A LAND PROMISED TO WHOM?

Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

ANCIENT HISTORY
1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

MODERN HISTORY
The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

CURRENT SITUATION
Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.

 

PEACE IN OUR TIME?

Colombia Peace

Image source: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Colombia has a lot going for it. It’s strategically situated where South America begins, bordering both the Caribbean and the Pacific and sort of midway between Mexico and Brazil.* It has a stable democratic government that’s historically avoided the sort of grandstanding left-wing populism that’s derailed other parts of Latin America lately. It’s rich in natural resources, from oil and minerals to coffee and food crops. It is increasingly oriented towards the future, joining the free trade-oriented Pacific Alliance and taking concerted steps to kick-start its economy.

But there’s a little problem that’s been holding it back for a long time now: war. Colombia has been plagued by not 1, but 2 different Communist insurgencies — the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army), plus a medley of anti-Communist paramilitaries. While the war has recently simmered down to a low bubble, it still detracts foreign investment and unnerves locals. Luckily, the Colombian government has taken great pains to wind the war down and might be close to doing so.

BACKGROUND
Colombia is a diverse land for its size, with 2 different coastlines, the Andes Mountains running down the middle of the country, wild plains to the east, and Amazon rainforest even further east. Even the mountains have different valleys, each with its own character. But this terrain means that the government has long had a hard time holding the country together. In 1830 this meant that Venezuela and Ecuador split off. In general it meant that local landowners got to run most of the show.

As elsewhere in Latin America, unequal land distribution, low levels of human development, rich natural resources demanding lots of labor to cultivate, and flat-out racism (Colombia has both native peoples and blacks) meant that discontent in Colombia’s rural areas built up over its history. It exploded in 1948 when a charismatic liberal politician, Jorge Gaitán, was assassinated, leading to a vicious 10-year civil war called La Violencia (“the Violence”). It was settled when the Liberal and Conservative Parties agreed to share power among themselves, therefore buying stability at the price of democracy (since the parties just rotated each term).

In the climate of the 1960s, this failed to settle the problem. Instead rural Colombians turned to armed insurgent groups to stand up for their rights and foment a Communist revolution, with the example of Cuba’s successful revolution in 1959 as a guide and motivation. Besides the FARC and ELN, there were a constellation of smaller bands. They fought off the Colombian army and ruled isolated rural areas as mini-states. They also thrived off of kidnapping, extortion, rape, pillage, wanton murder, and intimidation. Landmines were sown throughout the countryside. Prisoners were tortured. Oil pipelines were sabotaged. Millions of hectares of rainforest were logged. Young men and boys were conscripted into their guerrilla forces. The FARC and ELN had 25,000 soldiers between them at their high point in the late ‘90s.

Colombia is also one of the world’s main coca-growing and cocaine-processing centers. The rise of armed insurgent movements coincided with a spike in demand for cocaine internationally. As a result, narcotraffickers cropped up to feed the demand. They formed a tacit alliance with the guerrillas, and by the ‘80s, Colombia was a chaotic, violent place, with criminals and insurgents acting with brazen impunity and terrorizing the populace. High-profile government officials and presidential candidates would get shot in public. At one point the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, the capital, was even assaulted, with 120 fatalities (including several Supreme Court justices). To protect themselves, politicians, businessmen and rich landowners would surround themselves with bodyguards and hired guns. These coalesced over time into paramilitaries who fought back against the Communists and drug-runners. As always, civilians were caught in between and were flagrantly killed by both sides.

Luckily, the worst of the drug violence died down in the ‘90s after the 2 most influential cartels were broken up. But the guerrillas remained, steadfast in their determination to overthrow the regime despite the end of the Cold War and the overall discrediting of Communism around the world. By the end of the millennium Colombia was a failing state driving its neighbors to despair and frustration.

The US stepped in. Tired of the constant flow of cocaine out of the country, it organized billions of dollars in aid to stamp out coca production there and to support stronger economic institutions. It also trained the Colombian army to take on the rebels. Under the aggressive presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the army did so, wiping out thousands of fighters in the field. The FARC sought refuge in Venezuela, which was sympathetic to them on ideological grounds. As you might imagine, Uribe didn’t take too kindly to this, but Venezuela’s liberal firebrand Hugo Chávez denounced him as an imperialist stooge.

Colombia Terrorism Map

Image source: The Economist

CURRENT SITUATION
By the end of Uribe’s rule in 2010, it was clear that the FARC had no chance of taking over the country. Colombia is now ruled by President Juan Manuel Santos, a former journalist with a more moderate outlook than his predecessor. He saw an opportunity to finally bring peace to his country and accordingly opened negotiations with the FARC in 2012. Cuba, once 1 of the FARC’s sponsors, hosted the talks.

