The use of child soldiers in warfare has taken on new importance as a result of the KONY 2012 video. Yet it remains far too easy to focus on the clear violations of humanity perpetrated by Joseph Kony rather than the complex environment that lingers over the lives of underage youth utilized in combat. The columns, news items, and blog posts on either side of the KONY 2012 debate have been numerous, at times causing us to overlook the real-life drama faced by former child soldiers trying to rebuild their lives.
For a number of years my wife and I have worked with former child combatants in south Sudan in an effort to reintegrate them back within their respective communities. Some came into the south through Uganda and still carry the emotional scars from Kony's domination of their early lives.
When the Sudanese civil war effectively ended in 2005, thousands of these former soldiers were released from the military and sent back to their home communities. As we watched them attempt to reorient back into community life it was obvious it wasn't going to be easy. Many had been recruited or abducted between 8-10 years of age and now that they were a decade older, they had missed the pivotal years of youth development.
With no education, how could they possibly endure going back to the first primary grade and sit beside children? The answer was they couldn't. They were listless, drifting, and with a look of both anger and vagueness in their gaze. It was then that we hit on the idea of hiring them to assist us in constructing primary schools.
Trained by competent builders, these former child soldiers had suddenly found something of meaning -- both for themselves and their communities. There were the inevitable fights, bouts of alcoholism, and frequent absences to deal with. But thanks to the assistance of qualified counsellors they stand a chance of finding both balance and a viable trade in their future.
And then there was Achol. She was 19 and had been a child soldier since she was 10. Many are shocked to hear that about 40 per cent of all child combatants are girls. They could fight as tenaciously as the men, but their main benefit to their recruiters was in cooking, cleaning, and other domestic duties. And of course there was more. Many became the "wives" of older soldiers and used for sexual services. Achol was tall and attractive, and by the time we initially found her, she had been raped and abused over 200 times. Now out of the army, she wanted to marry, but the region knew of her history and kept her at a distance. We were finally able to assist her in starting her own successful micro-enterprise, but her words in our last interview with her still haunt us and we wept when she recounted:
"I sit in my stall at the market and watch the women and men both treat me like a prostitute. The horrors of the war won't let me sleep and I realize now that I will never be married and have children of my own. My parents would accept me but they went missing during the war. I am still good for nothing."
William, our southern Sudanese field manager, whom I referred to in an earlier post as having to survive an ambush from Kony rebels at the Uganda border, was himself a child soldier and former lost boy of Sudan -- a potent mix. His entire life has been a struggle to attain status in the Aweil region of Sudan where we work. He has been with us since we first started rescuing slaves in 1998. His past is horrific in the telling, but it is his future now that matters. As our project manager, he has at last established a reputation as a community leader, in part because we are sending him for his university training in, of all places, Uganda. His status has been 20 years in the making; for others it takes even longer.
These people are the heritage of Kony and his ilk. While he seeks to destroy the lives of children wherever he is squirrelled away, they are dreaming of having children of their own and protecting them from what they endured in their youth. Non-governmental organizations can certainly assist, but what they ultimately require is the healing that comes from their own traditional communities.
Someday Kony will be gone, but these former child soldiers will remain, caught in a world of dreams and nightmares. People who seek to assist in their pain will move heaven and earth to rid the world of this scourge once and for all.