The first time our group visited Gulu in northern Uganda, we were asked to speak to a group of young people, largely male. Many in the audience were former child soldiers that the government was trying to reprogram so they could reenter “normal” society. The large conference room was packed and, for security, there were military guards posted at key locations around the exterior. Our presentation went well.
Gulu, for several years, had been victimized by a particularly nasty rebel group called the Lord’s Republican Army (LRA). A couple of years ago, the Uganda army finally succeeded in driving the brigands out of the area. But the LRA left northern Uganda in a mess. Of particular concern were the child soldiers.
The issue of child soldiers was briefly discussed in a recent book titled Wine to Water. The book is largely a description of the humanitarian work that the author did in Darfur (western Sudan):
The boy leaned coolly up against the hood of my Land Cruiser. He looked like a fourth grader, yet he wore the SLA (a militia group trying to protect their people from savage attacks by government troops and their cooperators) uniform with the brim of his hat flipped up, and shouldered an AK-47.
I had seen other boy soldiers, but what struck me was that he was the youngest I’d seen. And I felt oddly drawn to him. Maybe it was his deep gaze or his surprisingly hardened behavior as he casually sucked down the last few drags of a cigarette as if he’d been smoking since infancy. He seemed like a cool kid, but I had to remind myself that he’d probably killed more people than most grown men in our own military.
Still, I was intrigued. So I decided to go over and sit with the boy. I didn’t say anything at first. I just sat down on the bumper next to him.
Using my broken Arabic, I fumbled to ask his name and his age.
“Ana Mustafa,” he answered. “Ana Ithna ‘ashar.'”
Twelve years old? When I was Mustafa’s age, I lived for the weekend. All week long in school I would dream of Friday. And when it finally arrived, I’d be out in the woods behind the house, with my BB gun, pretending that I was in the midst of guerilla warfare. Yet sitting there beside me was a child who wasn’t pretending.
I did my best to make a joke–something, anything to coax a smile out of this young boy. Nothing worked, and he didn’t seem very interested in talking either.
I had to learn the rest of his story. So I excused myself and sidled up to the commander of his unit while calling Hilary (a Sudanese co-worker) over for some translation help.
“That boy Mustafa, what’s his story?” I asked, cutting right to the chase. “Where’s he from?”
“The commander says Mustafa is from a small village,” Hilary translated. “The Janjaweed (a group cooperating with the Sudanese army) destroyed his village and killed four of his family members when he was nine years old. But he escaped and joined the SLA to fight against the Janjaweed, and has been with us now for three years! Mustafa is young, but he is determined and hardworking. He is a good boy and a good soldier.”
The reality of Mustafa’s childhood weighed heavily on me. I knew boy soldiers were commonplace in the SLA, but for the first time for me, I guess those boy soldiers finally had a face and a name. And it made me profoundly sad.