The camp was dark and smelled of unwashed bodies, dried blood, sand and feces*. Over us, sparsely-leaved trees hung, blotting out much of the night sky. A camp fire flickered over our little community. All around it were children, their cold AK-47s resting tightly against their sleeping bodies. Nearby, I could just barely make out the sound of a small river flowing – cutting its way through the thin underbrush.
I shouldn’t have been awake. I wasn’t supposed to be awake. But I couldn’t manage to sleep. Once again, I couldn’t manage to sleep. I just lay there, my eyes closed, pretending to sleep. Pretending the horror had not overcome me. There were no guards watching us. I wasn’t fooling anybody else.
If anything, I was trying to fool myself.
The camp, aside from the crackling of the fire, the gurgling of the water, and the shifting of restless bodies, was silent. And then I heard something. I heard soft footsteps. The footsteps of an intruder.
The footsteps of an enemy.
I opened my eyes, grabbed my gun, and rose to my feet. And all around me, like zombies coming to life, other children did the same. We were ready for the enemy. We had no fear of the enemy.
What could you possibly fear if you sought death itself?
We spread out, long practice yielding its benefits on this unlikely battlefield. Were these government troops, coming to kill us? Our eyes and ears focused on the source of the sound. And, slowly, incredibly, it became clear. There was no army, these were the footsteps of a single person.
Who would approach our camp? Who would have the courage? We were feared and hated. We even feared and hated ourselves. As we waited, curiosity rippled through our ranks. A few glanced nervously in other directions, long experience telling them to anticipate a trap. But then, from the thin brush, a woman slowly emerged. She was dressed in a reed skirt and a thin brown cotton top. She had nothing in her hands and only a look of hope on her face.
Nobody shot her. We just watched her, fascinated. And then, without fear or even defiance, she began to look at each of us in turn. Her eyes were yearning for something.
I watched her with all the rest, stunned and confused.
And then, in a flash, I realized I knew her face.
I knew the crazy, fearless, bull-headed woman who walked into our camp.
She was my mother.
And I knew, in that instant, that my worst nightmares had once again been given life.
I was ten years old when they came. There had been nothing special about that day. My father and I were standing knee deep on the banks of the lazy brown river. We had been working. In the distance, I could see the sporadic acacia trees, their vast canopies seeming like green clouds placed against the clear sky of the savanna. Nearby stood our village, a ramshackle collection of tiny brick-walled homes covered with thatched roofs. It was surrounded by the sandy and claylike dirt that defined our world. That was the smell, that day and almost every other. Clay and sand and the tepid life of the river.
These were not fertile lands.
In this place only one useful crop survived: cassava. The plant seemed like a reflection of our reality. Its roots are tough, coated with a thick and protective bark. It can take hold in unforgiving earth. It provides tremendous nourishment; giving us the energy that we need to survive.
And it constantly threatens our lives.
Cassava is not like other crops. Lurking within it is a poison. Eating the root raw can be enough to paralyze or even kill a man. And in times of drought, no preparation seems to make it safe. In our tiny village, three women and two children are victims of konzo; their legs have been made useless by the poison within the cassava.
That one plant represented the constant entwinement of our needs and fears.
Our village didn’t plant the sweet varieties of cassava. Those required little preparation before they could safely eaten. But they often needed better earth than we had. And when they did grow, they attracted thieves and bandits. They were a temptation to the desperate wanderers who roamed through the savanna. No, we planted bitter cassava. It was loaded with poison, but it discouraged thieves. Few would take the time necessary to safely prepare our crop.
And that was why we were in the river. My father and I had knives and we were cutting the bark from the roots and then slicing the roots themselves into small round slivers. Other children were arranging those pieces in the river, submerging them just upstream of log that prevented them from being washed away. We would soak the cassava here, for hours. And then we would withdraw it, grind it and spread it on large flat mats. The sun would take the final step, its powerful glare hopefully leaching the poison from our food.
My mother was not here. When my mother was in labor with me, she became very, very ill. Everybody in the village knew neither she nor I would survive the labor. The elders began to say prayers for the dying. And then, on the river, a small group appeared in a boat. When they got to the village, it was clear they were a small travelling medical team. There was a doctor on their boat as well as supplies, a few nurses and a few guards.
The doctor wanted to set up her temporary clinic before she began her work, but the villagers forced her into action. And the doctor saved my mother’s life and mine. My mother would never have more children, but our lives had been spared. And they had been given purpose. My father saw the doctor’s arrival as a miracle. He saw it as a sign. And he prophesized that I would grow up to be a doctor. My father had been a quiet, unassuming man. But he convinced the entire village of his vision. And so, while other villages harvested cassava as they needed it, we planted and harvested far more than we needed. And while we planted, my mother travelled. She brought our cassava, processed into safe flour, looking to trade it for goods that could eventually be traded for gold. She travelled often, despite the danger.
