On Wednesday I watched Beasts of No Nation, the visceral, immersive and harrowing story of Agu a child soldier. The film, released on Friday on Netflix, is unapologetic in its brutality and realism and compels us to respond. Yet, to its great credit, it does not offer any answers to the dilemmas it raises. It is hard to know how to respond to such egregious abuse of humanity and we crave an easy answer, but the truth is there are no easy answers.
A child soldier is a hard concept, even the name sits awkwardly with us. CHILD and SOLDIER are two words that should never go together and yet, this snap shot from the life of young Agu is played out again and again for an estimated 250,000 child soldiers around the world today. Children are innocent, not fully culpable for their actions, they need protection while they grow into responsible members of society. Soldiers deal in violence, bloodshed and death, exactly the things children have a right to be protected from. As adults we cannot fully comprehend the impact of such confusion, brutality and fear on a young mind. Sometimes a well-crafted and ruthlessly realistic fiction, such as Beasts of No Nation, can give us a momentary insight. Agu's candid revelations and simple lyricism help make tangible the scale and gravity of this abuse of innocence that so many child soldiers endure.
Even though we cannot fully comprehend we rightly feel we must respond, so how can we ensure we respond in the right way?
Beasts of No Nation is vague about where and why this conflict is raging because this is not a story about politics, international security or even who is right and who is wrong. This is a story about Agu and children like him and being child focused is critical in ensuring the right response. Politics is undoubtedly part of the problem and has a large part to play in the solution - the UN's Children not Soldiers initiative is making great progress in getting States to commit to not using child soldiers - but we also need to make sure that the needs of individual children do not get lost.
Demobilisation and disarmament may get rid of the soldier, but we also need to restore the child.
The setting of Beasts of No Nation looks and sounds a lot like Nigeria, but it could equally be the Central African Republic (CAR) where up to 10,000 children were recruited into armed groups in 2014, and in the first half of 2015 reports indicate that 26 children have been killed and 110 maimed in armed clashes.
On Wednesday one month ago, I was flying home from the CAR buoyed on a wave of enthusiasm for the recent progress that has been made there to end child soldiering, restore the rights of former child soldiers and reintegrate them into their communities. Some great work is being done in the CAR with the UN negotiating the release, disarmament and demobilisation of child soldiers and NGOs like War Child stepping in to help these children recover, rebuild and re-integrate. Recently we have been working with 163 children released in Botangafo and I was in Bossangoa for the launch of similar projects in a further five areas. These children are deeply traumatised by what they have seen, and need support to come to terms with what they've experienced and help to re-integrate into society.
Just as Agu is at the centre of Beasts of No Nation, at War Child we believe that children must be placed at the centre of the solution. Children can become strong advocates for themselves if they are given a voice and we are prepared to listen. We focus on giving children protection, time and space to find their voice and shape their own futures. War Child's supporter and advocate Polline Akello, who spoke at the United Nations and the Women In The World conference in London last week, is a great example. Her experiences as a child soldier have led her to become a "voice for the voiceless", to help other children in conflict areas around the world overcome the life threatening challenges they face every day.
Through the Sustainable Development Goals each of the world's 193 countries have pledged to eliminate child recruitment. By watching Beasts of No Nation, talking further and taking action we can hold our governments to account for their promises.