Friday, March 16, 2007

'Cause ev'ry little thing's gonna be all right

In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, proclaimed "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." This is one of many sections of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law that condemn the use of child soldiers. Despite these laws, Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 300,000 children involved in violent conflicts around the world today - with 200,000 of those children living in sub-Saharan Africa.

I can remember the most minute details of the afternoon I spent at GUSCO in northern Uganda last June - with an 11-year-old boy that had escaped captivity the day before our arrival. I can see him sitting next to me right now, looking down, kicking at the dusty ground with feet that looked too large to be attached to his skinny legs. He is fumbling with a pack of gum - a gift from one of the American students. I remember the enormous smile that spread across his face when I rubbed his back, and then I remember putting on Leketa's enormous sunglasses to hide my tears when we were waiting for our matatu to leave. The small moments I spent with him triggered a landslide in my mind - shifting the war in northern Uganda from being something I simply read about to being something both tangible and horrifying.

Last week I finished reading A Long Way Gone, the first account of child soldiering actually written by a former child soldier - Ishmael Beah. I was lucky enough to meet him at a lecture and book signing at Politics and Prose on Monday night. I was immediately struck by his small stature - the way he looked like a child lost in his father's corduroy blazer. But as he began to speak to the age-diverse crowd of 300 readers, his presence grew to fill the entire room.

Beah's writing picked up where I left off that day at GUSCO - when I drove off on the dusty road with a pounding headache and a feeling of helplessness. He spends a great deal of time in the book relating details about his rehabilitation process at the UNICEF camp in Freetown. He speaks honestly about his roiling anger, his withdrawal from the "brown brown" that numbed his senses as he fought, his painful separation from the military unit that had become a family of sorts. When asked at the book signing "which was more difficult - learning to kill, or re-learning to lead a peaceful, civilian life?" Beah didn't hesitate - losing your humanity is easy - it's re-gaining it and healing that is the most painful process of all. While the boy at GUSCO was safe from the horrors of war, he had a battle to fight that I couldn't have begun to comprehend.

As conflict-ridden countries approach peace, they teeter on an abyss of psychological healing that is so vast as to be immeasurable. Individual stories like Beah's enliven the resiliency of the human spirit...and give us hope.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Head case

Copout. I'm suffering from blogger's block. I've been burning up my brain cells every day from 8 to 5, and wearing my glasses constantly, which makes me look even more dorky and exhausted than I actually feel. It's number numbers numbers and still playing catch up from the Uganda interlude.

On Wednesday morning it started snowing when I took Henry out before work. At about 2 p.m. I spun around in my chair to look out the window and saw that the snow from the morning hadn't stopped falling. I stared for what must have been a quarter of an hour, in awe at how gently the snow was falling. It was like I'd never seen it before. I pushed my printer to the side of it's cabinet and propped my feet up to continue watching the tiny little flakes dance and caress the ugly gray patio bricks.

The past week has been a ball of frenzied activity, from trying to set up coffee with my always-elusive Darfur/LRA expert to setting up a wholly unrealistic workout schedule that involves running, biking, climbing, pilates, and yoga. Yeah, right. Each night it's as if the Orange line runs right over me in my apt. I eat about 13 Chips Ahoy cookies, chug a glass of milk and wake up at 2 a.m. in my clothes wondering what hit me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)

You know that get-to-know-you game, where someone asks you if you could spend a day with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Kapuscinski is probably in my top five.

Where would we go? I like to imagine we would be somewhere on the Continent, maybe up in Gulu, on the balcony at Hotel Kakanyero, sipping ice-cold passion fruit juice. I could easily see us sitting at the be-checkered tables with the little metal chairs, fuzzy radio crackling BBC in the background. That's probably a bit too cliche. Instead maybe it would be winter, and we'd sit shivering on a park bench in some unidentifiable city somewhere in the northern hemisphere, peering over our scarves. I don't even know what I would ask him. I tend to talk constantly. Maybe this time I would just listen. Would he be speaking Polish?

Early on in The Soccer War, after his first assignment in Africa, Kapuscinski asks to be sent to Congo. He plainly states "I'm already caught up in it. I've already got the fever." I prefer his writing about Africa, which is blunt. Honest. Maybe I'd tell him about my affliction with Africa, so as to relate my experience to his. My bug likes to creep up on me with cruel subtlety - debilitating me one tiny cell at a time, until I'm in full-on "Africa mode" and can't much concentrate on anything else. Sometimes it looks like a social life (drum circle, African dance classes), and others it just looks like depression (why am I here, and, consequently, not there?).

Maybe I'd ask him what he recommends as a cure. He might inform me that it's actually an incurable ailment, to which I'd likely nod. And let out a nervous laugh.

Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it: typewriter, passport, ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take off, unfasten seat belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts, stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets, houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.