She felt G-d had given her life for a reason. She was fearless in her dedication to my father’s vision.
Slowly but surely we had gathered a small stockpile of gold. It was ten years of surplus, buried under my family’s small hut.
And, like every other day, we were working so that I could eventually go to school.
We were working so I could become a doctor.
A little girl saw it first. A small dust cloud in the distance. A few minutes later, we could all see people walking. And then, in terror and dread, we came to realize who they were. They had a single all-terrain-vehicle. And they had guns. They walked in a loose fit group. And most of them were children.
There was nothing we could do.
We couldn’t run fast enough to escape the all-terrain-vehicle. And even with our small stockpile of gold, we lacked what needed to survive.
Like automatons, our little community gathered the cassava we’d been preparing and made its way out of the river. We were all there, in the center of the village, when the little army arrived.
I remember every second of what happened next. Everybody was forced to kneel in the dirt. And then boys were selected. Boys like me. And we were handed guns, one by one. Pistols. And then we were told to kill our own families. The first boy, Akurungu, refused.
And as he watched, they killed his kneeling family.
And then they shot him as well.
They continued with the next boy. And, tears in his eyes, he used the pistol on himself. And we all watched as the armed children in the little band killed his family as well.
I was next.
I wanted to die with my family then. But my father looked up at me with those incredibly intense eyes. And he said “you are not meant to die today.” I shook my head, refusing to believe what he was asking me to do.
I knew the calculus. They were going to die. I was the variable. But I didn’t want to live if I had killed them.
My father gripped the end of the pistol and guided it to his own head. And I looked at him and I saw the pleading in his eyes. He had worked so hard for me. He had worked so hard for his vision. And he would not let me disappoint him. And so, I did what I had to.
I did what he demanded.
Minutes later, we left the village. Almost everybody I knew was dead. Vultures were circling overhead and I knew the hyenas and wild dogs were not far behind. Before long, nothing would be left of all the work we had done and all the life we had celebrated.
We travelled after that, from village to village. ‘Recruiting’ just as I had been recruited. We wanted to bring those proud boys down. We wanted to show them they were no better than us.
Again and again we killed. And when enemies were near, when there was some sign of armed resistance, our commanders would force us to sniff some crystal powder. And then in a rage of fury and energy, we would fight. We fought wildly. And those who survived learned how to fight effectively.
All of us became the evil we most hated and feared. All of us did to others what had been done to us. And all of us wanted to die. But we would not kill ourselves. Without exception, our families had died so that we could live. We would not debase their deaths with our own suicides.
That was the only thread of decency that remained within us.
I had grown up in a village that celebrated hope. It had been a village that celebrated me. It had been a village that wanted me to escape from it, so that they could take pride in the work I would do.
Now I was in a different place. And there was no escape. The world outside knew what we had done. We could never be accepted again. And if we tried to escape? Then we would be tortured and killed by other children. We’d be brought low by those who lacked the courage to run.
Over time I learned our commanders had once been just like us. I guessed that they, like I, had come to peace with their first great sin. They could not hate themselves for that. But they could, and did, hate themselves for what came after.
Every night we all shuffled restlessly in our camp. We were together, yet so far from one another. Scenes replayed in our minds, individually. Nightmares of the horrors we had inflicted.
And every day we rose again, stealing and killing and recruiting as we had always done.
As time passed, I grew to accept that my father had been wrong. Akurungu had been right. It would have been better to have died that day. My father had desired my life. But the price of my survival had been the lives of so many others. And it was a price that was not worth paying.
But day after day, we all paid it. Day after day, the price we paid grew and grew. And it inevitably became an investment. We clung to our own lives ever more fiercely, seeking to give some kind of meaning to the lives we had taken.
Two years had passed. I had killed thousands and we were a thousand miles from my home.
It seemed like the nightmare would never end.
And then, my mother walked into our camp.
We all watched her, stunned by her bravery. And then she saw me and her face lit up with unquenchable joy. She smiled broadly and said clearly, “My boy, my dear, sweet boy.”
I looked back at her with hard eyes. Trying to will her to run. There was no hope for me. There was no reason to love me. I was not the child who she had last seen.
Somehow, she had found me. Somehow, she had tracked me down. It could not end well.
She was to join the ranks of my nightmares.
“Mama,” I said, “You should not be here.” I put every ounce of warning into my voice.
And she answered, simply, “My boy, you are to be a doctor. It is time for you to leave.”
