Beasts of No Nation

One of the devastating effects of civil wars is its creation of child soldiers, young boys who have lost their families and are forced to become soldiers. These soldiers are taught to rebel against the political regime that governs their nation. The film adaptation of Beats of No Nation tells the story of Agu, a young boy who becomes a child soldier. Set in West Africa, this story depicts the real lives of many child soldiers living in the African continent. Agu’s journey as a child soldier symbolizes a shift from childhood to manhood, from peace to war and from normalcy to chaos. Stability, survival and retaining sanity are the transitions that Agu experiences before, during, and after the civil war.

“I am a good boy from a good family.”

Agu was raised in a household with a family whom he knew loved him. His mother was a homemaker who spent time with him, prepared his meals, played with him and helped him with his homework. He knew the feeling of a mother’s love and knew how hard she worked for his family. His father was the head of the household and also his school teacher. Agu had an educated father who was the disciplinarian of the family. He had an older brother who he played with, played pranks with and watched develop as a young adolescent. He also had a younger sister. Agu felt protection and love from his family.

The civil war has broken out in Agu’s village. School has closed down and the boys have to find activities to occupy their time. Being young and creative, Agu and his friends are able to entertain themselves and make the best out of their situation. They create “Imagination TV”. Agu would come up with the scenarios and his friend would act out the scenes in front of a television frame. Then they would attempt to sell that same television to people in their village. They even cut down a branch and placed it in the middle of the road to stop traffic in order to get change from drivers. They would sing songs and play soccer in the fields. All these activities demonstrate the normalcy in their lives; as little boys the only thing that they had to worry about was how to entertain themselves.

Agu is forced to become a man the moment he is separated from his mother. The villagers have to evacuate their homes in order to escape the soldiers who were about to invade their town. The taxi driver would only take women and babies as passengers, so Agu could not go with his mother. As Agu’s father puts his mother and sister in the car, her last words to her son are to always pray, to not be afraid and that she will see him soon. This promise from his mother is what will allow Agu to survive as a child soldier; he believes that he will one day be reunited with his mother. Agu’s father tells him that he is now with the men and that he is to keep quiet. The moment that the car drives off with his mother is when Agu enters into a world of survival.

“Nothing is ever for sure, everything is always changing.”

Agu is now with his father and brother and they are hiding from the government soldiers who are killing the people in his village. Agu’s dad last words to his son are to stay strong because God is testing them. Shortly after ,his father is accused by the government soldiers of being a fascist fighter and a spy, and is executed. His brother is shot by a soldier as they are running. Agu is left to fend for himself. He remembers his father’s advice and hides in the bushes. He is then captured by Striker (another child soldier who will later become his closest companion) and sent to meet the Commandant. It is here that his life transitions from mere survival to survival in warfare.

The first thing the Commandant asks of Agu is to see to see his hand- he says they are like a baby. He asks Agu what he is doing here. Agu tells the Commandant that the government soldiers killed his family. He asks him his name. He immediately takes Agu under his wing says that he will train him to become a warrior. He asks Agu if he wants to seek revenge on the people who killed his family and Agu says yes. From the beginning of their interaction, the Commandant makes two things clear to Agu; 1) — that he is here to help him and that 2) he saved his life.

“War is what brought this family of strangers together.”

Native Defense Force (NDF)

The Commandant allows for Agu and the other soldiers to see each other as family. As their leader, the Commandant reminds them of their purpose for warfare; they are defending themselves from the killing and raping of their own people from the military forces of the government. As a family, they will reunite and take back the land that belongs to them; the land that was stolen by the political leaders. They are seeking revenge toward anyone who has taken something from them or for those who feel that their voices have not been heard. They are seeking revenge on those who have taken their family’s blood, the people they consider to be their enemies. The Commandant allows the boys to see the power that they have as the young — that they are controlling the war and putting the war back into their own hands. The NDF is a family that stands for them therefore they are not alone. The commandant allows them to see each other as family; he is their father and they are his sons. Agu accepts the NDF as his family. His goal is to become a good follower to the Commandment and to seek revenge on the leaders who had his family killed.

“It is the worst sin, but it is the right thing to be doing.”

