It’s clear from the jacket that the book One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices Of Children In War, by former aid worker Charles London, is different. The cover shows a photograph of young boys in silhouette, the outlines of their bodies silvered by a rising sun, as they bounce on their feet, kicking up desert dust, their arms extended upwards, in seeming jubilation.
On the reverse cover, the bespectacled author himself beams a smile, his eyes bright, his collared shirt loosened from its tie. He doesn’t subscribe to the presentation of the horrific subject of children affected by conflict in the dark terms so often used by writers and journalists before him, who have scowled from the dust jackets of tomes that stand in marked contrast to his.
“I actually thought about that a lot, thinking: This is such a serious topic; should I really be grinning on the back (of the cover of the book)?” London told VOA.
“But (then I thought) it would be a disservice to the kids I met to present their lives in such a grim way. Yes, the facts of many of their lives are very grim. But their lives are also filled with joy as well, and with play and with laughter!”
London says he didn’t want to leave people with the impression that his book was just a “hopeless catalogue of the horrors of the world.”
“There is much more to the children’s lives than that,” he whispers.
London avoids using quotations dripping with blood, descriptions couched in crass adjectives designed to shock people into consciousness – but often having the opposite effect - and the reams of depressing statistics highlighting the hundreds of thousands of children presently fighting in the many wars of the world. He offers a vastly different approach, and it’s one that’s been gleaned from his years as a relief worker for Refugees International, a Washington based organization that aids communities traumatized by conflict.
London does indeed present the terrible truth about children involved in war fighting - but always in a way that’s cloaked in hope for the future, an argument made for the youngsters who suffer recruitment into the callous hands of armies in Africa and other war-torn regions of the globe, that they – despite the atrocities they’ve perpetrated and suffered – are more than capable of surviving and thriving, to benefit society.
London’s remarkable journey has taken him to the Sudan and eastern Congo, to Burundian and Congolese encampments in Tanzania, to the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp on the Kenya-Sudan border. In these places, he’s spoken with girls who’ve been raped and disfigured, hacked with machetes, who’ve witnessed their families being butchered before their eyes, the wounds of memories in their minds glowing much brighter than the scars snaking across their blue-black skins. He’s spoken with survivors of attacks that have left entire villages decimated. And more: London has interviewed the boys who’ve waged some of this terror upon the innocent. In his book, remarkably…. he argues for their redemption.
Everything begins with soccer….
London reveals that during his work in Africa he initially found it very difficult to “connect” with the refugee children and former child combatants…. Until he discovered the power of soccer, the sport so loved by most Africans.
In his book, he writes: ‘…. We play soccer. It is with soccer that everything begins. You cannot know the children of a world at war until you begin to play soccer….’
“As an American, not having grown up with soccer, I was pretty bad at it,” London laughingly tells VOA.
Nevertheless, it was on the sand, gravel and mud pitches near African refugee camps that his barefoot young subjects - their joy at kicking a ball made of bundled plastic bags and string, unbridled - first began opening up to him.
“Soccer really was a key building block for these children’s lives. Most of them had lost everything. But they still managed to play. It was that intense desire that all children have: to play. And so I would go to these centers for demobilized child soldiers – many of whom had fought in different armies, against each other – and they would all be playing soccer together!” London says with enthusiasm.
Many of the youngsters, he says, were deeply traumatized; their nights wracked by nightmares as a result of what they’d done and what had been done to them, their days spent in filthy conditions where they often lacked food and blankets.
Soccer provided relief, albeit temporary, from the harsh conditions.
“For a couple of hours a day, the kids could forget about that, put all that aside, and play with each other, and sort of rebuild society – at least with the amorphous rules of kicking a ball around. During soccer, they could reconnect with their own humanity and play together and interact as children do.”
London says that while watching the former child soldiers gamboling about – or even while joining in their games -- he sometimes had to remind himself that some of them were killers and rapists.
“I definitely felt revulsion at times – but never towards them. It was always towards the people who made them do these things. These children were, in a way, normal children. They had moral sensibilities; they had some kind of inner life that told them that killing was wrong and it was better to help someone than to hurt someone. But they never had access to choices based on those beliefs,” he comments.
The adults who were supposed to help the youngsters develop as “good human beings” had “betrayed” them, London says, and forced them to commit terrible crimes.
“So the disgust I felt when I would hear from these children about the things they’d done was always towards the adult world. That’s why I celebrate that the International Criminal Court has started indicting people and convicting them of crimes against humanity for the use and recruitment of child soldiers.”
One Day The Soldiers Came also highlights how children are used – and abused – to encourage different groups to rise up in conflict against one another.