Although skeptical of the FARC — they’ve broken peace agreements before — Santos has basically been generous with them. His peace plan is based on demobilization, forgiveness and reconciliation. Although the FARC’s leadership will be punished, their sentences have been reduced to 20 years for the worst criminals and 5-8 years of community service for those who at least confess. The FARC army’s rank and file will pretty much go unpunished. The FARC will also be allowed to reorganize themselves as a normal political party and participate in elections (something that was already tried in the ‘80s with the Unión Patriótica party; it just dissolved into violence again). The rural bastions of the FARC’s support will see development efforts. The government will also continue the process of demobilizing and punishing the paramilitaries, which began under Uribe.

Colombia has suffered hugely from the war. 220,000 people have died, mostly civilians, and 6 million were internally displaced (meaning they had to move to escape violence). 7.5 million people (about 1/6 of the country!) have registered with the Victims Unit, a government agency that helps out civilian victims of the war with reparations, therapy, and rehousing ‐ although that isn’t always possible with guerrilla fighters still on the loose. By and large, people are sick of the endless violence and ready to say adiós to the conflict. Communism doesn’t have the appeal it used to. If anything, Santos’s biggest challenge is fending off allegations that he’s being too soft — Uribe (perhaps annoyed that he didn’t get a 3rd term and can’t control Santos as much as he wants) has fought a Twitter war against Santos and the peace negotiations using the hashtag #AcuerdoDeImpunidad (“Agreement of Impunity”).

Last year, the two sides, Santos and Timochenko (the FARC leader’s alias, after Soviet general Semyon Timoshenko), reached a preliminary agreement in Havana (pictured at the top of the post). The deadline for the final treaty was set for March 23. The foreign media applauded. Santos went to Washington, D.C. in February on a premature victory lap and to beg Congress for more money to help integrate the rebels back into society and rebuild his country. Analysts were hopeful for peace at last.

And yet… the deadline passed with no agreement. In part this stemmed from a tricky issue, “concentration zones” — designated gathering places for the FARC soldiers to be demobilized and protected in turn by the Colombian army. The FARC wanted big areas, including towns and farmers, the better to maintain their rural bases of support. It also feels vulnerable without them. The government wasn’t prepared to grant this; Timochenko lambasted it as a “surrender” and the proposed concentration zones “prisons.” In part, it’s probably a calculation on the FARC’s part that it has more to lose than the government, which is desperate for peace. If the FARC holds out a bit more it can probably win concessions.

Kerry Colombia Peace

Barack Obama was hoping for a historic photo op during his trip to Cuba with the peacemakers. Instead his secretary of state (foreign minister), John Kerry, had to settle for this photo with the potential peacemakers. Image source: FARC-EP International

Santos has indeed staked his political career on this peace deal, and so of course he reneged on his earlier implication that he would resume fighting if the deadline wasn’t reached. But in the meantime, he’s reaching out to the ELN as well. The ELN is much smaller (1,400 men under arms as compared to the FARC’s 6,000) and has less of a rural base; it thrives mostly on kidnapping and extortion. It has roots in urban areas, Marxist students and priests subscribing to “liberation theology,” but by and large it’s similar to the FARC now. It has continued waging its low-level war against the government since it was shut out of the peace talks, but released 2 hostages in March as a sign of good will.

Can Colombia get its long-sought peace? It’s increasingly unclear. On the one hand, the delay in reaching agreement is a bad sign. The FARC and ELN have been fighting since 1964; at this point, fighting is their job, and they don’t know anything else. They still have rural bases of support. Colombia’s terrain hasn’t gotten any easier, and communication and transport across its territory is still difficult. Coca is still by far the most profitable crop poor Colombian farmers can grow. The underlying economic and social disparities that fueled the war still fester.

But on the other hand, most Colombians are tired of the war and eager for peace and reconciliation. Decades of violence and revenge have exhausted the country and convinced the majority that it’s time to move on. Santos has promised to hold a referendum on the peace deal if it’s concluded, and it’s projected to pass. He also projects a 2% economic boost for Colombia if peace is reached. Foreign investors and tourists, long scared away by the threat of kidnapping, robbery or bombing, are increasingly interested in Colombia: both the national and local governments are putting money into infrastructure and fostering an economy less dependent on commodities and drugs. Removing the threat of attack would do wonders for Colombia’s still-tarnished international image.

And an enduring peace deal would also vindicate Santos’s strategy of letting bygones be bygones and reconciling with hated and feared enemies. He has studied both Colombia’s past failed peace initiatives and conflict resolution in other countries and claims to have learned from their mistakes. Let’s hope for South America’s sake that his dream of peace will come true.

*Technically Colombia is right next to Brazil, but it’s not the part of Brazil where most people live.

BEASTS OF NO NATION

It’s Oscar night, and this year has more controversy swirling around the awards than usual. All of the nominees are white. It has prompted a boycott and a campaign to overhaul the voting process and the Academy’s membership. This post isn’t about that controversy, but it is about one of the movies that was noticeably snubbed this year: Beasts of No Nation. It’s not a movie for everyone. It’s one of those monumentally depressing movies you see because you feel you have to, not because you really want to. But it’s still an important and worthwhile movie that touches on a tough subject.

