Dance and Child Soldiers

Jeremiah charges into the hall in an uproar after ditching his bike just outside the door in the blazing heat of a Sierra Leone dry season. The wiry, athletic, 17-year-old former child soldier once told me he had started killing before he knew his own age. Now he finds an open spot on the floor, just beside me in the circle. In no time, he’s railing about what made him so late for this week’s group. A local policeman had fined him 5,000 leones for riding without a bicycle license. Outraged, Jeremiah denounces the officer as corrupt and stokes vitriol among his peers across the dusty room.

Almost by instinct the other young men have his back. This is the oppression that provoked the war, they snarl: unfettered authorities preying on the defenseless and extorting bribes. It’s unquestioned that the officer must have targeted him as a former combatant — a stigma they all know and resent. Resolved to stop the indignity, once and for all, Jeremiah lays out the map of his revenge. As a boy fighting with the rebels, he had learned to make incendiary devices from locally available materials. Hostilities ceased five years ago, but he can still put these bombs together. He’ll wait until night, he says. Then he’ll firebomb the officer’s house and kill everyone inside.

Focused on projecting calm amid the fury, I look across the circle, straining for eye contact with my three unflappable Sierra Leonean co-facilitators. It’s clear that none of us knows precisely how to defuse the gathering rage. We’re obliged, though, to assess the threat, and fast.

We’ve already discussed among ourselves that the dozen teenagers here in this, the world’s first dance/movement therapy (DMT) group for former boy combatants, are virtually programmed to test our limits. Given the horrors that befell the youths’ own families and the atrocities that they themselves later took part in during the war — all by the age of 13 — trust will likely be slow in building. We’re nonetheless determined to foster a trusting therapeutic alliance.

Over the last several decades, dance/movement therapists have developed unique skills for cultivating attunement with survivors of a range of traumatic experiences — from childhood sexual abuse to combat — and restoring personal boundaries after their violent rupture. Drawing on this durable healing legacy, as well as our team’s own history of promoting recovery among survivors of torture and war, we have made plans steeped in theory but tested through practice. That no one before has done DMT with child soldiers will not shake our belief in the technique’s capacity to reintegrate minds and bodies torn asunder. Suspending any qualms over our experiment, we likewise steadfastly refuse to give up on the youths in our midst. Despite provocations, we’re compelled consistently and without conditions to hold them in high regard: to suspend judgment; to maintain a safe, violence-free space, while avoiding the temptation to denounce even violent acts themselves.

We have to hold to our faith that the youths’ submerged desire for reconnection will win out. Our resolve, ultimately, must prove as strong as theirs. So, rather than condemning Jeremiah’s plan, I turn to him and ask simply what has kept him from acting out his vengeance already. Being taken seriously gives him pause. In time, he confides openly that he would not want “to start the war again.” Peers begin echoing the sentiment. Relieved, I can almost hear my three colleagues exhale in unison with me.

A Global Phenomenon

It’s nearly impossible to come up with an accurate count of the world’s child soldiers. Long before the International Criminal Court began to issue indictments for recruiting the under-aged, armed groups had ample incentive to keep their young soldiers hidden from scrutiny. Advocates, nevertheless, have identified child involvement in conflicts in at least three dozen countries since the start of the millennium. In 1996, the first global study of prevalence, issued by the UN, estimated a quarter of a million child soldiers, with the greatest numbers in Africa and Asia. Despite heightened concern over the worldwide scourge, this total has not likely diminished.

Sierra Leone remains notorious for boys and girls as young as six fighting as soldiers on all sides of a brutal civil war that raged for 11 years beginning in 1991. At war’s end in January 2002, there were more than 48,000 child soldiers to be demobilized, one quarter of them girls. Only a small portion of these children, however, benefited from the limited reintegration or rehabilitation services provided by NGOs under the UN’s auspices.

This failing was especially problematic in the war-ravaged Kailahun District, where I managed a mental health program for the U.S.-based Center for Victims of Torture in 2005 and 2006. The local paraprofessional trauma counselors I supervised confirmed that the war had left countless former child soldiers homeless, orphaned, and with virtually no access to social support of any kind. Hopeless about their prospects and feeling shunned by their communities, these young people — like demobilized child soldiers in many parts of the globe — had lost connection to communal life. Rather than joining in post-conflict development, they typically eked out a living at the margins where their very existence still symbolized for many the intolerable losses suffered during the war.

Given such realities, ensuring the placement of demobilized youths in meaningful roles within their communities remains a staggering global challenge. Humanitarian models for promoting child soldiers’ reintegration typically fall into two categories: those based in the local community’s sustaining beliefs and rituals and those guided by universalizing biomedical precepts. Eschewing the trauma paradigm seen as a vestige of Western colonialism, certain NGOs working in the field have sponsored post-conflict programs that consist, for example, of the interventions of traditional healers. Pivotal cultural rites afford a sanctioned medium for the expression and release of difficult emotions associated with wartime experiences. Lack of access to ritual forms, by contrast, undermines the likelihood of restoration and may instead help prolong conflict. By enabling the performance of purification rites, these NGOs further conditions favorable to former child soldiers’ return to their rightful place in functional social structures.

