John Kon Kelei is haunted by his boyhood memories, such as being forced to bury other children who died of disease before making it to the battleground of Sudan’s civil war.

Or of trying to win a contest for the fastest time to put together and take apart an AK-47 assault rifle, simply for fear of being harmed or even drowned by his superiors.

But he doesn’t hesitate to talk about his past.


“(There) are two guns out on the floor and then you sit, facing each other, and you compete,” Kelei, 26, recalled yesterday inside a Halifax hotel, shortly after flying into Canada.

“You feel some strong guys on your back with sticks,” he said. “They beat you up and then you are taken to the river and you are put under water to stay there.”

Kelei, now a spokesman for War Child Holland, is speaking tonight at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in support of Senator Romeo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative.

Kelei never ended up fighting because he escaped his captors before they sent him to the front lines, but said it has been a struggle to shake off the brainwashing.

Education, however, has helped him overcome the trauma.

“Using my mind is more powerful that using my muscle,” he said.

Kelei joins Sierra Leone native Ishmael Beah, author of Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, at From Youth Affected By War to Advocates of Peace: Rediscovering Youth Strength and Resilience, which starts at 7 p.m. inside the Rebecca Cohn auditorium. Tickets are $32.50 each, or $25 for students.

Shelly Whitman of Dalhousie’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies said researchers are hosting eight former child soldiers for focus groups aimed at better understanding how child soldiers cope and what they think can be done to address a worldwide phenomenon that has affected them directly.

Kelei said he hopes sharing his story not only helps him heal, but provides hope for other lost boys.

“A child is a child. A solider is something else,” he said. “Combining them together is unacceptable.”

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