A KID OR A KILLER?
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
TABLE OF CONTENTS A Kid or A Killer? A word from our Founder . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Burma: Our longest standing battlefield . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Sri Lanka: The war may be over... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Mexico: Hope through football (soccer) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 Philippines: Our newest child soldier frontier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 United States: Mobilizing the masses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
is a publication of Project: AK-47. All rights reserved 2011.
Cover photo: Thierry Falise Back photo: Aaron Pegg
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011 Marcus Young comes from 4 generations of family history in highimpact social justice work in Southeast Asia, where he encountered his life mission: rescuing child soldiers.
Photo: Jeremy Anderson
Dear Project: AK-47 Community, Those of you who have been with us since the beginning may remember the question that started it all: “A kid or a killer?” I can be pretty pragmatic, but I’m also an optimist who firmly believes that this dilemma doesn’t have to exist. But this is not reality yet. Meanwhile, someone is going to answer this question: either we will, or those abusing children as soldiers will. That’s what caused me to launch Project: AK-47, as rag-tag as we were at that time. We’re still fairly rag-tag, but every year thousands more join our ranks to answer this critical question. Now, more than ever before, we hear about and see the dire needs of the world around us. There’s no way we can respond to it all, but we can respond to that which ignites something within us that says, “I was born for such a time as this.” That’s what child soldiers have done to us…and you are reading this right now because on some level, you have found yourself in the same boat. But what does it really mean to “join us,” as we often challenge and to which only the elect like you truly respond? So glad you asked. It means engaging an issue that is far too disturbing for most people to handle. It means allowing yourself to enter a chaotic world where few things go according to plan and right doesn’t always win…in the short term. It means joining the losing end of a fight because you feel compassion for the underdog. It means stepping onto the stage of a tragedy and re-writing the end of the play. Yes, this is what we do, and by joining us you are implicating yourself in this conspiracy of hope. We’d like to thank you for joining us this past year. 2010 has been a powerful year in our history, full of rescues, risks, success stories and close calls. If we had been standing alone, we would not have been able to respond confidently to the question for which we already know the answer. The question that still haunts us as we continue to seek allies in this fight. A kid or a killer? Not if it’s up to us and our army. All the best in 2011, !
Marcus Young Founder of Project: AK-47 WWW.PROJECTAK47.COM
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
Photos: Jeremy Anderson & field staff
Our Longest-Standing Battlefield By Marcus Young
Burma (Myanmar) is our longest-standing battlefield. It’s where the journey started for me 13 years ago when I encountered child soldiers for the first time and dedicated my life to their rescue. Burma is a land of beauty and tragedy, where contradictions and irony seem to find their most poignant expression in the term “child soldier.” Those words should never be uttered in the same breath, let alone describe one another. But as they say, that’s just the way it is. I chose to defy this reality and began an arduous journey that took 5 years before we ever rescued our first child soldier in 2002…then another 80 in 2005…and now we have over 200 child soldiers we’ve rescued in Burma. And yes, it has been worth every bit of the fight.
as with any story worth telling, we had our share of drama, suspense and moments when the light at the end of the tunnel was only visible through a telescope. Protecting children within war zones comes with challenges, as you can imagine. In May, the army breached its agreement with us during a time of intensified conflict and reconscripted some of our older children. Not being able to bear the thought of returning to life as soldiers, several of them risked their lives and escaped only to be found later and thrown into prison for deserting. We posted the story of Neso’s escape on our blog, but we should mention that we negotiated the release of many of the other children as well. Through these negotiations, we were able to get a document of affirmation from the ethnic government stating the immunity of our children to conscription as long as they attend school and are under the age of 18, which was a major victory.
Fast-forward to 2010, an epic year in Burma’s history with the release of democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but also a monumental year for us. It was a victorious year to be sure, but WWW.PROJECTAK47.COM
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
In June, a fire caused by an electrical explosion severely burned one of our children’s homes for girls, resulting in over $30,000 of damage and temporary overcrowding at our children’s home. Through the generosity of our community, we were able to rebuild the home and purchase new clothes, blankets and beds for the girls, for which they were extremely grateful because they had lost everything in the fire. One of our small business success stories in Burma was our rice silo and mill that yielded a 30% return on the $15,000 dollars in paddy rice we purchased in bulk, which we milled and sold when prices peaked in September. The rice mill project is already paying for itself, but it would not have been possible without Project: AK-47 supporters like Ginny Frohmberg of Innocent Voices and our friends at Call +Response who collectively raised over $11,000! Unfortunately, instability is inherent to the nature of war zones. This January, we received news that a drug lord with 20,000 troops, has been put in charge of our region as his ethnic group prepares to fight the Burmese. Though he has been semi-friendly to us in the past, he is a firm believer in the tradition that his people were born for war. He is disregarding the agreement we have with the ethnic government and plans to conscript more of our children. We are currently gathering all the facts before we act, but will be sure to update our community when the best course of action becomes clear.
Marcus with drug lord in 2009, holding hands as a sign of friendship Photo: Jesse Cusic
The War May Be Over... By Marcus Young
The children’s safe home for former child soldiers in Sri Lanka is a partnership we undertook about 3 years ago with our friends who have over 30 years’ experience on the field in regions like Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the 26-year civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups ended in May of 2009, over 5,000 child soldiers ended up in lackluster government rehab programs; however, our safe home has successfully continued to serve some of these children as well. The end of this war is now our best opportunity to end generational cycles of violence and raise up a new generation without racial hatred and a determination for justice via peaceful means. On the horizon for Sri Lanka this year is our vision to open a shelter and vocational school for young women who were raped by soldiers (many of whom are now pregnant). Rough estimates say there are about 17,000 of these women who are now being shunned by their own society because they were raped…our heart bleeds for them.
Former child soldiers and young women raped by soldiers have found themselves in the same predicament: rejection by their society.
We will be continuing to develop microenterprise solutions for former child soldiers and victims of rape in 2011, which will be available for investment through the Project: AK-47 website.
Photos: Marcus Young & field staff
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
All photos: Jeremy Anderson
Hope Through Football (Soccer) By Jeremy Anderson
As I spoke with our Latin America Director, José, about current and future projects one evening during my recent trip to Mexico, the phone rang, which wasn’t uncommon for his bustling house. After he exchanged the usual pleasantries as is customary in Latin culture, I watched his countenance change and noticed a lump developing in his throat as he spoke. As he hung up the phone, he turned to me with tears welling up in his eyes and said, “A 26-year-old we pulled out of the drug trade a couple years ago just died.” He paused in his grief for a moment and then added in choked words, “I’m so sick…so sick of burying kids,” before he turned to walk out of the room. Before he ever gave the eulogy for someone who died of natural causes in their old age, José had buried 72 infants, children and young adults. To him, it’s a relief and rare occasion to celebrate the life of a departed elderly friend. But nothing is more unnatural and grievous than having to do so for children whose lives have been cut short by drug-related violence. I cannot bring myself to tell you many of the stories I heard, since they would haunt you the way they have haunted me and continue to do so. What I can tell you is this: no movie could ever exaggerate, over sensationalize or be overly graphic in its depiction of what is currently happening in Mexico. Reality is that much harsher than fiction. The movie I’ve seen that comes closest to depicting the situation is one that I would not recommend that you watch unless you want to be disturbed: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), from the creator of City of God. Sometimes being disturbed is a good thing, though, if it moves us to action. That’s exactly what happened in José’s case. He had had enough of drug-related violence claiming young lives, so he WWW.PROJECTAK47.COM
refused to remain a bystander. One of the ways he responded was by harnessing the power of one of the most influential institutions in Mexico: football (soccer). Football is not just a sport in Mexico. In fact, the lines between football, religion and even life itself blur considerably. Football is a way of life, and as such, it provides a powerful medium to reach adolescents who desperately need a vision that is larger than themselves. Football is a discipline that encompasses more than life on the field: players go to bed early, avoid parties with drugs and alcohol and learn how to control their anger, knowing that the choices they make will show up in their game. To say that the teams José has started are good is an understatement—the Division 3 team is consistently ranked #1 in the professional football federation. However, the more important reality is that the teams are achieving their goals off the field as well: the lives of the players are changing dramatically…so much so, that mothers have marveled at their sons’ development and called José to ask what he has done with their children. I have witnessed this myself over my last couple of trips by getting to know the guys on a personal level. What’s more, drug violence has gone down significantly in every area where José has started a team. There is no easy remedy for the tragedies that are occurring in Mexico on a daily basis. Finding large-scale answers may take a while. But in the meantime, we are encouraged by the progress our people on the ground have been making, one futbolista at a time.
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011 Photo: Thierry Falise
Our Newest Child Soldier Frontier By Marcus Young
The Philippines have always had special significance for me, since I spent my childhood there. Growing up in the land of islands, coconut trees and smiles afforded a boy more than enough adventures for a lifetime, and has never quite let go of my heart. Long after my family moved back to the United States, I still dreamed of returning one day.
While we have no plans to stop supporting these children, we are already building in components that will help the project become self-sustaining. We have created a community farm to help fund the ongoing costs of this program, which the children enjoy immensely as they learn agricultural skills. We also plan to broaden our efforts this year with a goat project that will teach the children animal husbandry.
In May of 2010, this dream came true: through a series of unprecedented circumstances and relationships with key military and government leaders, Project: AK-47 had the amazing honor of starting a project with 30 child soldiers in Mindanao, Philippines. This is truly a pioneering project inside an Islamic conflict zone deep within the Philippine archipelago, where security sensitivities abound and no work like ours has ever been done. In fact, the Filipino government believes that this project, with its direct focus on child soldiers, is the first of its kind in the Philippines.