Orphan Boys of Koindu

In devising our DMT group in Koindu, a remote outpost where Sierra Leone abuts both Guinea and Liberia, our psychosocial counseling team sought to merge the two dominant models, synthesizing local knowledge with psychological practices that originated in the West. In other words, we wanted to help Jeremiah and his peers transform their suffering and rage as much through bodily engagement akin to that of ancient initiatory rites as through cognitive reframing or verbal processing. In these aspects, our experience with Poimboi Veeyah Koindu (PVK), the self-styled Orphan Boys of Koindu, may offer a potentially replicable pathway to reconciliation for children formerly affiliated with fighting forces in many parts of the developing world.

The fundamental duality in the life of these former boy combatants, as both victim and perpetrator, necessitated an approach designed to foster both acceptance and accountability. In the course of our months together, the PVK youths sought to assume responsibility for their participation in heinous abuses as a route to forgiveness, but they might not have done so without first learning to accept acceptance itself. The young men engaged in various game-like activities fashioned in accord with defined therapeutic objectives, along with specific role-playing exercises. They also danced together, which predictably helped the group come together and heal together as one.

At the core of our two-to-three-hour-long sessions was the Circle Dance, which fused the traditions of African ceremony with the Chacean circle, the legacy of U.S. dance therapy pioneer, Marion Chace. Dancing with World War II combat veterans, Chace uncovered the power of the circle to provide a container in which her clients could safely externalize inner thoughts and feelings, and where the dancing practitioner could foster awareness of meanings inherent in that often symbol-laden, bodily expression. Our dancing with the former child soldiers, performed to the beat of popular Sierra Leonean hip-hop, always began in vigorous unison and commonly flared into imaginative improvisation — a daringly embodied version of the psychoanalyst’s free association. Dancing provided the youths a culturally acceptable release of long-held muscular and psychic tensions, since the musculature’s contraction and release during purposeful physical activity itself may yield relaxation as well as a pleasurable sense of well-being.

In a setting safely distant from daily routines, playful experimentation with aggressive fantasies through dynamic movement afforded a symbolic way of reflecting on involvement in armed conflict. We counselors observed parallels between the safety of our sessions’ separation from daily reality and the sanctioned removal from ordinary life proscribed by the culture’s initiations into manhood — fundamental rites of passage that all of PVK’s members had missed because of the war. Facing one another in a circle, each person had a turn to share some aspect of his life in word and gesture. Then, in unison, everyone reflected that movement back to him. This communal call and response produced moments of sheer boyish exuberance and, as the months passed and the group endorsed genuine expressions of sorrow, a formality that deepened a growing intimacy. Making a ceremony of our process ensured that connection grew incrementally among the ex-fighters and their four adult male counselors.

From the outset, the youths avoided expressing any emotion at all over their losses or their role in atrocities, which they would nonetheless describe freely and in exacting detail. When acting out dramas of their own making about their wartime experiences, however, participants who had never before shown the least affect began exhibiting what they called sympathy for their victims. Little by little, their creative endeavors led them to more and more expansively empathic expression — depicting not only their own grief, and concern for one another and us, but their authentic remorse for those who had suffered under them.

The first sign of empathy for a victim came during a group dramatization. A 17-year-old who had never before shown any emotions, even when speaking of horrific events, was cast by a peer in the role of a young mother with a baby at her breast. When another teen, acting the part of a rebel, ripped the infant away and murdered it, the face of the youth playing the mother contorted in utter agony. Following this courageous depiction of authentic horror, the sharing of long-suppressed emotions emerged. Within a few weeks, it had become a common element of our gatherings. By the ninth session, every PVK member had deliberately and willingly shared a gesture to symbolize his own suffering, and another to represent the feelings of someone who had suffered under him. Permitting themselves to mourn their own horrific losses opened the way to sincere expressions of grief over the roles they had fallen into in the war.

With only a few weeks remaining before the obligatory end to our meetings, I asked the former fighters what more they needed to accomplish before our farewell session. Citing the need for forgiveness, Jeremiah spoke up to urge his colleagues to join him in performing a drama for their community, at which they would depict their roles in the war. Accepting his proposal by acclaim, the youths then crafted a role-play that, weeks later, they enacted before hundreds in a formal showing. The results of their tireless rehearsals proved triumphant and long-lasting, as community elders rose, one by one, to welcome the Orphan Boys of Koindu back into the fold. Having missed out on the culture’s fundamental rite of passage, the youths found a way nonetheless to embody their needed transformation. Whether ritually cleansed or not, they returned thereafter to the heart of their community as inspired, empathic, creative young men.

David Alan Harris is a dance/movement therapist who specializes in fostering recovery among survivors of egregious human rights abuse. He is also a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus .