked. “We’re going to be the same people that killed your father.” Kanneh remembers crying out in anguish and falling to the floor in grief.

After the training period ended commanders forced Kanneh to the front line to commit atrocities against competing rebel groups and their child soldiers for the next five years. He remembers feeling very remorse and wondering, Where’s my mom? I hope she’s looking for me. What happened to her? But he was a child under extreme pressure and danger, and couldn’t fully process his thoughts or feelings. Soon shooting a gun didn’t feel strange anymore. Kanneh was fourth in command, meaning if four people before him in the NPFL were killed he would take over as commander.

“We were everywhere,” Kanneh said. “We fought in cities. We fought in villages and towns. We fought in the streets and in the bushes.” There was never a special place to call home. They lived everywhere. Although there was so much hardship and sadness, Kanneh said at times he felt very happy. Him and the other children felt like it was the best life they could have at that time. Their families were very vulnerable and couldn’t provide for them.

By the time the war ended in 2003 an estimated 250,000 people were dead and thousands more mutilated or raped. The United Nations traveled to Liberia to help restore peace and started a disarmament process: if child soldiers turned in their guns to U.N workers then they were given help with schooling, money, and being reintegrated into their communities again.

“I decided to go back into the community but I was so afraid of being killed. Many who returned home were killed for what they had done,” Kanneh said. Now that the war was over, he wondered what he could do. Because Liberia’s cultural lifestyle is so collective, he was able to enter a new community and get reintegrated. However, it was not easy and took a long time.

Through the disarmament process he was given money and a two year scholarship to go to an academic school. There was a non-profit organization called everyday gandhis working on post-war conflict resolution and peace building with Liberia’s community leaders. One day a former rebel commander tried to recruit Kanneh and his friends to fight in a civil war that was breaking out in a neighboring country.

“I remember my friends and I said we weren’t ready to go to another country to fight,” Kanneh said. A few months later the same rebel commander was on his way to try and recruit them again when he overheard a conversation the everyday gandhis crew was having about peace building.

“Excuse me,” the rebel commander asked them (according to Kanneh). “Can you teach me what peace is?” They told him to bring the former child soldiers to them to finish the conversation, so he went back to Kanneh and his friends and told them to come learn about peace.

“If you do something stupid we will kill you,” Kanneh and his friends told him before agreeing to go. Kanneh met with the founder of everyday gandhis, Cynthia Travis, and she began helping him tell his story, find forgiveness for those who had victimized him, and also ask his community for forgiveness for the atrocities he was forced to commit during the war.

“We decided to tell our stories under the protection of everyday gandhis,” Kanneh said. People were invited to come listen, find reconciliation and start to heal as a country. The majority of people welcomed the child soldiers and understood, but some did not welcome them back. Along with storytelling Kanneh used photography to connect with people again: taking pictures and offering them up to people in the community.

Travis from everyday ghandis became Kanneh’s foster mom and when he decided to go to college, she helped him apply to Kent State University in Ohio. KSU wrote back and welcomed him to join their community. He did some research and learned about the Kent State shootings in 1970 where students protesting the Vietnam War were killed.

“I felt very connected with Kent’s story after reading about their shooting and I decided to go to Kent to be part of their community,” Kanneh said, who now shares his story on campus to teach about the transformative and healing powers of peace.

I am forever grateful for Kanneh’s willingness to share his story with me. I am shaken to the core with awe at his strength and how his life course has transformed into one of positivity, education and peace building. His life is an inspiration. Go to Kanneh’s blog to learn more about his story and everyday ghandis at www.lkanneh.com.