Four national staff members currently run the project, two of which are former child soldiers. One of them, Edgardo, was literally trained as an assassin from childhood. When I interviewed him, he told me about the day his father pulled him by his small hand to the riverbank to gaze at the bodies of his three aunts who had been raped and killed by the opposition army. Every day, his father would take him to the beach and have him shoot bottles out of the air. When he missed, he was punished. By 12 years old, Edgardo was a skilled gunfighter and sniper. He recalled his first assassination at age 14, which he carried out by emptying all 30 rounds of his M-16 magazine into the man. You would think a hardened killer like Edgardo would be a lost cause, but years later, he is one of the most compassionate, caring people you will ever meet; he is now a rescuer of children who Edgardo in his assassin days would otherwise be trained Photo: Anonymous to hate and to kill.
By offering education sponsorships, we were able to negotiate the voluntary demobilization of these children. Now, instead of training as the next generation of soldiers in an ongoing, bloody ethnic conflict, the children live with their families and attend school. Here is a direct quote from one of our children: “I thank all of you for helping us here. I will try my best to finish my studies to repay you for all your help. I hope you won’t stop in helping us.” Photo: field staff
AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
Photo of Mikky Ekko in concert: Sid Smith
Mobilizing the Masses By Tyler Ward
2010 was a year of risk taking and experimentation for us in the U.S. as we have been searching for the most effective ways to get the story of child soldiers to the masses. Thankfully, the majority of our risks paid off as we watched thousands of North Americans (and several international advocates) respond to the reality of child soldiering by doing something about it!
The Project: AK-47 Advocate Alliance
For the past couple years, Project: AK-47 has developed a small community of creative types in our Artist Alliance to protest and engage the plight of The 2010 Project: AK-47 Summer Tour child soldiers. In 2010, we continued to rally artists, but also extended the invitation to This past summer, we influencers at large by regathered a team of 5 road warriors, packed a launching the Artist Alliance as the Advocate Alliance. We have van and hit the been blown away by the caliber pavement. Before the of people who have responded season was over, we to our invitation and joined our had setup advocacy Photo: Tyler Ward growing Alliance! Here are just booths at 8 different a few inspiring examples: music festivals from New Jersey to Seattle, Washington. We were Barry Stokes is a former NFL offensive lineman for the New Photo: Tyler Ward able to broadcast the England Patriots. He recently joined our ranks and began reality of child soldiering and the opportunity to rescue these giving dog tags to the youth who attend the football camps he kids to over 100,000 people. Their response was overwhelming. founded and now runs. There is now a subculture of young athletes who are informed and empowered to create change for child soldiers and children in armed conflict. One of the highlights of the Summer Tour was Creation Fest in Pennsylvania. We couldn't seem to keep our dog tags supplied because people were buying them so quickly. After 2 Neil Heary is an extreme inline skater that runs a group out of extra shipments and exceeding our expectations 10 times over, Buffalo, NY called Enemy Opposition. They partner with a nearly 1,500 people left the festival wearing child soldiersâ€™ group called Outcast Extreme and travel the country doing X stories around their necks! Games-style shows for young adults. Neil and his crew now wear and sell Project: AK-47 dog tags and shirts, play our video and recruit young people to the cause every chance they get. WWW.PROJECTAK47.COM
“Got my Project: AK-47 dog tags today. Both exciting & sobering 2 think the tags I’m holding = a real child doomed to be a child soldier.” :( -@Eowyn9 Moving Forward In 2011 With a thrust of momentum from 2010, I know I speak for the entire Project: AK-47 team when I say that we couldn't be more excited for 2011. In a recent blog I said,
The Wear Their Reality Campaign The Wear Their Reality campaign has been our most successful avenue to connect people to an issue that is inherently hard to identify with. In the past year, these dog tags have given over 6,000 people the chance to play a role in our Photo: Laura Marie Beckwith advocacy efforts by daily wearing these child soldiers’ stories around their necks. Here are a few of the many responses we've heard from our new community:
”With this year will come new kids with new challenges, the looming threat of war around our projects and the expected darkness we’ve become accustomed to fighting in our line of work. However, with the stories of these child soldiers resounding so clearly in the ears of our international community, Project: AK-47 has little fear in taking on some of the darkest issues in our modern world.” While this still stands true, the threats surrounding our projects have become a bit more imminent. Within the last couple weeks, we got word that a drug lord/appointed government official has threatened to take our land and conscript the older kids from one of our homes in Burma because of the nearness of war. Needless to say, our fight isn't over. 2011 is certainly the most important year yet in the history of our cause, so we issue our charge once again: JOIN US.
“Just purchased a child’s dog tags from the Project: AK-47 website. This child’s story will be told & they will be remembered. They are a somebody!! It’s a very humbling experience to see/touch/wear them for 1st time. Help rescue child soldiers!” @enigmafalls
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AK-47MAGAZINE January, 2011
Sharif Iman is an independent artist and songwriter whose single "Shine" recently hit high on the POP charts. Sharif has carried the cause in his heart for years, but is now gaining the platform to influence others to take it on. He rocks his dog tags daily and rarely leaves a stage without talking about them. During his recent radio tour, he handed each station his CD and a set of a child soldier’s dog tags.