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.