2nd letter, June 2000

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the 2nd letter, June 2000


Here I am in Laka Village on the coast of Sierra Leone. This was a posh tourist destination before it was more or less destroyed in the war.  The Catholic Church was given an old hotel which they promptly turned into a center for former ‘child soldiers”.  The beach is outstanding and the building we are in is still intact.  There are currently 130 children here between the ages of eight and 18.  It seems weird to call them children as many have seen more hard core battle than an experienced Vietnam veteran and yet when we play basketball they sure seem like kids to me.  Yes, I am currently the only person here who knows how to play basketball making me the coach, referee and instructor so if anybody can actually remember the rules please let me know… I have been making them up and showing them some pretty doubtful technique.  For some reason they believe me.  The place is run by Father “Chema” a Spanish priest and there is currently another charismatic priest here who escaped out of Makeni the night before things turned sour a month ago.  More than 40,000 people have fled Makeni toward a place called mile 91 and Freetown.  They say Makeni is now destroyed which makes Father Victor shake his head.  “Never show them you are scared” is his motto.  He has been kidnapped four times and does not seem scared of much although he does have a penchant for details and seems scared of breaking the rules of good sportsmanship.  Yesterday he decided one of the basketball hoops was crooked and today led a team that dug it out of the cement, re-welded the pole, straightened it out and replaced it… a team effort that must have taken five hours.  The part I could not figure out is that it looked more or less straight to me and I think most everyone else on the “fix it” team as well.  There sense of priority here is on the kids… everything is done to provide a positive environment in which kids can be kids for a while.  Basketball hoops are straightened while maintenance on the building is ignored.

They suffer no illusions about the children though.  Father Chema warned me when I got here that they have no conflict resolution skills. This statement coming from a man who has a masters degree on the subject.  The morning that I got here one of the kids broke a bottle over another ones head and was going to stab him.  It required a visit to the hospital for sixteen stitches.  The other kids promptly beat the crap out of the kid with the bottle to discipline him.  They have their own discipline committee about which Father Chema shakes his head dubiously.  This morning I helped break up a fight between two young fifteen year olds after one stabbed another in the hand with a small knife.  They were brandishing sticks and about to whack each other.  When I hauled the stabbed one off to wash up his hand and get the blood off his body all he could think about was fighting with the other kid.  Have you ever seen that old cartoon about the bully who kicks sand in a weaklings face so the weakling goes home, tones up and confronts the bully.  It turns out one kid kicked sand on the other kids porch so a stabbing seemed in order.

We went to a medical room where another young boy adeptly cleaned him up and bandaged him.  I was impressed how well the kid could handle bandages and how unimpressed he was with the stab wound.  In fact he wrapped him up and did not say a word.  Then I noticed scars all over his neck, his back, his arms his hands his face… the kid was a mess of scars.  Turns out he was hacked with machetes by his RUF companions as punishment and spent so much time in the hospital recovering that he was enlisted to help out with other wounded.  He learned his trade through “on the job training”. 

It is the weirdest thing because they are just kids.  Yet they are not innocent little tykes.  One of them was the personal bodyguard of the infamous rebel leader “superman” and was promoted to captain after sitting in a tree and shooting Nigerian soldier after Nigerian soldier from his sniper position. I find myself walking hand in hand with a ten year old named “merciful killer”… talking with kids that have spent five years in the bush… some have drunk human blood… others have hacked off people’s limbs.  Some have been forced to kill their own parents… see them massacred… the list of atrocities goes on and on.  The girls are always in the background… quiet, subdued but also having been in the army… either fighting, cooking, carrying loads or being raped over and over.  Father Victor points out one young boy whose father was a chief, now dead and whose mother went mad.  He tried to go home and live with his grandmother and mad mother but after having been a rebel was not accepted.  At 14 years of age he had spent two years in the war before turning himself in during a ceasefire.. He held my hand for an hour and walked me through the internally displaced persons houses around the center.  He showed me where Nigerian jets bombed the houses to smithereens and then told me the sixteen inch scar that reaches across his heart from his armpit to his stomach was caused by a jet when he was fighting in the bush.  He developed a severe stutter a month ago when he left the center without asking and Father Chema describes him as “trouble”.  He is currently being disciplined which means three days banishment from the center.  He is on his own for food, shelter and water which would be an extreme measure for a kid in Canada but here… no big deal.  These kids are the definition of tough and the word “discipline” in Canadian terms would not mean much.  They resolve things by whacking each other… the big ones rule the little ones.  The fact that they are alive is proof enough that they are survivors.  Reluctantly I was told I should not be playing or talking to him and he was left on the beach to sit on his own while I went swimming with the other boys. My heart went to mush seeing him sitting there with a stick in hand poking the sand watching silently from a distance. They are tough yet I can see by his moping that he is just like all other kids.  They like to learn how to do handsprings on the beach…to get some one-on-one attention. They bust their guts doing headstands… they enjoy being thrown into the waves and throwing balls and having their heads tussled and singing and joking and all those kid things that define what it is to be human growing up.  And they hurt as much inside as any other child when the world turns against them.  It is good to be here for a while… to witness a world that is turning for them.

I hope you are all well,



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