“Children make great rhetorical tools in fiery political speeches,” London explains. “People will do almost anything to protect their children. The idea that their children’s future, and the future of their nation, is threatened, is a great way to motivate people to kill each other. If you say: ‘This is our enemy and they want to kill your children; you better kill them first’ – it’s much easier to motivate people to start attacking each other.”
London says armies and rebel groups in Africa use children because the youngsters are in “ready supply” and have “underdeveloped senses of fear. They don’t think so much about consequences. So by recruiting children you get this plentiful, cheap source of labor that’s much more willing than adults to run into battle. And if you kill a bunch of them, the thinking amongst these commanders is: ‘So what? There’s always more where they came from.’ And that’s what makes it so horrible – they’re completely expendable.”
‘Child soldiers are children!’
In the book, London debunks the notion amongst many in the international aid community and media that child combatants have been “robbed” of childhood: “We in the developed world have very fixed ideas on what constitutes a ‘childhood.’ Actually, the idea that a life untouched by war is the norm is kind of absurd. War and instability are the norm in history. Children growing up in that are the norm in history. So saying that these children are somehow not children because they’ve grown up this way, isn’t really saying anything. I think we need to look deeper at what is a childhood. Child soldiers are children!” London emphasizes.
In his book, he makes the point: ‘Through the crucible of violence and hardship, some children can develop deep moral sensibility and can flourish as individuals.’
London explains his stance as follows: “When we say someone has ‘character,’ then we mean they have a strong moral sensibility and they’re honorable. And often those traits come from hardship, and going through something terrible and testing your limits and really having your beliefs tested. These children certainly have had themselves tested - constantly. Those who come through it, those who see horror going on all around them and manage to hold on to some sense of right and wrong, in a world that does not make this easy, are truly remarkable.”
London refers to the case of a former child soldier he calls ‘Paul’, who was guilty of “terrible” things while a member of a militia in eastern Congo, but who was dedicated to returning to the battlefield to “rescue his friends” and repeatedly spoke of “protecting” them.
“I was just in awe of him, having gone through everything he’d gone through, and still holding on to this (morality). People talk about former child soldiers being immoral, living in this moral vacuum where their sense of right and wrong has been completely erased. And I just found the opposite to be true: that they had often, by going through what they’d been through, forged very strong moral senses. They just never had access to choices that could reflect that.”
Throughout his work, and in writing his book, London says he grappled with a sense that he was somehow “exploiting” the children he’d met. All that he can do to assuage his feelings of guilt, he says, is to hope that readers will gain inspiration from his book to somehow help children who’ve suffered in conflict.
In addition, he says he met many children who were “happy to share their story and glad that someone would care to read their story…. That was often their sense of reward for talking to me. But that is little comfort when you know that the child whose words you’re taking is still going to be hungry once you’re gone.”
The great aid debate
One Day The Soldiers Came also focuses on the influence Western aid groups, in their desire to do good, have on African societies. London writes that many children on the continent grow up in constant contact with relief workers. He says this can be “very depressing” for the kids.
“Some of them can shut down, and think: ‘Oh well, I’m going to get hand outs now, and I don’t need to take any ownership of my life.’ Aid communities very often foster that, especially with children. They take away a sense of ownership from their lives, and of choice. They (the children) go where they’re told, and they’re shuttled around and they’re handed out food. It can shut down those innate capacities they have for survival,” London maintains.
He’s convinced that Western aid agencies, rather than merely “piling aid” on displaced and impoverished communities, should “support people’s abilities, and the mechanisms children especially have to facilitate their own survival.”
London’s book describes how some young survivors of conflict are put onto planes to begin new lives in America and elsewhere. He has mixed feelings about such resettlement.
“In some cases, resettlement is a good solution, when there’s really no hope for them to build a life (in their home countries). The case of the lost boys and lost girls of Sudan is an example of that, where there was no point in making them stay because there was nothing left for them to rebuild, and so coming to the US was a good idea for them. But it’s not always the most durable solution,” he says.
“If you take all the young people away from a community, who will be left to rebuild, who will be left to create this world, when the war is over? I met many children who also had no interest in leaving: This was their home; they wanted to stay; they just wanted peace. They wanted economic opportunities and to able to go to school. They didn’t want to go and resettle in Canada or the US; they wanted to stay in the land they knew, in their home, and rebuild it….”
But, ultimately, London’s book is not a debate on the morality of aid. Neither is it an endless description of the sufferings of child soldiers and their victims. What it is a celebration of the human spirit, and its ability to endure, using a lust for life as the basis for that refusal to succumb to oblivion.
“In Congo, I found joy. I saw people playing, and people having parties, in the midst of a terrible war!” London exclaims.
The author remains convinced: “That will to live, combined with aggressive measures to bring the people who perpetrate crimes against children to justice, can ultimately lead to hope.”