3rd letter, June 24 2000

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3rd letter, June 24, 2000


Curfew here is eleven p.m. and is taken quite seriously.  Last night I found myself walking up to a military checkpoint at midnight trying to get home. We were trying to fetch 'Black Mosquito' who is fifteen.  He survived popping pills the other day and was brought home from the hospital but we had to take him back again. He is a tough little guy who was one of the hard core fighters.  He wears an army dog chain around his neck with a candy wrapper pasted on the dog chain.  I asked him what it meant and why he liked the plastic image of Rambo with a machine gun.  Rambo is a good fighter he said having no idea how movies are made or how different Sylvestor Stallone's world really is.  I fiddle with his dog chains and want to ring Sylvestor Stallon's neck and Arnold Shwarzenegger as well. I wish Bruce Willis could spend a week here playing hero with these “soldiers”.  I have a deep desire these days to burn plastic toy guns and bring a strong magnet into the action section of the video store.  These boys have absolutely no idea about the larger world.  Few can read, let alone understand a map of the world.  They have no idea how a movie is made or that their world is real and Arnold' a testosterone filled fantasy.  Almost every boy has a story written in scars.  Moses has a slice across his head, bullet holes in his body.  One kid on crutches, who always has a shy smile, is still limping around with a bandage on his foot.  He tells me it was a bullet and it is better now.  I look at his foot which looks mangled to me and someone else informs me that the previous scar is where the rebels tried to hack his foot off with a machete.  That makes sense I think to myself.  First they try to hack your foot off, it heals and then you get shot in the same foot.  They are, as I said, the definition of tough.  Mackfish, in his usual rambunctious way came running over to me yesterday during basketball.  He had ripped the toenail off his big toe and he said in Kriole "look at my toe".  Then he lept into the air and shouted "I am Mackfish" laughing, doing a little dance that made all the boys smile and then he limped back into the game refusing to be phased while bleeding on the cement.

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by their histories.  Many people here are terrified of the kids.  One woman who came to the compound yesterday told me she had nightmares about coming and she was visibly scared.  The villagers in the surrounding area gathered together with sticks and weapons a few months ago to storm the compound and get rid of the kids.  They think they are the enemy and are responsible for the war.  Father Chema says it has been straightened out now but that at the time he was very worried.  The kids knew what to do.  While Father Chema was trying to get help from UNAMSIL on the radio and keep everyone calm the boys went into high gear.  He learned later that they set up serious defenses including four boys assigned to sleep outside his door and guard his life.  He is visibly emotional when he tells me this as he knows these kids would easily kill for him.  The girls and little boys of eight and nine emptied their kerosene lanterns and made Molotov cocktails preparing for war.  Imagine the scene, eight year olds making bombs while the older boys gathered their weapons and circled the compound preparing to defend the person they care for most in this world.  Children should run and hide in times or war I cannot help thinking.  It is children who should be comforted and protected.  What has happened here?  How could this have happened?

Yesterday, I saw black mosquito sitting on a porch looking glum.  He was recovering from his suicide attempt with the pills.  I walked over and talked with him but he did not have much to say.  I said you lookstoned but figured he did not understand me.  An hour later Ernest called me.  Everyone else was in town and Black Mosquito lay in a fever on the floor clearly delirious.  Lets bathe him with cold water I said wondering in my own mind if this was the right thing to do.  He started to spasm so I suggested we roll him over and check his breathing and eyeballs. I was thinking ABC, airways, breathing, circulation, and trying to turn the whole thing into a learning experience for the crowd of kids who had gathered around.  It was partly an attempt to keep myself calm with a spastic kid in my arms.  I now know what it means to foam at the mouth and my first thought was that he had rabies.  He started to go into convulsions so I picked him up and we stuffed him into the jeep of some visiting Italian journalists leaving my rudimentary first aid lesson to another day.  Our trip to the hospital involved bumping down a terrible road, through a crowded market, over huge boulders in four wheel drive and down a long rutted lane, dragging him out of the car twice, once into a crummy little shack where I put him on a broken freezer while someone ran to get a doctor and the second time to load him into an equally crummy little shack they call the local clinic because the doctor said there was nothing he could do on top of the broken freezer in his house.  Following us on a dirtbike he arrived with an IV unit which he proceeded to tie to the rusty open window.  The hospital bed consisted of a foam you would not let your dog sleep on in Canada.  After explaining the problem the health clinic fellow, who was not a doctor, said we ought to be keeping him from swallowing the pills in the first place.  We were grateful, despite his observations, as the Freetown hospital doctors refuse to treat these child soldiers.  During the invasion last year the rebels killed a lot of patients in their beds and the hospitals were turned into a horror show the doctors will not forget.  Working at gunpoint, without medicines or anesthetics, has been burned into their memories.  The boys are used to not getting adequate medical attention and laugh about dry stitches or the lack of local anesthetics although you can see that behind the laugh lies trepidation.  We left him there to recover with Jeneba, his caregiver, and promised to come back later.  This is the second time in a week he has tried to commit suicide and so a search is on to figure out where he has stashed the pills. 

