From Africa To Europe, A Former Child Soldier Haunted By His Own Unthinkable Acts

One native of Sierra Leone, who arrived in Italy via the now notorious island of Lampedusa, is trying to find peace in a Roman slum.

Papani Kamara, haunted by memories
Papani Kamara, haunted by memories
Niccolò Zancan

ROME — When he was a child, Papani Kamara’s mentor was known as Adama “Cut Hands.”

“He always told us that our machetes needed to be well sharpened,” Kamara recalls. “This was important because if the cut was clean, then the victims would pass out. Otherwise, the wrist or elbow could stay attached to the rest of the arm hanging by just a strip of flesh.”

As a 10-year-old boy living in the Sierra Leone village of Baomahun, Papani was forced to become a soldier for the Rebel United Front (RUF). “They came with the syringes already filled,” he recalls. “They injected drugs in our arms. We were treated like a bunch of dogs. They used us as tools for their own personal needs. Before setting the houses in the village on fire, our commander released everyone. He made a son rape his mother. We were forced to assist. I heard her screams and had to keep a rifle on the boy's neck.”

If they had refused, he explains, they would have been killed. “But they were killed afterwards anyway. When kids disobeyed, they were gunned down immediately. They did this to teach the rest of us a lesson.”

These unthinkable nightmares emerged during months of tearful sessions with psychologists. “This information has been confirmed by international observers,” Kamara’s therapist is careful to explain. “The use of drugs and smuggling of diamonds are some of the tools used by the RUF to carry out its missions. During the war, they branded the children like cattle.”

Today, this former child soldier is 24 years old. He suffers from depression and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in misery, just outside of Rome, in a single room within a building shared by about 100 people whose lives have been turned upside down by crises — Italians, Chinese and other Africans like him. They take turns doing the cleaning and the security at the gate. On the wall of his room, there’s a picture of the Madonna. A small dog is yelping, chained, from the building opposite.

Leaving Sierra Leone

Papani escaped the war in Sierra Leone, spending seven years on the Ivory Coast before crossing the desert in Niger in a van filled with contraband cigarettes. Then, after all that, he escaped the war in Libya. “I wanted to enroll in Gaddafi’s army,” he says.

Papani then left for Lampedusa, escaping a northern Africa embroiled in crisis during the spring of 2011, arriving on the Italian island that has become a destination for many immigrants and just last week witnessed its own horror when a boat filled with would-be new arrivals caught on fire and sank.

Back then, Papani was convinced that he would find peace here in Italy, but his troubled past followed him here. “Everybody is afraid of me,” he says. “They think that I could snap in an instant and go back to doing bad things. But it’s not like that. I want to tell the world: It was because of drugs that I did those things. When they injected me with them, I didn’t know anything or recognize anyone — not even my parents.”

His father, Momodou, was the village chief, and his mother was named Fatou. They were killed in a fire that was started with petrol. Everything in Papani's life still smolders. “I dream of getting a job,” he says, staring at the wall, “of learning a trade, being at peace and having a family.” But, these past two years in Italy haven’t been fruitful. “For me, things get worse day by day. I’m not working, I’m not studying. To be able to register for an Italian language course, I’ll have to pay a hundred euros.” Lost time is scary, especially when you’re haunted by your memories.

Forced against his best friend

Papani tells us for the first time what makes him cry the most: “Adama asked me to cut off the hands of my best friend, Moses. I refused. I looked him in the eyes, he was shaking and begged me not to. Then Adama beat me like he had never done before and threatened me with a knife on my neck. He said to cut Moses like he had taught me to.”

The psychologist’s report on Papani defined this as impossible choice. “One of the technically most atrocious tortures, used as a rite of passage to prove one's affiliation with the RUF,” it says. “The aim of cutting Moses’ arms was to permanently separate him from his past and from any affections.”

Papani cries into a pink blanket that he saved from the trash. He has never had a girlfriend. The only girls he sees are the ones in the naked photos he has downloaded onto his phone. He says that some evenings he has to drink five beers because it’s the only thing that helps him not to think about what happened to his best friend. “Until I ask for Moses’ forgiveness for what I did, I’ll never be at peace.”

For Papani, there is a giant kaleidoscope of horror: the image of Moses screaming and writhing on the ground, a dark boat filled with people praying and vomiting in the middle of the sea, the violent protests in Bari, the nights spent sleeping rough and alone in Rome’s central Termini station.

Papani's Permesso di Soggiorno visa issued for humanitarian reasons is about to expire. He doesn’t have the money to renew it, and the Interior Ministry hasn’t granted him political refugee status. He dries his eyes. For a moment, he tries to imagine what a stroke of luck would be like. He knows how to tile roofs and would accept any kind of work. “Unfortunately, I haven’t found any friendly people here in Italy. I’m sorry for saying that. I’ve looked for friends, someone to talk to, but I haven’t found anybody.”

The truth is that three women are trying to help him — his psychologist, a lawyer and an Italian teacher named Cecilia. Cecilia wrote him a letter that he carries with him always, like a passport. “I haven’t known you long, but I can tell that you’re a good guy,” it says. Nobody has ever said that to this former child soldier.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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