Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Falling Whistles: The Story

For those of you who haven't had the change to read the story that started this movement, here you go:

As I’m writing you, the sun is setting just over the lake that is central to Goma. My computer screen is blurry and unclear. I cannot help the weeping that clouds my vision and falls on my keys.

Bob Dylan said something along the lines of “People tell me it’s a sin. To hold so much pain and hurt within.”

I suppose I’m wondering if they were right.

We originally planned to spend the day tracking down the rebel leader NKunda. We had arranged an armed escort to take us into his territory. However after speaking with a Congolese military journalist who had just returned from that area, we decided to postpone the trip. He said the upcoming Peace Conference had infuriated the rebels and they had gone mad with drugs. He told us it didn’t matter who guarded us, the sight of our white skin would enrage them and they would fire everywhere. “Another day, but not this day” was his advice. We thought it prudent to take note.

So instead, we caught back up with the 5 boys that had just escaped rebel armies. Busco, Bahati, Serungendo, Claude and Sadiki. We found them in a filthy cell at a military encampment called Titu. It’s essentially a holding prison. The boys had been forced to spend the entire night standing up straight. None of them were over 15 years old. None had ever chosen to fight. Yet they were being treated as enemies of the state.

Yesterday each of them was giving praise to God for their rescue from the rebel army. Now they were wondering if the national army was any different.

It’s a common problem here in Congo. There is more sexual violence here than anywhere in the world, but no signs that any one of numerous armies are any better or worse than another. All the soldiers rape. All the soldiers pillage. All the people suffer. There is no refuge. Not the victim-side-of-a-gun anyway.

As we dug further, we discovered that the boys hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and had been beaten all night long. The soldiers forced them to blow up their cheeks and then they would punch them in. These boys, who have already been through a deep kind of hell, were trembling with fear.

We went and bought them food, clothing, shoes, soap and a toothbrush. Those bare materials that grant us all small dignity. They fell on the gifts like wolves, smiling, laughing and praising God. The bones of their ribs showed through their rags as they ate. The bananas in their hands were the first non-rotten food they had eaten since they had seen their families.

While we waited for the UN – who had promised to pick them up – we interviewed them one by one. Each had been abducted. Plucked from their homes, schools or farms. Each had been tied up and beaten. Each had been forced to kill.

Sadiki had been dropped in a hole, deep in the ground. Nearly 300 boys were forced into the ditch for 20 hours of the day. They sat and slept in their own excrement. Slowly, they awaited the other 4 hours of the day when they found themselves tortured and trained to fire a gun. Only to be dropped again into their own filth.

Many of us have heard the stories of child-soldiers. Invisible Children and stories such as A Long Way Gone have been groundbreaking in granting us glimpses into their lives.

But here’s where the Congo story gets really disturbing. The boys captured by NKunda who are not big enough to hold a gun are given a whistle and put on the front lines of each battle. Their sole duty is to make enough noise to scare the enemy and then to receive – with their bodies - the first round of bullets. Lines of boys fall as nothing more than a temporary barricade.

Those who try to flee are shot at from behind. The soldiers call it “encouragement” to be brave. Without a gun to protect themselves, the smallest boys are placed between the crossfire of two armies - forces that fought for reasons far beyond their ability to understand. With falling whistles, their only choice is to feign death or face it.

Busco’s the oldest of 8 children. Many times he watched that number dwindle to some soldiers petty fire. His only wish is to go back to his farm, because he’s sure his parents need his help to raise the family. For quite some time, they have believed him dead.

As the day went on, we all grew quite worried that the UN wouldn’t come to pick them up. Their hands and eyes betrayed their dread at staying another night, standing among these merciless guards.

We started making some calls only to discover that the UN had passed responsibility of the children to Unicef, who had then been turned away at the prison 4 times. The soldiers wanted the children to stay for another night of entertainment and weren’t prepared to have them released.

It took some frantic politicking with our newfound connections, but finally both the Unicef and the UN trucks were admitted inside the compound. We quickly loaded the boys into the trucks as the soldiers prepared to block our exit. Halfway through the camp they demanded the truck stop and empty out. Again, politicking and protesting with all the American-authoritarian-aristocratic-animated-attitude we could muster, the boys were finally allowed back in the truck and set free.

Weeks ago they had each planned out their escape. Praying they’d be rescued from their mad dash out of NKundas camp. When the Congolese army picked them up, they thought their dreams fulfilled - only to be corrected by dark fists in the night. As we watched them leave the camp, we knew we were seeing their escape finally fulfilled.

The burden of their lives weighs heavy on me tonight. I close my eyes and see only images of falling whistles.

And I haven’t the damndest idea what to do about it. I have to share their story. Yet haven’t a clue how to pull it off. But I do know that this cannot, cannot go on.

And I know we’re gonna need a lot of help. From a lot of you.

There is a Peace Conference starting tomorrow, regarding decades of war and millions slaughtered. Yet I’ve seen no other westerners. No American media. No Mazungoos. Notin.

We are the Land of the Free and the Brave and seem to care nothing that the brave here have never been free.

But today was a start. Five are safe at least. It’s a beginning I suppose.

miss you all.sean.

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