Sunday, November 9, 2008
DrAMa: child soldiers and the path to peace
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions...
My sister in law is an artist who creates and sells wonderfully unique garden stepping stones, like the one in the picture above. The first time I saw them (and fell in love with them!) the Life in Africa community in Kampala had just recently started doing some work with war-affected children in Northern Uganda. We'd had some great experiences with art-therapy workshops making peacetiles (another collage concept) so I immediately started dreaming of how we might also make stepping stones with those kids.
Over the course of two decades, the Lord's Resistance Army abducted many thousands of Northern Ugandan children, who they brainwashed through extreme violence to serve as soldiers in their brutal rebel army. At the time I was thinking about the stepping stones (circa 2005), there were still thousands of child soldiers "in the bush" with the LRA, but peace talks seemed likely to happen soon. A local radio station had started broadcasting messages from families, telling the kids that they would be forgiven if they came home. It seemed to be working - many children were finding ways to escape and make their way into Northern Uganda's main towns.
I allowed myself to dream for a while of creating a "real" path to peace for those kids who wanted to come home, out of stepping stones that other war affected children had made. We could create the path extending in 4 directions outward from Gulu town (the Northern capital), and keep adding newly made stones that would reach further and further out to the kids. If they could find the path, they could follow it to safety.
I worked on making materials lists, costed it all out, talked to a potential partner about it, thought seriously about how we could get sponsors involved through the website, and got some favorable feedback when I wrote about the idea in a community online. Then I went to Gulu for another peacetiles workshop, and asked the 20 recently returned child soldiers who were participating what they thought of the idea.
They were ABSOLUTELY HORRIFIED.
When they proceeded to give us a real insider's view of the reality they had been living, we just dropped that idea like a hot potato.
Not only were the stepping stones sure to be destroyed by the rebels, they told us, but certainly any child soldier caught anywhere near them would be shot dead on the spot - probably after s/he had been made to destroy the things, probably in a physically painful way, and probably in front of many other kids just to make sure they all got the message loud and clear.
We were at a reception center, where kids who'd escaped or been rounded up by the army could stay while the UN provided some medical and psychological care and tried to track down their families. Among the experts advising us were a 15 year old mother of 3 who'd been given to a commander while in the bush, and a 13 year old boy who'd lost a leg because he was denied medical attention by the rebels for a foot injury. Some of the teens had been with the rebels for years. They all had their hair-raising stories, and clearly knew what they were talking about. I probably have more years of education than all 20 of those kids had together, but boy did I feel stupid.
It was a pretty dream, but even lovelier is that thousands more child soldiers have made their way home since then... without stepping stones to guide them.
Which is for the best anyway, since I never could get the cement mixture right. I like to think that was with God's intention.
By the way, my sister in law also makes customized stepping stones to order. They really are very special, so be sure to check 'em out at her shop Selkie Moonlight Design on Etsy.