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Authors: Charles London

One Day the Soldiers Came

BOOK: One Day the Soldiers Came
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One Day the Soldiers Came

Voices of Children in War

Charles London

To all the parents, mine and theirs,
alive or dead, who try, against
the odds, to protect us.

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who’d never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or where one could weep because another wept.

—from W. H. Auden’s
Shield of Achilles

We that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

—from William Shakespeare’s
King Lear

When Elephants fight, it is the Grass that suffers.

—East African Proverb

, M.D.

During the late 1950s I worked as a resident in pediatrics and child psychiatry on the wards of the Children’s Hospital Boston; and so doing, I met many children who were not only sick but hurting with unremitting pain, debilitating to both mind and heart—to the point that some boys and girls dared say to their parents (and to us doctors), that they wished for death, whose arrival, they averred, would end the agony they no longer felt able to bear, even with a modicum of equanimity. One day, as I talked with a ten-year-old lad who had contracted polio, and who was paralyzed from the waist down (no vaccine was available then, to spare children from such a dreadful, disabling disease), I heard this from Jimmie: “My dad fought in the war [the Second World War], and he said he saw a lot of kids my age get killed—and he even saw some fighting hard, ‘like good soldiers, so their country [France] could be free,’ from that dictator, Hitler, and his army.” A moment of silence, and then, as if my perplexity had become quite apparent, this soliloquy of sorts: “You have to be brave, and keep on fighting. If kids could fight for their country in Europe, I sure can try to fight for myself, right here and now. ‘Be a good soldier,’ my mother and dad
tell me, and then I say, ‘You bet I will.’ So, when they come to visit me, they ask how the soldier is doing, and I say, ‘The soldier is fighting hard, and I hope he wins the war.’”

There are, of course, soldiers and
indeed, young Jimmie, before his hospitalization, had often played soldier games in the backyard of his suburban Boston home. He and his friends had taken sides, shouted and screamed at one another, aimed sticks as if they were guns and made noises—
bang, bang, bang!
—to affirm deadly intent. “My dad was a soldier, and me and my pals fight like soldiers, and our dads coach us,” Jimmie once told me. Yes, indeed, here were American children and their parents (one-time warriors in Europe and Asia), engaged in vigorous military activity, so it seemed to all who watched: “My mom,” Jimmie told me, “said I could go to join the army, and they’d not have to teach me much, because of what my dad and the other dads [of his neighborhood friends] have taught me—and remember, in a real war, kids sometimes fight too, or they sure see the fighting right before their eyes.”

That long-ago critical moment in my occupational life came back to my mind as I read the pages that follow—their collective words an unforgettable lesson for all of us readers: children become witnesses of war fought, and further, children become warriors themselves, ready and willing to take up arms, even as they observe others doing likewise—a violent world registering its implacable philosophy on others, who are violated in the name of this or that slogan, creed, military or political or social or national reality. “You know in battle, a lot of times it’s the blind leading the blind, the good fighting the bad, the smarties foxing out the dummies, the lucky ones beating out the ones who are dying, down on their luck”—so Jimmie had learned from his veteran soldier dad, and from other dads (those of his friends), who had also fought for America in the 1940s.

Now, we readers of this book can meet children like Jimmie and his next door pals—young ones not playing war games for fun (or at the behest of remembering parents, alive and doing well in the peaceable kingdom of the United States of America), but, alas, swept into ongoing warfare, and become, willy-nilly, actual combatants or victims of others wielding guns, knives, and bombs.

Ahead are those children, and ahead for us who meet them through a book’s knowing, resolute insistence, is plenty to ponder: knowledge offered becomes ours to have, to hold up to our minds’ eyes for sustained consideration. We are offered, too, in this volume’s extraordinarily affecting presentation, the valuable words of Anna Freud; and as I met them, I kept on remembering her thoughts about children, caught in the turmoil of the war being waged near their homes, their families, and their friends. I was privileged to know her, hear her recall the past, and reflect upon what she had learned (so often) by watching boys and girls attentively, and keeping in mind what they had said to her.

“So often, children learn violence from others,” she once remarked to me, and then this follow up: “That is obvious [what she had said], but not so obvious, at least to some of us who worked with children in London, during the time of the [Nazi] blitz was the lure, you could call it, of violence, of war, of aggression visited, and then returned in kind. My father in his writings knew to emphasize aggression as an aspect of all of our psychological lives, but when that ‘drive,’ he called it, becomes the norm, so to speak—and the young are summoned to what might be termed ‘a call to arms’—then, in a sense, aggression is given the sanction of the adult world, and enacted by it. Here we have, under such circumstances, an extraordinary kind of childhood being allowed (encouraged even) by parents, teach
ers, and civic authorities: boys and girls prodded (taught even) by adults to be fighters, to join with adults in their attitudes, feelings, and, yes, their actions. I saw in London some children fighting as if they were ‘the Germans’ or ‘on our side’—and I knew that in Europe, during the war, some children fought alongside adults, as ones who did errands, surely, but also as ones not only spying, running here and there, but taking orders—the young become fighters alongside their elders.”