Agu begins to train to become a child soldier. He earns this title through initiation; he kills a civilian with a machete. This is an important transition in Agu’s experience of being a child soldier. It was hard for Agu to kill someone and he feels guilty for what he has done. Despite this, Agu also realizes that killing the civilian is necessary in order for his unit to complete their mission of overthrowing the government. Agu now has the mindset of a soldier-one who is ready to kill and conquer at all costs. Agu’s life becomes surrounded by death and killings. He kills people, witnesses others being killed and sees and smells death all around him. When describing the dead bodies, Agu compares the smell of dead to sugar cane; he says that they rot like palm wine and when the bodies sit in the sun they gets plump like a brown mongoose” . Agu begins to lose hope that the war will ever end.

“God, are you watching what we are doing?”

The Commandant talks about a land that is full of abundance that is waiting for them. It has the best food and the most beautiful women. There is nothing that they cannot have there. This immediately makes me think about Moses in the Old Testament, who was chosen by God to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land; a land filled with milk and honey. Like Moses, the Commandant was their prophet/leader who promised vindication for the soldiers. This symbolizes hope for the young soldiers and their mission all the more worth it. That all these killings were not done in vain, for nothing-that after living in hell they will be in paradise.

His closest friend, Striker dies and that is when Ago believes that the only way to stop killing others is if he dies himself.

Agu develops a close bond with the Commandant. The Commandant sees the leadership potential in Agu and lets him know that as his father, he is there to protect him, the same way that Agu is there to protect him as his son. He stresses the importance of being a good follower and that even good leaders must learn to follow. At this point in the film Agu admires the Commandant and wants to please him by being a good follower. It is when Agu trusts the Commandant that he is violated by him. The Commandant uses his authority and influence over Agu to violate him. This is a turning point for Agu in the film. He shuts down psychologically and has to resort to drugs in order to keep himself sane.

The soldiers have become tired of their living conditions; they have no food and shelter and they are suffering. The Commandant attempts to brainwash them into believing that they are nothing without him. He tries to instill fear in them by telling them that they will be poor and hungry, their families will not accept them and that they will be unable to get a job. The soldiers do not believe him and the Commandant is forced to surrender. Agu is eventually freed from the ruler ship of the Commandant and his life transitions from survival in warfare to maintaining his sanity while living a normal life.

“ I just want to be happy in this life.”

Agu and the other soldiers are eventually found by the United Nations. They provide room, clothing, and shelter for the former soldiers as well as counseling for the soldiers -in hopes of rehabilitating them and assimilating them back into regular culture. Agu finds it very hard to focus in class. His teacher, who was also a former child soldier, reminds him that he is not alone. Two of the boys go “ back to the bushes” for they feel that there is a war to fight. They were not able to rehabilitate to the normal life as they have become immune to war life. As Agu meets with the counselor, he does not like it when she looks into his eyes. He feels like he is an old man and she is a baby. When the counsellor asks him to talk about what he did in the war, he doesn’t want to open up to her. He says that he saw and did terrible things. It makes him sad and if he told her, it would make her sad too. If he told her what he has done, she will see him as a beast and a devil. Agu becomes even sadder when he remembers that he once had a mother, father brother and sister who loved him. Agu’s main concern is finding a way to be happy despite the trauma that he experienced as a child soldier.

Agu’s story in Beasts of No Nation is one that shows his transition from a boy to a soldier. Agu went from believing that he was a good boy from a good family to seeing himself as a devil because of what he has done as a soldier. Agu went from worrying about what to play to wanting to attain happiness in his lifetime.

It’s crazy for society to think that they can rehabilitate a war victim by providing them with a normal way of life, along with counselling and think that these individuals will quickly be able to function as regular citizens in their communities. As with situations in life, we will never truly know how someone feels during an ordeal if we have never been through it ourselves. Even if we have been through a similar circumstance as someone else, we will never really know how the other person feels because as human beings, we respond to situations differently. Knowing this, the question that I ask myself is- how can we help heal the wounds of people who are dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience?

I remember hearing that the key to helping someone is to figure out what they truly need as opposed to what we feel is the best solution for them. When we are trying to help someone, do we ask them what kind of help do they need or do we formulate ideas in our head as to what we feel is the best solution for them? There will be many occasions where we will have to make decisions for people who may be unable to make it for themselves, but how often do we ask people “What do you want?”