Former child soldier helps Sierra Leoneans struggling in poverty
Published: October 25, 2012
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ishmeal Alfred Charles will always remember the day the helicopters saved his life. It was sometime in 1998, in the midst of Sierra Leone's civil war, and Charles, then 15, was standing in line with a group of 10 teenagers, facing mutilation at the hands of a savage band of rebels that had ravaged much of the West Africa nation for seven years and counting. Charles, like dozens of other teens, had been kidnapped by Revolutionary United Front rebels months earlier. They managed to flee once in a chaotic moment after lugging weapons and supplies for the rebels and committing atrocities on their behalf as they ravaged community after community for weeks on end on the way to overtake the capital of Freetown. The teenagers, including Charles, had been captured by the rebels again and now faced punishment for fleeing into the bush earlier. One by one the teens were losing a hand or an arm as the rebels asked the one-time child soldiers whether they wanted a "short sleeve or long sleeve." Not all survived the mutilation. Charles was second in line when the government helicopters swooped in, sending the rebel camp into pandemonium and the teens fleeing again into the thick forest. The arrival of the helicopters was a miracle orchestrated by God, Charles told Catholic News Service Oct. 24 in an interview with Washington during a two-week U.S. visit coordinated through the Healy International Relief Foundation of Lumberton, N.J. Those events set the stage for Charles to be reunited with his mother and siblings in their hometown of Wellington, near Freetown. And it set Charles on a path to assist his fellow Sierra Leoneans reconcile with each other and overcome the dire poverty that set in following the 11-year conflict that ended in 2002.
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