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Children in Conflict Situations

(What follows is a talk I gave at the Church of St John & St Philip in The Hague on 4 March 2007.) Prayer–for eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts that understand.

Many thanks to Michael for his kind words and invitation to speak today. As some of you know I have written books about child soldiers, more recently a teen novel in Dutch, but before that, a suspense novel for adults.

There are more than 300,000 child soldiers in the world today. They live in places where you can buy an AK-47 for the price of one chicken. The very first case to be tried by the International Criminal Court, here in The Hague, brings charges of recruiting children under 15 and forcing them to fight in the war in Congo. This will be the first time in history that forcing children to fight will become a punishable crime.

The war in Congo is the closest thing our generation has to a world war. Seven countries are involved in its battles. I was privileged to stay in a refugee camp on the Tanzanian-Burundi border at the outbreak of the war in Congo, many years ago. The Congolese I met were well-educated, well-organized, committed to educating the more than 25,000 youth in the camp, teaching French, kiSwahili, physics, biology and history. The university professors who had been forced from their homes told me of their dream to educate this generation so that when peace returned to Congo, a wiser generation would inherit the future.

It was at that camp that I met my first child soldiers. Children as young as 8 who were in boarding schools in Congo with Belgian nuns when soldiers burst into the classrooms and kidnapped the children. The boys were tied up and the little girls were tied up. Then the soldiers force-marched them for days with no food or water. When children fainted or could not keep up, older children were forced to beat them up or kill them. “Kill or be killed,” these children told me their commanders ordered them. “Your god is your gun. Listen to the voice of your god, obey your gun,” they were ordered. Obviously, the children I met managed to escape. Small groups of children wandered in the jungle, meeting up with other groups and they traveled together, eating whatever they could find, drinking bad water. They spoke of angels guiding them through the night, firefly-like flashes that brought them to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where the children charmed and begged their way onto boats and crossed over to Tanzania arriving at the string of refugee camps along that border.

Brave Tanzania, with so little, opens its borders to those with even less. When I asked Tanzanians why they take in the refugees from other lands, I often heard the answer, “Because next time it may be us who need a home.” When I asked Congolese refugees who had adopted the former child soldiers, some from as far away as Sudan, why they, who had run away from home and had next to nothing, would take in other people’s orphans, I often heard, “Because I pray that if my children were found alone in the jungle, running away from danger, that someone would have mercy on them and take them in.”

That’s the picture I want to paint for you today. Think of your own children, the children in your lives, yourselves as children, and imagine you are alone in a conflict situation. Maybe it is not even a war. Maybe you are in a home where your parents fight and blame the children. Maybe you are in a school where bigger children bully the weaker children. We don’t have to look far to find children in conflict situations.

Sixteen months ago I visited Liberia during the elections there that brought to power the first woman president in Africa. I interviewed former child soldiers who survived the 14-year conflict there. They talked about football and their dreams of going to school and learning to read. But most of the teachers have been hired by aid organizations, because there are so few people who are trained. So before there can be schools, there must be teacher training. I also interviewed counselors and UN personnel and people working with the former child soldiers. The UN program offers $400 in cash plus therapy for 6 months plus vocational training if the young men turn in their guns. A minority of 106,000 have signed up for the program. Many of the others have gone across the border to Ivory Coast, where they receive $400 a month to fight that country’s war. One such young man was forced to carry the head of his beheaded brother by soldiers who captured the two boys and killed the one brother. This young man said, “I can be nothing but a killer now.”

Soldiers regularly abuse the children, sexually, both boys and girls. They force them to take drugs that give the children a heightened sense of courage. One commandant said during an interview that he would rather send children into battle than adults. Children obey better and are less aware of the risks. The combination of drugs, adolescence, adrenalin and an AK-47 is deadly.

Speaking of the AK-47, it is this lightweight weapon that has made the phenomenon of child soldiers even possible. In the past, whenever a war ran out of manpower, the war died of attrition. WWII occurred a generation after WWI—20 years is long enough to raise up a new crop of cannon fodder. This is no longer necessary. When too many men die in a war, now men make children fight. This happens most often in countries where the stakes are highest: oil and diamonds. In these countries wars are perpetuated by an endless stream of cheap, lightweight weapons, often from countries like the U.S., France, former Soviet republics and China. These countries have interests in the oil and diamonds, so the wars continue.

Mozambique, after 30 years of war, was able to tell the U.S., China, Russia and South Africa to leave, and was listened to because there were no oil and diamonds. The people there decided the price they had paid was high enough and they chose peace, no matter the cost. The peace in Mozambique has held now for more than 10 years. It is heralded as an example, as historians try to fit the model of Mozambique around the conflicts in Congo, Angola and Sudan. Sierra Leone and Liberia now know a fragile peace as the world is learning that lasting peace does not come cheaply.

Children in conflict situations. In November I returned home from a trip spent researching aids survival. I visited communities, or townships or ghettos where 2/3 of the population are affected by aids. There is something called a child-headed household. It’s a fancy name for a group of orphans who have no one to care for them, except maybe, if they’re lucky, an old granny. Child-headed households are the new form of family in an aids-ravaged Africa where my generation is all but gone. You just don’t see that many people between the ages of 30 and 50 anymore. We’re dead. Instead, the grandparents are trying to raise their children’s orphans. Or big brothers and sisters are caring for their younger cousins.

