I haven’t written here in a while because I have had too much to say…and no idea how to say it. Two weeks ago I was in Gulu in northern Uganda visiting ex-child-soldiers in a World Vision center. These are young men who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the last few months and made their way back to Uganda from Congo.
Hearing their stories was heartbreaking. I have heard and read many similar stories, but it was different hearing it directly from the boys who were involved. Seeing their scars made it all the more real. One young man, who had been in captivity for almost 15 years, showed where he had been shot through the back when he was 9 years old. The scar on his belly from the exit wound was massive. Nine years old.
One thought has been running through my head ever since. What if it was my son?
Of course my son, at only 4 years old, would not have been useful to the rebels. He would have been killed on the spot when the LRA came to raid the village.
I believe that many of us in the West put an emotional distance between ourselves and conflicts like this around the world. We read statistics about child deaths and read about child soldiers in remote places, but we try to make it seem not so bad. “They are used to it ‘over there.’” “They have a lot of children because some of them will likely die, so parents ‘over there’ don’t get as attached to their kids.” It isn’t that we believe these things, it’s just that we can’t allow ourselves to enter the pain.
Ever since meeting these boys in Gulu, I’ve been forcing myself to imagine it. To explore the question of “what if it was my son?” I hate every minute of it, and I can only do it for a few minutes at a time before I have to stop. I try to imagine those last few minutes of seeing him taken away from me with nothing I can do about it – my ultimate responsibility of protecting my son taken out of my reach. Then the terrible time of knowing he is out there, somewhere, experiencing all the things I have heard about but never wanted to imagine. Young, scared, and alone.
Tens of thousands of children around the world are taken from their parents every year, whether to be used as soldiers, sex slaves or worse, and the grief those parents feel must be excruciating. Because we are all parents, because we are all human, I feel like I owe it to them to feel the pain, even if only for a few minutes at a time and even if it is only a shadow of what they feel. I know how lucky I am. When I come back from the depths, I get to hold my son and feel the relief wash over me. They don’t.
There is a lot we can do to fight against this problem. We can encourage our government to stop supporting regimes like the one in Somalia that uses child soldiers. We can research the sources of our clothes and other products to make sure they aren’t the products of child slavery. We can stop visiting the red-light districts in Thailand or Cambodia “just out of curiosity.” We can inform others that this issue is real, and that child slavery is happening in nearly every country around the world (yes, even in the United States thousands of adults and children are sold into slavery every year).
At the very least, when we hear or read about these issues, we can stop and take a moment to really feel deeply how terrible this crime is for everybody involved. It is nice to be insulated from the horrors happening in the world, but sometimes it is more important to try to feel what the real people behind the news reports are living through. Because if we deeply feel it, we are more likely to do something about it.
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala