When I interviewed some of the child soldiers who visited the Gulu recovery center for children of war in Uganda I wanted to show them my gratefulness for sharing their stories and reliving their horrid pasts. One of these gifts was a soccer ball.
I will never forget what James did when I gave him a ball. He looked at it and held it to his chest and he smiled. Not just a grin, but a huge smile that filled his face and seeped into his eyes. He murmured thank you and then turned to walk away, then he stopped and said:
“Kony took more than our families and our way of life away. He took away our childhood. I will never be able to enjoy the carefree day of youth again. But sometime I like to go back and live it - as an adult. When the nightmare come, I go and I find my friend and we play the game. It help me to see better again.”
I hope there are many, many games played James. And somehow a piece of that lost childhood, found.
Why child soldiers?
I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He asked me, since I'd been researching the plight of child soldiers for a few years now, why in the world would a good army commander use children to fight his battles when highly trained adult soldiers could be used instead.
I told him there were many reasons, the first and foremost being that children are easily manipulated and they don't have a highly developed sense of danger. Meaning: it doesn't take much coercion to send them into the line of fire. Second: rifles like the AK-47 are light enough to be easily handled by even a ten year old. They simply rest the gun strap over their shoulders, keep their fingers on the trigger, and swing. Any soldiers hesitating to kill a child soldier would be shot in no time. Third: children are cheap and plentiful. They don't eat much and with the rising number of orphans out on the streets due to AIDS, children can be easily coerced into joining an army for a free meal. And four: poverty. Poverty can lead to food shortages which can lead to families volunteering their children for these child soldiering rebel groups in order to get food and/or money.
Such is the reality for hundreds of thousands of children in approximately 20 countries including Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But we don't have to throw our hands up and say, "Yeah, but what can I do about it?" We can't put every horrid anti-government rebel away and we can't destroy every AK-47 in the world, but we can combat poverty: one child, one family, one village at a time. And that, my friend, is another topic of conversation.
John F. Kennedy said, “Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” I wish everyone knew this. A country that invests in its children is a country that is going to grow and develop and prosper. Children should be carrying a packsack of books and heading to school, not an AK-47 and heading off to war.
My journey as an author, giving voice to those who can't - or won't - speak.