When we got back to the compound one of the little boys tugged on my arm to go swimming.  The ocean here is like a huge reservoir whose immense size promises to be bigger than all of this sorrow.  I gladly ran into the waves and dove into the water.  I swam under the surf and world above thinking it was good to be here below hidden from the problems for these brief few seconds I could hold my breath.  When I surfaced there were two screaming, laughing, naked boys on shore neither of whom could swim properly.  Both have seen far scarier things than waves and both delighted in the idea of shouting in another language "here comes a big one" as the surf crashed around them.  Little Isay Sesay is all of twelve years old but looks eight. While he has no qualms about stripping his pants off he will never take a cotton cloth off of his left arm which is mangled.  Even here in the surf he tried to keep the cloth on his arm to hide his injury and was remarkably successful at keeping his hand hidden while the water boiled around him.  I kept having to go grab his sputtering soul out of the white water while he held his arm up in a pathetic attempt to keep it dry.  Several times he went completely under and all I could see was this cotton cloth waving around above the water but he always came up laughing and spitting and delighted that here he was on a beach with two friends in the setting sun while the waves crashed in and soaked him, and soaked his life and his world and his vision and his scars.  For a few brief moments it did not matter that he was horribly disfigured all the way down the right side of his body including his face.  Eventually, we just held hands and jumped up and down and yelled into the vastness of the ocean.  He was ecstatic.  I was sure I was going to burst into tears.

Isay Sesay was thrown into a fire by the rebels.  They wanted to rape his mother who ran out of an open window into the bush.  To coerce her into coming back they threatened his older brother and then chopped his hand off with a machete.  They sent the bleeding boy off into the bush and told him to go get his mother.  When she would not return they threw Isay into the fire of their burning hut.  Then they pulled his burned body out and told him "to go get her now" knowing full well the horror of a burned child and a mutilated son is more than any mother can handle.  Eventually, unsuccessful in their strategy, they left the family miles from any hospital to their misery. He is a good little boy is all I could think of as he jumped up and down.

There was a fight in the evening.  The second one of the day.  In the morning Solomon and I grabbed one of the girls who was flailing a butcher knife at one of the boys.  I cannot even remember what they were fighting about except that we forgot to go get 'Black Mosquito' from the hospital until late in the evening.  We got through two military checkpoints and were a few miles from the clinic when we got a flat.  It was a typical African scene.  No jack and no tire iron.  We walked through the dark to a nearby village and located a mechanic who seemed to think it the most natural occurrence in the world that we needed to borrow his leaky hydraulic pump and bent tire iron.  Naturally he sent an assistance along but after an hour trying to get the pump to work we thought we better take a break and try to get the spare out first.  The spare was, of course, only accessible via the backdoor which had been welded shut.  We parked the truck in a nearby persons yard, leaving black mosquito to his own fate and proceeded to walk home.  The first checkpoint guards were nervous, fingers on their triggers.  They had, however, seen us in the distance fiddling with the truck so after profuse apologies from Earnest and explanations about who we were they said we could pass.  The second checkpoint was going to be the problem according to Earnest.  He proceeded to fill me in, as we walked, on how ruthless the checkpoints were during the January invasion.  They would just shoot on sight he said.  Seeing that I was appropriately concerned he decided this might be a good time to tell me in excruciating detail how he was captured for a month by the rebels, stripped naked, put through a mock execution and how he escaped after a devastating aerial bombardment.  No details were spared as we approached the UNAMSIL station.  We debated how to shine the light and I suggested that since it was my headlamp and I had to wear it that I shine it on him so that they would shoot his direction and I could run into the bush.  He suggested that I walk in front and he would support me from behind.  We settled on loud conversation in which I did not try to speak broken Kriole as this might scare them.  Better to speak with a foreign accent he decided.  So I enthusiastically shouted as we got near, "Hi there, I am a Canadian".  Despite our fears and all of Earnest's stories the soldiers were relaxed and a little confused as to why a person would shout in the middle of the night about their nationality.  Accepting our explanations they let us pass. 

Today, in a kind of weird coincidence I was in Freetown with Solomon when we bumped into Isay Sesay's uncle.  I say "bump int" because I still do not understand how the tracing system could possibly work or how Solomon figured out it was Isay's uncle.  It had something to do with tracing through the hospitals and then spotting him on the street and who knows what in between.  The red cross is involved in the international tracing, however, on a national level things are a little more ad hoc.  It turns out little Isay is not too popular with his relatives as he is clearly a burden nobody needs in a time of war and there is no legal obligation to take him back.  It is a weird world we live in - many of the children have been rejected by their parents.  Solomon tells me of one father who disowned his child when they brought him to the house.  The child, a war hardened eleven year old, in turn promised to return and shoot his father without so much as shedding a tear, his feelings of abandonment molded into anger.  Five of the girls walked over 100 km back to the center after being driven to be with their families.  They were loaded back into the landrover and driven back to their families but, again, walked back.  After the third time, Father Chema gave up and allowed them to stay.  What fears, what reasons for rejection, one can only guess.  It's a war -  these are kids and the combination is devastating. 

June 26, 2000

It's a few days later now - and Isay is sitting beside me as I type.  He fell down outside and I heard him howling.  He skinned his knee and in sharp contrast to Mackfish's bravado regarding pain he sat alone under the balcony sobbing.  Somehow it seems healthy to me to hear a child crying around here and to be able to comfort him with a hug.  I invited him to come sit with me and watch while I type.  He has stopped crying now, sitting on the bench beside me with his chin on his knee.  Two days ago he came to me in a quiet moment and took the cotton shirt off of his hand.  He asked me something I could not understand so eventually we got another boy to translate.  His hand is curled up from the fire and bent at 90 degrees at the wrist. It is quite the sight.  It does not work and he has very limited movement of the muscles.  He wanted to know if I could take him to the hospital and straighten it out.  Kneeling beside him, holding his tragedy in my hands, I wished that I was a brilliant surgeon or that I could tell him something comforting.  But I am not a brilliant surgeon, in fact, I don't even know if he could be fixed up by someone who is a brilliant surgeon. 

Black mosquito has recovered and Father Chema believes he has bottomed out now and will get better.  He apologized for the suicide attempts and has been a model young boy. We'll see how long he lasts.



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