My Life as a Slave

Life as a child soldier was a world of darkness.  Each day was filled with fear.  As a child, prior to becoming a soldier, I would fear the presence of the military.  I would respect the soldiers because of their authoritative demeanor.  It never felt that way when I was a child soldier.  Although a soldier commands respect, I was never respected.  Though a soldier should not display fear, I was always scared.  Carrying a rifle does not remove fear.  I was technically in a position of power, but I had no power.  I was just a kid.  I was trapped in a system that steals your childhood and leaves you only with hard, horrible memories.

I recall spending my nights, on full alert, guarding the military commander's home as he slept.  He was warm and comfortable, well rested and fed.  I was out in the cold, dark night, shivering with fear.  We wouldn't even be allowed to sleep the following day, we were to maintain his security as he moved around the region, while he goes to the bar or enjoys his meal. The commander should be the one protecting the children of his country, not using them as a security fence around his home.  We were treated like his dogs, left out in the yard to fend off his enemies.  Child soldiers are slaves.  You cannot say no, you cannot help make any decisions.  You are there to follow any and every direction and command given to you by the commander.  I could not move without letting someone know where I was going and when I would be back.

I was not a Christian during this time in my life.  I did not have any hope.  I did not have any place or any one to turn to for peace.  I did not know if I would be allowed to live the next day, or if my life would be taken from me, either by the enemy or by one of my own superior officers.  I never wanted to kill myself, but I was afraid that I would die.  I was afraid because I did not know what would happen to me if I did die.  Not only did I not have physical freedom, my spirit was not free as well.  I was trapped by the darkness and sin in this world without any relief in sight.  The only glimmer of light that was a part of my life was listening to a cassette tape of Frere Patrice.  He sang Christian songs, which lifted me up, the words were felt in my spirit.  There words provided me a small sense of peace even though I did not understand that the Holy Spirit was present at that time. 

I was a soldier for 6 years total.  There will be more stories relating to this time in my life in the future. 

Child Soldiers

As I work with Heritage on writing his story, I notice that there are many things that are too difficult for Heritage to describe.  That is why I am going to provide some information on what can happen to a boy who is forced to be a soldier.  Most of my information comes for the book, "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children," a chilling account of the author, Romeo Dallaire's work to eradicate the use of child soldiers.  Maybe, as Heritage and I work together, he will provide his own account.  But, I know from the few conversations we have had about this time in his life that this is a very, very difficult subject for him and it transports him back to this dark time in his life.  He once said to me, "When I talk about being a child soldier, I become that soldier again for the day."

Child soldiers are cheap expendable weapons in the eyes of the adults who exploit them.  They are big enough to carry a gun or machete.  They can be manipulated easily.  Child soldiers are used as bait for ambushes.  They are heavy enough to trip a land mine so the adult soldiers can proceed safely afterwards.  Children are kidnapped from the countryside and schools.  In other instances, they are sold by their parents to the rebels.  They are transported away from the areas they know.  They are hit by the soldiers.  They are left in the cold with nothing to protect them from the elements.  Food and water is withheld to increase the fear and desperation. 

The children are given drugs:  marijuana, hashish, alcohol, cocaine, all to alter the child's perception of the situation and to begin to indoctrinate them into becoming soldiers themselves.  The drugs are also used to get a child to commit their first act of violence so that once it is complete, the child has no way of turning back the hands of time.  They are now soldiers.  The young soldiers are taught to treat thier rifles like their best friends:  eat with it, sleep with it, and never let it out of your sight.  Just to drop it would instigate a beating.  The olders soldiers, just teenagers themselves would spend time building up the confidence in the younger boys by spending time with them, convincing them that what was happening to them was the right thing, making them believe that they were a family.  The children learn quickly to follow orders.  Following orders means less beatings and more drugs.

          "I think I killed him,"  I shouted, and I began sobbing and could not catch my breath as tears gushed out of my eyes like blood.  I struggled to breathe throught my cries.  There was some sympathy in the faces around me, and a last one of the older ones said, "The first is the hardest.  You want the ground to open up and swallow you afterwards.  You do not want to go on.  The second time, you wait to feel that bad again, but you do not, and you hate yourself for that.  By the third time, you are curious to see what happens." 
          We smoked marijuana late into the night, and I thought, for me there is no home world.  All I have now is this.  Kill or be killed.  Teach the others to become just like me, so I won't be the only one.

(excerpt from "They Fight Like Soldiers They Die Like Children" Dallaire, 2010

As I was reading this account in Dallaire's book, I began to cry.  I cried for the boys and girls that have endured this abuse, and for those currently involved in this kind of slavery.  I cried for Heritage.  No wonder this is hard to talk about.  It is human nature to lock such darkness away and not speak of it.

Innocence Lost

When I was 14, I lost my childhood.  I became a child soldier and would be for the next six years of my life.

When I was 14, our province was in civil war. There was unrest and people wanted to overthrow the current president of our government.  All schools were closed because of the fighting.  We lived in the mountains and it was safer there.   