A moment of silence, then this: “So it goes, children become fighters, warriors”—and today, thanks to this compelling book, the rest of us can know, as Anna Freud put it, how “it goes,” in our twenty-first century for children across the globe, caught in the throes of war, become witnesses to it, become soldiers in it—struggling for victory over others, and all the while, struggling to grow up in an all too callous, even murderous, world.

During the spring of my junior year of college, when I was twenty-one years old, I began this project, collaborating with Refugees International as a Research Associate. Over the next five years, I traveled to eight countries, spending up to a month at a time interviewing children and their caretakers, visiting their homes and schools, playing soccer, and doing drawings. The world changed a great deal in that time and the children’s attitudes towards me, an American, shifted somewhat as well (which is why I did not visit Iraq or Afghanistan). The following timeline gives a sense of the major events in this book.

  • June 28, 1389: The Battle of Kosovo brings the kingdom of Serbia under Ottoman control.
  • March 1962: General Ne Win leads a military coup in Burma.
  • September 1983: The Sudanese government triggers the Second Sudanese Civil War by imposing Islamic Law on the Christian and Animist south of the country. The war displaces nearly four million Sudanese, including thousands of children.
  • November 1965: Joseph Desiré Mobutu overthrows
    the president of the Congo and renames the country Zaire.
  • April 1992: The Bosnian Parliament, following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia, passes a referendum declaring Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia which triggers a civil war supported by the Serb controlled government in Belgrade.
  • April 1994: Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana is assassinated and the act is immediately blamed on Tutsi extremists. Under the pretext of national security, the Hutu Power government of Rwanda begins a mass extermination campaign to kill every Tutsi in the country. The international community does nothing to stop the killing. Paul Kagame, a Tutsi general, takes over Rwanda in July 1994 and puts a stop to the killing, sending hundreds of thousands of Hutus, including those responsible for the genocide, fleeing into Zaire.
  • November 1996–May 1997: The First Congo War erupts and Laurent Kabila, with the support of Paul Kagame, overthrows Mobutu, ending his thirty-year reign.
  • July 1998, Laurent Kabila severs ties with his Rwandan backers. Ethnic Tutsis in the eastern Congo rebel against his government with the support of Rwanda and the Second Congo War begins.
  • March 1999: NATO bombardment of Serb positions ends the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanian population in the Serbian province of Kosovo. When Serb forces withdraw, the Kosovo Liberation
    Army begins exacting revenge on the Serb civilians left behind. The United Nations takes over administration of the province.
  • May 2001: I begin research for this project.
  • July 2001: I spend a month in the Burundian and Congolese refugee camps in western Tanzania.
  • September 11, 2001: Terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center kill over 3,000 people. Images of the burning towers are seen even by children in the jungles of Thailand.
  • October 7, 2001: The United States begins Operation Enduring Freedom to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ensuring girls’ access to education is one of the stated goals of the new government.
  • January 2002: I visit the war-ravaged eastern Congo, passing through Rwanda.
  • January 17, 2002: Mount Nyiragongo erupts in the Congo, forcing the evacuation of half a million people, including the research team from Refugees International, who retreat back to Rwanda.
  • September 2002: I visit Thailand to research the lives of refugees and illegal migrants living in Bangkok and on the Thailand-Burma border.
  • March 2003: The United States goes to war in Iraq. The pre-war planning does not include cogent provisions for children in the aftermath of the regime; many young people join the insurgency.
  • May 2003: I visit Kakuma Refugee Camp, near the Kenya-Sudan border to interview the Lost Girls
    of Sudan. At the same time, the United States resumes its resettlement program of the Lost Boys and a large number of Somali Bantus from Kakuma. The program had been suspended due to the 9/11 attacks.
  • July 2003: A transitional government takes control of the Democratic Republic of Congo, officially ending the civil war, though violence in the east continues.
  • March 2004: Rioting erupts across Kosovo when three children drown under mysterious circumstances.
  • June 2004: I visit Kosovo to research the lives of refugee children returning home and trying to rebuild their lives amid ethnic tensions. I also spend a month in Bosnia with young adults who had been children during the war ten years earlier to learn how they are coping with peace.
  • November 2004: Rebecca, a Sudanese “Lost Girl” is reunited with her cousin in the United States.
  • October 2005: A small group of Congolese refugees in a Tanzanian refugee camp begin the repatriation process, returning to the eastern Congo. Over the next year, thousands more follow. I have no idea if the children I met, now young adults, are among the refugees returning home.
  • July 30, 2006: The first free elections since independence from colonial rule occur in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their outcome is immediately contested. Many of the children I met in the refugee camps in 2001 are now old enough to vote.
BOOK: One Day the Soldiers Came
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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