The other Americans have both left; I find that I glide easily back into the solitary and relatively silent process of everyday. I’m around people constantly, and speaking most of the day. But there’s a difference between being around people who understand where you’re from and speak your native tongue, and the perpetual mistranslations and conscientious awareness with another language and culture. Friends change the molecules of the air, though the molecules’ structure and composition remain the same.
After Sarah boards her plane and departs, I spend a few days doing more or less nothing and speaking as little as possible. Translating takes more energy than I expected. I arrive at COPERMA, after a day or two of relaxing, and am greeted with the usual update.
-There’s fighting in Kiondo and Kasungu, says Laurentine almost immediately. The fighting is just past Kagoma.
Kagoma is a small village where COPERMA is starting a center. It’s an interesting village because it’s not just a center for survivors, but also demobilized child soldiers. I went there a few weeks ago after three young survivors fled their villages and were absorbed into the community.
-Who is fighting? I ask.
-Mai-Mai and the police and military.
-We don’t know yet, since they’re still fighting. But two people are dead, one police and one civilian. He tried to get into a car to flee the bullets and he was shot.
The concept of Mai-Mai is still confusing to me. It’s a great concept in theory; Mai-Mai simply means community based, it’s like a neighborhood watch but with children, machetes and guns. The groups originally started in order to protect communities from the mercurial wars of the region. But when you give children guns, or men with no training or education, what can you expect but a bit of chaos?
COPERMA has been asking me what I’m going to do to help three demobilized Mai-Mai child soldiers whom I spoke with in Kagoma. I keep avoiding the question. The child-soldiers are like a lagoon and I don’t want to touch the surface because I’m terrified of what’s underneath.
It’s extremely difficult to find or speak to demobilized soldiers, as they are constantly being sought by the groups they left. COPERMA has a complex system in place to conceal the boys, and move or hide them when any group of soldiers moves through the area.
In Kagoma, I sit on a stranger’s bed in a dark hut to speak with three boys who want to talk to me. Jeremy is clearly the leader of the trio, and he makes me uncomfortable as soon as he starts speaking. He’s a skinny fifteen year old with patches of facial fuzz and spots of acne. He started fighting with the Mai-Mai when he was 12.
-Why did you join the group? Were you forced? I ask Jeremy.
The three boys are sitting on a small wooden bench, all facing me. I’d rather speak to them individually, but they say they only want to talk if they can stay together.
-I was influenced by my friends, Jeremy responds. They said it was cool and that I should do it.
-What did you think once you got there?
-I didn’t like it, because I was abused by my Superiors every day.
-Did you engage in fighting while you were with the Mai-Mai?
He chuckles a little. He doesn’t seem upset or uncomfortable talking about his past. The boy next to him, Gregoire, is also 15 years old. He’s wearing a baby blue jacket and he has the bone structure and eyes of a model. His eyes are soft and pretty. He doesn’t seem uncomfortable either, but Damien, a 17 year old sitting on the end of the bench won’t look at me. He’s hunched over, leaning away from Jeremy and Gregoire, looking at the floor.
-Killing wasn’t the problem, continues Jeremy. That was the job. I used stones, the machete and knives [to kill.] If someone hurt me or bothered me in the village, we killed them directly. That wasn’t the problem. In full on war I’ve killed women, children, elderly, all categories. If an old person is a sorcerer, we must kill them.
I was expecting a sense of morality to have motivated demobilization, not this.
-Why did you leave then?
-They were beating me. It wasn’t because I didn’t like killing, it was because of the superiors. I wasn’t a superior.
-Were you afraid of being killed?
-No, the tattoos protect against that.
He pulls up a tattered sleeve and shows me a small scar on his left hand It looks like a tiny bundle of sticks etched into his skin.
-With the tattoo, you are safe from bullets.
-Do you believe that?
-Yes, he says with no hesitation.
-Have you ever known someone who was killed who had this tattoo?
-Only if they did something wrong. There is Mai-Mai law, and if you break this law the tattoo will no longer work. If you rape someone, it doesn’t work anymore
-So you never raped anyone while you were a Mai-Mai?
-No, then the tattoo wouldn’t work.
He says this forcefully, and for some reason I believe his “no.”
-If you have the tattoo and you don’t break a law, you can get hit by a bullet or a bomb and you won’t be hurt, he continues.
I want to point out the flaws of this belief but there’s no point. And if the potency of the tattoo actually does prevent Mai-Mai from raping it would be foolish of me to even hint at otherwise.
-If you were given a promotion, so you were a superior, would you go back? I ask, not wanting to hear the answer.
-Yes. If I was a superior I’d go back, when I’m an adult I think I will go back. But if I was a regular soldier I’d never go back.
-Does this effect you in a bad way? Do you have any problems with remembering what you’ve done and what you’ve seen?
-I see people I’ve killed in my dreams.
He looks down at the floor as he says this and for the first time he seems a little uncomfortable. Gregoire explains his situation to me next. He started when he was 10, it was voluntary.
-I was curious.
He says he’s killed many people with a gun, other Mai-Mai and villagers. If someone is a sorcerer or a rapist they must be killed.
-Do you have problems now with remembering what you did with the Mai-Mai?
-I think about them, the people I killed. But to kill someone is good. It was their fault for getting eliminated.
His words make me sick and filled with a dislike I have to control. I have to constantly remind myself that they were, and are, children.
Gregoire is very obviously the last in the pecking order within the three boys. Damien is still staring at the floor, shaking his head from time to time. As Gregoire answers my questions he constantly smiles and looks at Jeremy for support and approval. I can’t tell if any of them are being forward with me. I have to watch Jeremy and chastise him from time to time as he whispers things to Gregoire, or nudges him when he seems to be going into too much detail or certain territories.
Damien is different. Although his words seem to be herded by Jeremy’s body language and snickering, he doesn’t smile and he continues to watch the floor. He started with the Mai-Mai when he was 11 and was with them for five years.
-Did you like that life?
-No, he says and rubs his face in his hands. There were difficulties. You don’t know where you’re going to sleep; when you go to fight you don’t know if you’re going to leave there or not.
-Did you kill people?
-I only killed soldiers. If it wasn’t a stray bullet, I didn’t kill people in the village. I was always afraid, even after the tattoo. When I went to combat I thought, I can die, I don’t want to die. I don’t believe in the tattoos for protection.
He continues speaking to the floor, covering his eyes with his hand. He says he thinks about the people he’s killed all the time. He doesn’t ever want to go back to that.
Damien is more of what I was expecting in terms of child soldiers, but I get the feeling he’s relatively rare. How can anyone expect children who are raised with essentially no rules and the immense power of a weapon to develop any sort of moral foundation? Morality isn’t a human instinct, it’s learned. I can’t imagine how uncertain and frightening it is for Kagoma to have these boys in their midst. Yes, the boys need help and yes they are children, but with their learned knowledge that violence is unrestrained power, in the end, they’re walking time bombs. I realize that it’s not just that I don’t know how I can help them; I still can’t figure out if I want to try.