My father was working in the city and one day, he ran home and said, “Heritage, they are taking children from the streets for the war.”  Then, I packed my stuff because I was going to flee to the mountains.

When I emerged from our home, my heart stopped.  There were soldiers surrounding the walls of our home. They were waiting for me, crouching on top of the garden walls.  

My father opened the gates; the solders said “We need him,” pointing to me.
My father pleaded, “You don’t need to take him. Take me instead.”
The soldiers replied, “We don’t want you. We want the child because we can train him.”  I was crying and shaking in terror.  
The army wanted the children because once they were trained, they would shoot without hesitancy because they had no other power.
My father called my uncle, who was a chief in the village, but he could not help. 

When arrived in the camp, the soldiers grabbed all of my clothes, even those I was wearing—my shirt, my pants, my shoes.  I was left only with my underwear. They did this so that I can feel how is like to walk without shoes, how it is like to sleep outside in cold without cover for yourself. It was hard for me to stay there, but there was no escape. At night, the soldiers surrounded us so that we could not go home. Some of the other kids tried to escape and I witnessed their lifeless bodies in the mornings.  The terror stays with me even today at times. 

My “training” was about enduring hardship and how to be strong so that I would be a reliable man who will also be qualified to teach others. In the mornings we would go to work out or run long distance without shoes. I remember the stones piercing my feet and toes; if I slowed down, I would be beaten with a stick.
After enduring this routine, we were given corn meal—the same meal every time.  Sometimes I threw it away. We were like caged animals.  We could not visit our family or go to vacation. I missed my dad, my mama, and all my siblings.  It was as a soldier that I learned how to smoke cigarettes, marijuana, and drink alcohol.  This was a way to have a connection with the soldiers.

This is just a snapshot of my story. Over the next six years, I had brief contact with my family at different times, but always I was brought back to the army. My father tried desperately to free me, but his efforts did not succeed.  I once walked for 3 months to find my family, only to arrive and be taken back again by soldiers who found me.

My experience as a child soldier affects my life today.  One of the ways I see this is that sometimes it’s hard for me to be in my family, in their presence.  The old wounds of separation are still painful. But also I often think about my father who was willing to go to the army in my place.  He wanted to give his life for mine.  This brings me tears today.

When I became a Christian at the age of 20, I saw my father as setting an example of Christ for my life. 
Some of you today may feel as though there is nothing you can relate to in my story—I am from another country, from another world, foreign from your own experience.  I challenge you to think about your own lives, your own parents and the relationships that you share. Our lives are so busy in this society.  Sometimes we live so far from our families. We miss the relationships with our families and often we do not even share important life events with them. We need to move back towards our families and seek healing where needed. We will be fools not to take advantage of this.

Growing Up Congolese Tutsi

I am Munyamulenge, a Congolese Tutsi.  I am the oldest of seven.  I grew up in Bijabo, a small town in the Mulenge region of the DRC.  When I was ten, we moved to Milimba, in the same region.  This area is farmland - raising corn and cows.  The houses were small, our lifestyle was simple.  My father sold cows at the market, while my mother took care of the fields while he was gone.  My brothers and sisters walk a couple of hours to school each day.  This was how we lived.  This is what we knew.  I was happy!  For fun, we would play soccer, sometimes against other schools.  As a family, we would care for the farm together.  At night, we would sometimes stay out in the field to keep the wild pigs from eating our corn.  The people living in this region all spoke the same language and there was no hatred or discrimination.

Typical Houses in Mulenge

In 1996, when I was fourteen, civil war was beginning to break out in the DRC.  The hatred that had arrived with the refugees from Rwanda following the 1994 Genocide was beginning to gain a new momentum in our region.  Being identified as a Tutsi was now a curse.  We were alienated based upon our physical features:  the shape of our nose, our height, how we walked. My family had recently moved to Uvira.  We moved there to have better access to education.  The discrimination seemed to start with name calling.  Instead of being addressed by your name, the offenders would shout, "banyamulenge, banyamulenge," to show that the group was "not one of us."  I would have to just keep walking and not respond for fear of being hurt.  I heard stories of Tutsi travelling by car to other areas of the Congo who were killed before reaching their destination, just because they were Tutsi.  I was scared to go anywhere.  If only I had known that there were bigger things to fear.  The next events in my life would change me forever.  These are things that I rarely speak of because of the pain it causes me.  I was about to abruptly leave my childhood behind as I was forced to be a child soldier. 

A Brief Introduction

Hello, my name is Heritage Munyakuri.  I am a father, a son, a brother, and a minister.  I have lived a life that includes so much joy, and too much pain.  I wish to share my story to impact the hearts of others, that the world may be changed.  Over the next few months, I will write about my experiences living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, time spent in a refugee camp in Burundi and surviving genocide, and my journey to America.  Some of these stories are happy memories, while others are very painful for me to share. I hope that these stories will weave together the journey that allowed me to become the person that I am today, and that gives me the passion to help others in need.