30 Day Travel Series: War, Child Soldiers and Forgiveness

I felt my belief in humanity, love, and the power of looking someone in the eyes diminishing.

Julian and I are a team and our project and workshops are designed to reflect that. So the first time I had to run the workshop without him I was really nervous. I was in Northern Uganda. A girl I had met, who was a Peace Corps volunteer, had invited the Million Person Project up to do a workshop with those who were affected by the recent war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The young people she worked with either had lived in refugee camps or had been child soldiers. Together, they were creating events for Peace Day - when everyone in their community would come out and spend the day sharing food and talking about forgiveness. Sacha, a volunteer for the Million Person Project, was going to help me with the workshop since Julian had already gone back to the States.

I sat next to one of the workshop participants and looked over his story. It had an abrupt ending when he said his parents could no longer afford school fees. I asked him what happened next. His eyes were locked on the floor. His breaths were short and forceful. I put my hand on his back and said, “Only share if you want to.” I saw little beads of sweat surface on the tip of his nose and across his forehead. He barely opened his mouth and said, “They used machetes to kill my family and lit our house on fire.” I closed my eyes. I put my arm around him and put my face on his back. His breath came out in fits, mixed with spurts of tears. I could barely breathe. I knew it was not appropriate to be embracing a teenage boy so much, but I couldn't let him go. “You are brave for sharing, so brave,” I said. “We can't change anything in our past, we can't help anything that happened back then, we can only be now. In this moment. And you have so much courage to be working through this, to be feeling these feelings.”

“I forgave them,” he said quietly forcing the words out of his mouth. “I forgave them for doing that to me.”

It felt like every ounce of my heart was shattering into a million smidgens. I wanted to call a timeout on the universe and scream to the gods, spirits, nature, or whoever, “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO SOMEONE?!” Poor boy, was sitting there fighting through everything to try to find forgiveness. I was mad. I wanted to push over the bench and hear it smash against the concrete floor. Why do we do this to each other?

I looked over at James, who I had been working with earlier. He was alternating between staring off into the distance and adding one or two words to his story at a time. He had been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army when he was 12 years old. They killed his family and forced him to join their militia. He didn't know how many people he had killed. But when he escaped, four years after his kidnapping, he told me he was a “big man” in the military, had four assistants to carry his weapons, and had done a lot of “bad things.”

I felt lightheaded, underqualified, and afraid. It was more intense than anything I'd ever done. The Peace Corps host had tried to prepare me for the possibility of flashbacks, the intense darkness of the stories, and the participants potential unwillingness to share. I had tried to prepare myself, talked it out with Julian, read about trauma counseling online and sat quietly trying to prepare myself to be as present as possible. But in that moment, none of it helped, I felt like quietly slipping out of my facilitation role and taking a seat in the back. I was starting to panic about calling people up to share their stories. What if a former child soldier was up sharing and someone in the workshop realized it was that person who had killed their family? What if by inviting them to share their stories they lost their coping mechanism of denial and became suicidal?

I unwrapped my arm from around Jeremy, rubbed his back, and told him to take a few breaths. “Good work,” I said.

I walked over to Sacha, afraid I would burst into tears when I tried to talk to her. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Good, people seem to really be working hard on their stories. Intense, but good.” I closed my eyes for a minute and tried to feel that. Intense, but good. Intense, but good. I hoped she was right.

I got up in front of the room and asked for volunteers to share. I waited a minute or so and slowly both Jeremy and James raised their hands. I told them they had three minutes each to share, and stood in the back of the room and watched. Jeremy spoke for 15 minutes and James for 10. I couldn't cut them off, though; I could barely even speak. They shared things, that to me now, sitting at home in a cafe, seem completely unbelievable. When Jeremy told us that one afternoon after he had lost his family, he beat up a woman and left her bleeding on the road, the fifteen audience members laughed loudly. Tears were streaming down some of their faces but the laughs bounced aggressively around the room. Jeremy was laughing too. He cautiously said, “I forgive myself for that. I hope she forgives me too.” My knees were shaking. I hated war. I hated being a witness to what war can do to human beings. I hated my life because I worry about dumb shit like how many people like my facebook status updates and I wished so badly, with all my heart, that the people in this workshop could just worry about their status updates.

My head was pounding. When Jeremy finished, I hurried up to the front and put my arm around him. I told him that he had incredible courage to share that, and that I believed that courage could heal and transform anything.

That night Sacha and I stayed with the Peace Corps volunteer. She didn't have a shower room in her house so we used her neighbor’s. I was last to shower, and as I carried a jug of water down the dirt path to her neighbor’s home, my hands were cold and I felt completely freaked out. I was really jumpy, flinching at every twig that cracked under my foot. I let myself into the house, looking behind every corner to make sure no one was there. As I poured bucketfuls of water over my head, I told myself to relax. I felt unsafe in my own skin. My worst nightmare of someone breaking through the door and assaulting me circled in my mind over and over again. I was desperate to stop those thoughts. I tried to just focus on getting the conditioner out of my hair, but I couldn’t stop thinking about someone bursting in. I was really scared, but I also had this doom filled feeling that I was lucky that my nightmare was only that, because that day had assured me other people fear a lot worse.

I just didn't know how this could all be true. I wished so badly I was on the couch in my Mom and Dad's house, listening to my Mom cooking in the kitchen and my Dad sorting through his music. My stomach turned and I felt the darkness of what I heard that day building a sturdy home deep inside of me. I felt my belief in humanity, love, and the power of looking someone in the eyes diminishing. I felt like if we can force children to watch us kill their families, kidnap their brothers, and make them pay their way with bloodshed, that something was deeply deeply wrong with us and maybe there was no point in trying to focus on the good. I knew that no god, no special power, no universal alignment could get me out of this feeling. Courage was the only thing I had. Courage to look at the reality in the face, feel it all the way through, accept it the best I can and deny it the right to take control of my life. Deep deep courage was my only savior...it is our only savior.

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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