Former child soldier hopes autobiography will help others

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A man who suffered through addiction and homelessness to forget a troubling childhood is hoping to help others by sharing the intimate details of his life.

Jemal Damtawe, 49, was born in Ethiopia and was forced to become a child soldier at the age of 15. He says he was tortured every single day, made to do unthinkable things, and saw so many horrors.

“The sounds of firing bullets and explosions deafened my ears,” Damtawe describes in his novel, Forced Paths, Ordered Steps. “It was gruesome seeing so much war and bloodshed. Innocent people lying dead on the roads and in the bushes, body parts torn away. These massacres implanted horrific memories in my mind… I don’t know how many enemies, child-soldiers I killed.”

Damtawe eventually found find a way out of Ethiopia, one day arriving in Montreal. From there, he found some success — a family and his own business. But, he told NEWS 1130 back in 2016, keeping the demons away wouldn’t be easy.

He began drinking heavily. After fearing how his habits would impact his daughter, Damtawe chose to leave Montreal for Portland, and eventually landed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Dealing and addiction led to homelessness. But one Christmas Day, he sought help from the Union Gospel Mission.

More than a decade later, Damtawe has been able to help countless others struggling with addiction. He was even honoured with a Courage to Come Back Award two years ago.

WATCH: 2016 Courage To Come Back Award winner Jemal Damtawe


“My journey has helped me a lot,” he tells NEWS 1130, now more than a decade after first seeking help. But he admits, it’s not always easy.

“When I was even in prison, I was tortured every single day. I was like, ‘How am I going to forgive people who harmed me like that?’ I carried that for a long time.”

His journey has taken a long time, but he says many people have helped him along the way and he’s now able to let his past go.

“But I’m still struggling. I’m having a nightmare here and there, but it’s not that much. Since I started writing the book, I had a lot of hard times, but it helped me a lot.”

In the book, Damtawe also addresses his struggles with sexual addiction — something he has not been particularly public about in the past.

He hopes by reading his story, others who are struggling will find the courage to ask for help and know they are not alone. He’s also hoping to quash the stigma that surrounds addiction.

“This book is not only for people who have an addiction,” he says. “People who have a family member in addiction, it can help a lot. Because I see so many people where I’m working. Twelve years on the Downtown Eastside, I meet so many people. I was on the street too, and people give up when they have an addiction. You need someone to encourage them — the family, the friend — to care for them.”

Thirty per cent of the proceeds from the book will help Damtawe with his goal of opening up a new recovery home in the Tri-Cities area in 2019, called Fork in the Road.

Damtawe is currently an outreach worker at the UGM.

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