I couldn’t imagine the insanity. How could I leave? How could she leave?
Those old dreams were gone now. They’d been replaced by a new reality.
Why had she come?
I stared at her. And I saw the look in my commander’s eyes. And I knew what the order would be.
I stepped forward. Towards my mother.
And I raised my rifle.
She looked at me, with no fear in her eyes. And then she looked at the camp.
And then she said, in a voice radiating warmth and love, “You all still have a home.”
We stared at her, blankly. And then the first stirrings of hope began to whirl around the camp – as tangible as the wind.
“You are all,” she continued, “Still loved.”
It was then that I saw tears enter the eyes of those around me. Even those of the commanders.
“Kill her,” my commander said. His voice was shaky; he was holding on to a reality he did not want.
My finger moved towards my trigger.
My mother did not look at me then. She looked only at the others.
And she said, “With me, you can all have a second chance.”
I closed my eyes, not wanting to watch her die. And then I heard it. The sound of rifles dropping to the dirt. It spread furiously. And then it stopped. And I stared at her with shock and confusion. And then I lowered my own rifle to the ground.
And nothing happened.
In that moment my mother – who could bear no more children – became mother to us all.
My mother, my fearless mother, had found the bodies of the villagers when she’d returned. She’d understood what had happened. She dug up our little collection of gold. And then she set out in search of me – following our little band from village to village.
Despite all the horrors she saw, her love never left her.
She brought us from the bush, unarmed and unharmed. We expected the world to reject us. And many did. But many others just wanted a second chance. They wanted a second chance with children who had been lost and who could finally be reclaimed.
In the weeks that followed, we lived off the gold she had recovered. Soon after, our mother found international charities willing to support us. She bought a small compound in the capital.
We all live there, a band of real brotherhood replacing our army of regret.
We all live there, and we all go to school.
Every morning we rise and say our prayers. And our mother glows as she watches us.
And every morning, as we begin our schooling, she smiles over us.
Despite all the horrors she saw, her love has never left her.
And we all know, it never will.
My father’s dream is still alive.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of Avraham. You live in a world of violence and destruction and sin. And G-d comes and claims to be able to change all of that. But you struggle to believe.
If He could change the world, why hasn’t He?
The story of S’dom speaks to this challenge. When the angels explain their mission, they say: “the cry of them is waxed great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.”
The city is crying out for its own destruction. Thankfully, we must search to find a modern corollary. And we can find one. We can find it in the very modern experience of child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army.
When you have been compelled to sin and then forced others to do as you have done, then you grow to hate yourself. When you exclude all others through your violence, you can form an entire society that cries out for its own destruction.
This is why there are no men in Zoar willing to act in the normal way with Lot’s daughters. People in this society want the pleasure of intercourse but they do not want to bring new life into their sinful reality. This is the only world Lot’s daughters know. To their credit, they desire a future. Raised by Lot, they do not hate themselves; despite the horror he had almost imposed on them.
But the cry for destruction is not enough. There must be a test, a verification. When the angels come to S’dom, they create a test. Lot cries out for their survival, a lone moral voice in a community gone mad. But everybody – men, women, old and young – joins in their society’s evil. Lot, even though he is willing to give everything for these strangers, is unable to turn back their evil and their self-hatred. They cannot change course. Likewise, the mother created a test. And if her voice had faltered, then her son could never have been rescued.
S’dom fails the test, but it is the last society destroyed by G-d.
The birth of Yitzchak brings an end to this era of the Torah.
As I read it, the entirety of the Torah readings of Lech Lecha and Veyeirah is teaching us about G-d so that we can have a relationship with Him. It is teaching us so that we can share this relationship with the world. Through our fear and acceptance, we can be empowered to bring goodness and holiness to all those around us, just as the mother’s acceptance of her husband’s vision empowers her to rescue her son.
Ultimately, even Avraham accepts this reality. If there are fewer than 10 righteous men, then there is no kernel to rescue a society like that of S’dom. The establishment of the good is ultimately our responsibility; but that responsibility is ultimately dependent on relationships.
We cannot do it alone.
The seed that was planted with Avraham and cultivated with Yitzchak and Yaacov and his descendants is still flourishing. In our day, through our fear and our acceptance and our love, even the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army can be saved. The children in their armies are being disarmed and reintegrated. They face many, many challenges, but some have even gone on to university.
But we must remember that the recovery of these soldiers is only a reaction to sin.
We should aim higher.
Through our relationships, we can create a better reality.
We can create a reality in which the nightmares never have a chance to become real.
Image: hdptcar, Flickr. Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic
*The use of the word ‘feces’ is intentional. It is meant to highlight the distance between this camp and a holy military camp as defined in the Torah.