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Keynote Message from Paulo Coelho for the Meeting on Youth@the Crossroads - a future without violent radicalization

"I’m writing this text today because I feel this is my way of acting in this world, of fighting against the violence."

<b>Keynote Message</b> from Paulo Coelho for the Meeting on Youth@the Crossroads - a future without violent radicalization

When I was invited by the Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. Koïchiro Matsuura, to write about the radicalization of today’s Youth for the UNESCO Meeting under the high patronage of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Bahrain, I felt a great deal of responsibility and, I will not hide it, grief.

Even before sitting at my desk to write this text, sad images started to crowd my mind. I could see an army of children, bare foot, walking down a dusty path that would lead them to their certain death. I could see some of them actually smiling, holding carelessly their light AK-47s, and heading towards war.

In a blink I would be transported from the reality of children soldiers in Sierra Leone or Uganda to the landmines of Angola. I remember once reading about children being used as human shields and sent by adults to “un-mine” mined fields.

But I don’t even need to go as far as Africa to have a clear picture of abandoned youths – I can walk in the streets of my city Rio de Janeiro and see this reality. How many countless times did I see children begging for food, sleeping on the sidewalk, having nothing besides each other bodies to protect themselves from the cold night breeze?

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that these abandoned youths are only to be found in Africa or Latin America. Recently the cover of Time Magazine was dedicated to the increase threat that youngsters represent to adults in the UK. You could see their empty eyes against the backdrop of poor neighborhoods, having no prospect in front of them, no dreams to aspire to, no goals, basically, no way out of the cycle of violence.

When I look back in time – I can see children being used in coal mines in 19th century Europe, slaves in colonial houses, being enrolled in II world war … I see children, across all ages, being used as objects, human shields, slaves, weapons.

These extreme examples of a destitute youth – of abandoned children that unfortunately have known only violence – are, as you well know, not isolated pieces of a nightmare. This violence has been with us for centuries now and the ranks of poverty and violence keep on rising. For instance, Human Rights Watch estimates the number of children soldiers in the world at around 300 000 and this number will continue to grow with the increased instability of Asian and Africans countries.

Beyond the reality of open war, we still see children being used as work force – almost as slaves. In Asia, for instance, the number of children forced to work is around 120 Million according to the International Labour Organization.

The unbalance of the world, represented by the fate of our youth can also be seen in the following: in one part of the world we see the remnants of slavery and in the other part of the globe, in the “rich nations” - youths are the first ones to be touched by unemployment and precarious work conditions.

Wars, forced work, unemployment – these are the different facets of the same recurring problems: carelessness, indifference and greed.

When we see a child baring a gun, we know that we are in front of the consequence of a bigger problem – not at the root. Indeed, how can we see these youths as responsible of their actions? The choice was not made by them – but for them, or better said, against them.

I keep on seeing these images and the feeling of powerlessness grips me. What can one do against a rising number of children soldiers? Of children slaves?

It seems so overwhelming to be face to face with these numbers, these nightmarish realities that very quickly we seem to lose sight of the light, of faith in the world. And yet, from this turmoil a very simple story comes back to me.

It’s about a father reading a magazine and his child bothering him with constant pleas for attention. The father exasperated by the hyperactive child decides to give something for the child to do and leave him alone. He decides then to rip a page of the magazine in which there was a map of the world. He then rips the page in many pieces and gives it to the child to sort it back again. He knew that the child, being too small and having no knowledge of geography, would be incapable of solving this puzzle quickly and he could already anticipate in delight the quiet moment ahead of him. Yet, 5 minutes later, the child comes back with the recomposed Mapa mundi. The father, impressed by the feat of the child asks him:

- But how did you manage to do this so quickly?

To which the child answers:

- I saw the face of a man and had only to put the pieces back again.

His father took the page off the hands of his son and turned the page – behind the world, rested the face of a man.

We forget too often that the world is ourselves and the children our future.

This man delicately put together by the hands of a child, brought back from the chaos of the world by innocent hands, needs to act. This Man is you and I and the world in each of us.

I’m writing this text today because I feel this is my way of acting in this world, of fighting against the violence.

Therefore, today my pen writes for these children that are in dire need of a chance.

A chance to have a real choice.

A chance to step out of the cycle of brutality and exploitation.

But in order for them to be able to chose, we need first to look at the root of the problem – and this problem is ourselves and our lack of vision.

What I propose to you today is this: we need to give ourselves a chance. We need to choose to act in favor of the world’s youths, using our resources and, above all, placing our faith in our future.

The reason for this is as simple as putting together the face of a Man in a magazine – because it is only through the children, through the youth, that we will be able to recompose ourselves, to recompose the World.

  • Author(s): © Paulo Coelho for UNESCO 2008 
    Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific