Imagine you’re a soldier in the jungles of Central Africa, there by decree of your commander in chief to search out and destroy the notorious warlord Joseph Kony. You suddenly come under attack from an unseen combatant. After a brief firefight the shooting stops, and you move in. There, lying between the buttresses of a giant bouma tree, is your foe, wounded and staring back at you with a mixture of fear and loathing. He’s just a boy.
You can see from the severity his injuries, the ones you inflicted on him, that he will soon die. Did your commanders tell you that this boy was one of thousands forcibly abducted into Kony’s army, and has not been home since. Did they say he probably spends his nights reliving horrible memories, and does everything he can to numb his mind to the nightmares?
The fact is, battle briefings are conducted in a way that dehumanises the enemy. Rarely, in a campaign that concentrates on ‘aims,’ and ‘targets,’ will the words ‘person,’ ‘adult,’ or ‘child,’ be heard. “That way it is ingrained into the field agents that they are not fighting humans,” says Briton James Flynn, a writer of thrillers with experience in covert field operations, “they are achieving objectives and felling targets who are there to inhibit aims.”
Since 1987, the demon-possessed, messianic Joseph Kony and his army of mass murderers, the LRA, has been threatening civilian populations in the region, and abducted an estimated 10,000 boys and girls, who are forced into combat or sexual servitude.
Last month President Obama sent 100 US troops in to the region to "remove Kony from the battlefield," at the request of the legislature. The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 was the most widely cosponsored Africa-related bill in US history. But is the American public prepared for the outcome? US State Department admits the rebel group replenishes its ranks through child abductions, and has forcibly sought to keep those abducted from fleeing.
“I used my gun to get a salary,” one former child soldier told me, while I was researching my novel, Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (Cutting Edge Press, UK) in which an army of boy soldiers led by a crazed Congolese warlord terrorizes villagers in the Congo jungle. “It’s easy to convince a child, who thinks shooting people is a game, to join the rebels.” In his case, it was government soldiers who arrived at his home one day. “They wore US-provided government coats when they killed my mother and my father. It may have been the same ones who then came and said, ‘come with us, revenge your parents death,’ just wearing different coats.”
Child Soldiers International maintains that many child soldiers enlist voluntarily, though in war-torn regions, where there are few alternatives to taking up arms, they often do so as a means of survival or after witnessing the torture and execution of family members. “The problem is most critical in Africa, where children as young as nine have been involved in armed conflicts,” says their website. Across Africa demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs aimed specifically at child soldiers have already been set up, to assist former child soldiers to learn new skills and reintegrate back into their communities. However, these initiatives lack funds and adequate resources.
One success story is that of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of over 20,000 Sudanese who were orphaned or displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War. “They walked more than a thousand miles,” say the International Rescue Committee, “half of them dying before reaching a Kenyan refugee camp. With the help of the US government and UNHCR, nearly four thousand were eventually settled in the United States.
My question is, how will Obama's army respond to an enemy half its age? How will the average Jane or Joe from Anytown, USA react when they learn their "kills" are the same age as their own children, who are safe and secure in their homes watching Sesame Street? James Flynn maintains in the first instance most soldiers will probably not be phased by the age of their enemy. “That is where the training comes in to its sub-conscious own. My reaction would not be that is a child that has been killed, rather I would be asking is he operating alone?”
Many war veterans will testify it’s only when objectives have been achieved, and the soldier is left alone with his or her conscience, that the truth of the battlefield is unveiled. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by many factors, but ultimately, Flynn says, “it will always come down to not being able to process what has been seen, done and inflicted.”
At least this is one thing both sides of the conflict will have in common. During the recent trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, testimony from psychologists cited a study of 1,100 child abductees in Uganda, which found PTSD among 40 per cent of those who stayed in captivity for more than one month.
Another study said 27 per cent of the children who stayed with rebels for less than a month suffered PTSD. Experts who spoke to the Lost Boys of Sudan said they were the most badly war-traumatized children they had ever examined.
Ishamael Beah was just 14 when he was recruited into the Sierra Leone Army, and remained a soldier for 3 years. He describes the horror of battle from a child's perspective:
“When we got there we were in an ambush, the rebels were attacking where we were in a bush. I did not shoot my gun at first, but when you looked around and saw your schoolmates, some younger than you, crying while they were dying with their blood spilling all over you, there was no option but to start pulling the trigger. I lost my parents during the war, they told us to join the army to avenge our parents.”
Invariably Kony’s “Invisible Children” will have had it drummed into their heads by their commanders that they face certain death if captured. As a warlord who has evaded capture for 25 years, at no point is Joseph Kony going to creep out of the jungle waving a white flag. He will fight to the finish, surrounded by his abductees.
But, orphaned and robbed of youth, these are kids with so few options that rather than fight to the death, it’s more likely they will simply give up the moment the opportunity presents itself. The real challenge comes in trying to absorb them back into society. Former child soldiers face a hard life, as they try to disentangle the memories of childhood and massacre.
Military recruitment of children is also harmful to their societies. Their lost years reduce the economic potential of those societies, and many former child soldiers grow up physically and psychologically scarred by their experience, and prone to violence, which perpetuates the cycle of violence.
Regardless of their age, no one who survives Kony's battlefield/playground will return unscarred.
“Can you tell me how to get/ how to get to…”