You hear about “child soldiers” being conscripted to fight in wars in Africa and Asia, but the experience is so far from your own reality that you probably don’t think much beyond the basic thoughts: “how could that happen” and “how terrible”. You don’t go far enough to know what that really means.
Some time last year I read Ismael Beah’s horrific and beautifully written “A Long Way Gone”, the story about his experience, and the experiences of others, as child soldiers in Sierra Leone, how he found himself, without choice, in such a position, and how difficult it was for him (a person of very strong intellect and talent) to psychologically remove himself from his soldierly mind-set after he was brought back to a halfway house to begin his recovery (which was accomplished with the help of many others, and some extraordinary luck that he had along the way).
Now, I have read Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell’s book, “Girl Soldier”, this book about young Grace, abducted with others from her boarding school at age 15 by the forces of Joseph Kony in Uganda, and being forced to take up arms, do unthinkable things, submit to sexual demands, and so much more, until she was able to escape from Kony’s camp (then located in southern Sudan) and find her way back to Uganda and freedom. She now lives in the United States (as does Beah).
As a book, I found Beah’s by far the better (he has just published his first novel, by the way, having been able to attend and graduate from Oberlin after he reached the United States – talk about a second chance), but that does not mean that the book co-authored (alternating chapters) by Akallo and McDonnell should not be read, it should. It should be read not only to see the early life trajectory of Ms. Akallo, but also to learn about the rise and abject fanaticism of Kony (for whom we – the United States – are now searching), his start as a self-proclaimed, God-driven prophet, his utter ruthlessness and brutality, his reliance on thousands and thousands of abducted children, some as young as seven, to staff his army. They are there to do his bidding on pain of death if they refuse or fall by the wayside or try to escape and are caught. And sometimes they die of disease or starvation – or just to set an example for others so that the remainder will fall in line. And sometimes the children must kill the other children (again on pain of their own death) to prove that they are loyal to Kony.
What’s wrong with the book? It’s filled with Christian proselytizing, as if the belief in evangelical Christianity and in a particular form of Jesus is the only way to counter Kony and to explain Akallo’s miraculous escape. An obvious turn-off for me. But I can’t let that interfere with my appreciation of what Akallo has gone through, and what so many others in Uganda, Sierra Leone and other places have had to face.