For a long time, I didn’t want to look the aids issue in its face. I don’t know about you, but I cannot get my heart around the statistic of 16 million aids orphans. It’s the population of The Netherlands! I have so much deep respect and wonder for the African sisters and brothers among us in this church. I have seen how when a person has nothing, something makes all the difference. And many members of our congregation financially support parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins, more extended families, and pay the school fees back in Africa for as many young people as they can.

When I interviewed people on the frontline of the aids war and asked how do you cope? I often heard the answer, “I do the next thing. I take care of one orphan, then I move onto the next.”

I interviewed a Zulu induna, which is a sort-of assistant chief. He has 500 families under him. He admitted to me that he saw very little hope, so many of his people were dying. And now we have the phenomenon of the children with aids. Children who are born to HIV+ mothers, who contract aids during the birth, or from breast milk, and live on this earth for only a few short years.

I visited a home devoted to adopting these babies when their parents abandoned the children, or were dead or could no longer care for them. The men and women volunteering from Canada, Germany, South Africa, nearby communities, hold and hug these toddlers, loving them into death. At the moment, there are no ARVs or aids treatments for children 18 months and younger.

In the readings today (Luke 13.31-35), we hear of Jesus’ disillusionment with the Pharisees. Jesus’ disillusionment with Jerusalem. He knows we kill the prophets, we refuse to listen, we turn away from the call of the needy. He knows this about us. In the Philippians reading (3.17-4.1), Paul speaks of his disillusionment with those of us whose glory is our shame, who care only for earthly things.

This disillusionment of Jesus, I call The Discipline of Disillusionment. It’s not my intent to batter you this morning with hopeless statistics and make us feel even more miserable about the state of the world. When I came home in November, all I could do practically was cry for the children I met and held and hugged who are now dead or dying. The children who are sexually abused because there is no one to protect them. The children who want nothing more than to go to school and play football. When I returned in November, it took me months before I could write about the children I met. I still weep when I think of those babies and the warmth of their little bodies, the smell of their hair. What is it like to be a child with no future, doesn’t that cancel out the very definition of childhood? I even wrote a weblog in an attempt to put all these images into some kind of order.

The easy thing is to become disillusioned and cynical. The hard thing is to become disillusioned and not cynical, but productive. Accept that this is the way it is in this world, then do the next thing. This is Jesus’ Discipline of Disillusionment. In Isaiah 38:15-20: “What shall I say? he has spoken to me, and he has done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.”

We are ourselves, children of conflict situations. We are children of God, and the spiritual, emotional, physical conflicts we find ourselves in, produce virtue in us. And He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. God of all comfort. It is a choice of will. Do we or do we not believe that we are more than conquerors in Him who loves us? What is the next thing? Sometimes people ask me what they can do. I say, Listen to your heart. The next thing will come across your path when you are watching for it. The Discipline of Disillusionment means instead of cynicism, we do not expect the evil to fade, but we take up arms.

When I think of Congo and Sudan, War, such as the history of the world has never known, is ongoing.

Jesus Christ did not say: You will understand why the war has come—but: “Fear not. Do not be scared, do not be put in a panic.”

What do we long for? Peace. Peace for ourselves. Peace in our families. Peace among the nations. Lasting peace.

Now, how to heal the nations?

In the book of Revelation, a new heaven is described. I like this passage because it paints a picture of a place where fear and darkness no longer reign, nor does war rage, as the lion lies with the lamb and a little child leads us all. I like this because my former child soldiers told me they found great comfort in this place, a place of peace I call Nevernight because there, it is never dark, and there is no fear.

But there is more. A river, and beside the river grows the tree of life. And on the tree of life hang leaves. “The tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations.”

Could it be that these leaves, different shapes and sizes, are in fact, our stories? That when we tell our own personal stories, we heal as individuals, and as nations?

So the stories I’ve told this morning are not only a tribute to all those children in conflict situations. The former child soldiers go through a sort-of therapy where, if they can reach the point where they tell their stories just once, in whatever form—clay, drama, song, writing—then they have a much improved chance of living a relatively stable life. I met one child psychologist from Uganda who was himself a former child soldier and had won a scholarship to study, and now has returned to minister to the child soldiers of the next generation.

On this morning, when all the children are our children, all our stories add to the Tree of Life, a continuing branch thick with story, stories that heal us as individuals and as nations, stories of others who have touched and healed my heart, stories grafted and grown into stories about people just like us.

When I speak to young people, I ask, what is your passion? What do you get angry about? Then that is your gift. Now, how does your gift meet the crushing needs of the world? That is your vocation.

Whose are we and Whom do we serve?

Hope is a choice, a decision we make because of faith. Hope is believing despite the evidence, then watching the evidence change: Change like… in Ghana, where 2/3 of children were illiterate, now only 1/5 are. Thanks to aid, Ghana has scrapped school fees and offers free school meals at the primary level. Tanzania, where over the past 5 years, 1.6 million more children have gone to school because of aid. In Ethiopia 40% more girls go to school now because of aid. In Uganda health fees have been scrapped and out-patient attendance is up 87%. Throughout the developing world, except where Islam prevents it, the education of women has allowed more women to participate in cottage industries, micro-enterprises where whole communities benefit. 575 million children have been vaccinated against polio. In the next 2 years this disease will be eradicated. Small pox has been eradicated because of aid.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

John F. Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…”—AMEN.

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