JWW IN CONGO

Bearing Witness

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Stephanie Liss- Bukavu

Child Soldiers - Another woman’s perspective…

“… Are  you mother…?”, he asked me, as he moved his arms across his chest as though rocking a baby.  There were six boys together, and each of them called out to me, “ mother…?”  Sadly, I told them ,”No.  I am not.”   And as sad as I was to say those words, even sadder were they to hear them.  “Mother,” was a word they had not spoken in a very long time.  For some, a word they had all but forgotten. 

Their faces fell, these boys who had been held captive – prisoner – of the armed militias in the Congo, for they had been taken from their families, some when they were no older than seven.  Seven years old…  Babies…  The details were different, but their stories were the same.  On their way home from school, they had been abducted by the militias.  No warning.  No advance.  Just the simple, everyday act of walking home  from school, and their lives and the lives of their families, had been forever changed.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  Not the way in which they viewed the world, and certainly not the way the world viewed them.  In the younger eyes, there was still the glimmer of hope, but in the eyes of the older boys – in the older boys’ eyes…

We were at the center, a center that rescues boys from the armed militias. The conditions were horrible, but for them, it has become home, and the man who runs it is, ‘Papa.’  Men in the Congo are called “Papa,’ as the women are called, “Mama,’ but for them to call him “Papa,’ was something much more.  Much deeper.  For these boys, he is truly “Papa,” and perhaps the only papa they will ever know again.  He risks his life for them, day after day.  His work is dangerous, and he is under constant threat.  There are no specifics as to how he runs his rescue operations, and the little I do know, I won’t say publicly, but he performs his miracles daily.   When he is not negotiating or bringing back the boys himself, his center is the drop off for them.  When they are found, he is the destination.  There are approximately 150 boys living together.   They come from different tribes, have been abducted by different militia groups, and once together, they all must learn to live with each other in peace. That is a condition of being there. They are barely socialized.  For some, the militia and the unspeakable abuse they endured, is the only life they remember.    They are hardened.  Cold.  And they carry a rage that seethes beneath the surface.  It is that rage that carries them, and it is that rage that can often define them.  Some of them will be reunited with their families, while others will never see their loved ones, again.  When you speak to them, they come alive.  When you turn away, they withdraw, their faces becoming set, their eyes vacant.  Some of them have formed a band, and yet even when they play their instruments, and drum and dance, they are not fully present.  Even when singing, there is a distance about them, as though caught between  two worlds – the world of the captive, and the world of the free…

In my brief interaction with these boys, I longed to have more time with them.  I had so many questions, but even in our q and a exchange with them, they were monitored.  There are dossiers on all of them, and there is danger for them.  They are wanted by the militias, and they are feared by the people.  For three months they will live at the center, and after that time, if their families are not found, or if they are not accepted back into their villages, they will spend at least another eight months in town in Bukavu, in apartments paid for by BVES, and they will continue their process of reentry.    For them, this cannot be easy.  Some of them were already orphans when they were taken, and others’ families were killed in front of them.  For some, walking home from school of an afternoon, changed the course of their lives.  For those who are not accepted back into their villages, it is a sad, lonely, road.  I asked one of the younger boys, barely twelve, if he had seen his mother since he had been at the center, and his spirit sank, as he shook his head,’ no.’  So much sorrow, so much grieving.  The age of a boy, the soul of a man.  For these boys, acceptance may never come.  The Congo is a society of blame.   In the prison, everyone is innocent.  In the villages, the men can’t find work, and so they blame their wives for making money.  When a woman is raped, she has disgraced herself and her family, and when a child is ripped from his world and pulled into a life of guns and war, upon his return, he is shunned and feared.  For the men, it is apparent that they are dealing with great shame.  They are shamed that they cannot protect their wives and their children, and they are shamed by the face of their country.   For these child soldiers in Bukavu, their lives are similar to those whom met met at Camme, in Goma.

Camme is a center that was started by our dear friend and translator, our driver, Pascale.  Behind a fence, hidden away, he has created a haven for the children of the streets of Goma.   At Camme, there is a mix of boys and girls, with the girls spending the night.  The conditions are primitive, as they are at BVES, with no running water, and no electricity.  There is no room for the boys to stay, and so at the end of the day, they leave to go back to sleep in the streets, yet Pascale knows where every one of those children is.  He visits them in the street at night.  He knows them all.  And he is known as rafiki to them – he is known as ‘friend.’  And they respect him.  He understands that to get through to them, he must befriend them, and to show them his trust , and they in turn adore him for it.  A tall man, Pascale is a quiet presence who says little, yet sees all.  He looks at a child, and knows their story.  And his instincts are always right.   There are child soldiers at Camme, as well, but no one knows who they are.  Pascale holds their secrets.  He knows when the girls are escaping from the rapes in the hills, and he protects them, bringing women counselors in to talk to them.  If the girls won’t talk, he takes his time with them.  A patient man, in time he learns everyone’s story, and moves accordingly.  For the child soldiers who are at Camme, it is a safe haven, where no one but Pascale and the counselor knows their truth.  If the others were to know, there would be violence.   It wasn’t difficult to know who the child soldiers were at Camme – they stayed together, and were often uncontrolled.  One of them was dressed in white, and as the others in our group went upstairs to see the girls’ bunks, I stayed behind to talk to the boys.  They were woodworking, and we started with two boys together, but in a matter of seconds, I was surrounded.  The street boys were more distant, more respectful, but the boys who had been the child soldiers had no sense of personal space. They grouped very closely around me, encircling me.  The boy dressed in white was given to spontaneous outbursts, and wild laughter.  And as quickly as the laughter began, so it would stop.  It was unnerving.  And as I found myself surrounded by the boys, I felt a twinge of fear.   I imagined how it must have felt for the girls and the women, as they were bombarded by militia, and repeatedly raped and brutalized.  I  wondered how many of these same boys – both at Camme and at BVES, had been perpetrators, and what it must have felt for them to go that wild and feel that kind of rage exploding.  If the eyes are the window to the soul, the eyes of these boys are the gates to their kingdoms.  The horrors that are locked away inside, may never be exposed, and yet with these reentry and rehabilitation centers, and with enough time and love, perhaps….

There was a moment at Camme, when I first approached the only child soldier I had met until that moment.  I had whispered the question to Pascale, whether any of these boyss had been child soldiers, and he nodded toward the boy in white.  That boy in white – that wild, uncontrolled boy, so proud of the wood he was sanding and smoothing, standing alone, so solitary, lost in his work.  As the others went upstairs, I decided to approach him, and when I spoke to him in my broken Swahili, he stopped his sanding, and stared at me, his eyes wide, scrutinizing me, and he asked,”  Are you mother…?”, as he held his arms across his chest, as though rocking a baby.  “Mother…?”  It was the only question these boys had asked – all they wanted to know.  And my heart broke into a million pieces…