Beasts of No Nation follows Agu, a preteen boy in an African village. He lives a hard life, pretending a hollow TV is real and rustling up some money by blocking a road and shaking down the drivers. We see his country has had some civil turmoil, since Nigerian soldiers are occupying the village. But no one is prepared for the storm that bursts when rebels overrun the village, sending civilians fleeing in panic. Agu’s mother and sister manage to take a bus out in time, but the rest of his family are captured and killed by the rebels. Agu barely manages to escape into the hills.

There he’s caught by the rebels and their intimidating commandant. You might think Agu’s time is up, but no, instead the commandant sees potential in him. The commandant’s army is mostly made up of boys, orphaned or separated from their families and trained to be merciless and almost unthinking killers. Through a combination of strict training, military discipline, swaggering charisma, and a lack of other options, Agu joins the rebel army and becomes a hardened soldier.

We see the usual atrocities associated with African wars: massacres of innocent civilians, gang-rapes, rampant plundering, sadistic execution of prisoners through grenades in their mouths. Agu gets a little too close to the commandant. Besides the catharsis of sex and destruction, the boy soldiers are placated by the camaraderie of combat and some kind of drug. We also see a glimpse of the politics swirling in the background of the conflict: the commandant is summoned to rebel HQ by the Supreme Leader, but the leader keeps him at a distance, seemingly unnerved by the commandant’s success and popularity among his men. Instead, the leader gives priority to the Chinese businessman who has no qualms about meeting with a war criminal. (Whites aren’t really part of the narrative, by the way — we briefly glimpse some white faces through the windows of a UN van, and that’s it.)

As I wrote before, this story is not for everyone. Some viewers might just see it as another tale of tragedy and horror filmed to wring easy tears from a guilty audience. But it’s essential for getting an idea for how the phenomenon of child soldiery works. We get to see the story from Agu’s point of view. Yes, he does horrible things and commits crimes he should be way too young to be part of. But can we really blame him? What other choice does he have? He is surrounded by armed boys deep in the jungle, his family far away or murdered. For him it’s kill or be killed. We see he doesn’t really want to slaughter innocent people — he even knows what that must feel like — but it’s him or them. And if your country has fallen apart in civil war, why not join one of the armies and at least have a fighting chance of surviving?

That is not to say that Beasts doesn’t have its problematic aspects. An article in the Huffington Post points out that although, following the source novel, it doesn’t specify any African country in particular, it was filmed in Ghana, and the actors are Asante. Ghana is one of Africa’s success stories, with a peaceful history and no record of child soldiery. (The original novel was inspired primarily by Nigeria’s civil war; Cary Fukunaga, the director, mostly researched the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.) Non-Africans wouldn’t know the difference, of course, but imagine watching a movie about World War II with actors speaking Swedish. Professor Noah Tsika complains that the movie’s distribution on Netflix keeps it pretty much locked out of West Africa, and reminds us that it’s only one of a series of books and movies about the subject of child soldiers.

Perhaps most of all, Africans and those with an interest in Africa tend to get annoyed by movies like Beasts because it perpetuates a tired, deeply unflattering image of Africa as hopelessly corrupt, poor, violent, chaotic, and in need of help. Many of Africa’s worst stories are in the past, and the continent in general is trying hard to put frenzied wars like the ones seen here behind it. Countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mozambique are moving forward and healing the rifts torn upon bloodily in past decades. And it’s true that Africa’s vibrant film industry is almost unknown overseas, with the result that normal stories about Africa are ignored in favor of traumatic, gut-wrenchingly bleak ones. But it’s also true that some parts of Africa are still mired in conflict and war crimes — including, interestingly, Nigeria (hey, it’s a big country). Child soldiers continue to get drafted into mass killings today in South Sudan and Somalia (and, outside of Africa, in Syria and Yemen too). Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings and the ethnic bloodshed in the Central African Republic are very recent memories.

In any case, Beasts of No Nation is worth watching just because of what it illuminates of the human experience, aside from any political or racial questions. (Do we snub movies like Schindler’s List because Germany doesn’t slaughter Jews anymore?) As the title suggests, this isn’t about 1 country in particular, or even a continent. It’s about what happens to humans, even young ones, when they are put into an extreme situation with bleak options, although one allows them to survive and thrive. It’s about what happens to societies when corruption and ill governance lead to a complete breakdown in government authority and cocky warlords take matters into their own hands. And it’s also, thankfully, about the potential for human redemption and rehabilitation. Despite the agonies that Agu goes through (and inflicts), I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a tone of hope that forgiveness and patience can save even the most seemingly hopeless cases.

Beasts of No Nation is not easy viewing. It’s understandable if its subject matter makes you pass it up or if the political context makes you uncomfortable. But it’s a vital story that tells an important part of the African experience, and I think it’s well worth taking on.