10 March 2012


If my last post was too critical of the desire that Kony be stopped... well... I wrote this several months ago, after working at Peace Camp with kids or teenagers --soldiers, brides, orphans, whatever-- who'd been affected by the war with the LRA. So let this stand, then, next to the last post as a post-script, as a companion to the criticism of the video, as an example of all of the reasons why Kony should be 'stopped', whatever we've decided that means, however we've agreed that should happen.

There is, I promise, truth in this. At least, it's true as far as I experienced it.

I met this girl, August of last year, when I was up in Gulu for Peace Camp -- met, or ran into, or heard her story. We'll go ahead and call her Mary, for privacy's sake.

It was strange, the first time I noticed it. But if you weren't paying attention, close attention, you'd miss it. I realize this is absurd, probably a trick that my eyes were playing on me, or something, anything else, but this is how I saw it, and I believe it. But you could see through her, completely through her, if you were paying close enough attention. And it wasn't just me.

Everyone in the village knew her, knew her story – at least that's what she said. The only difference was whether or not people chose to believe it: did she –It can't be! It is!– really make herself nearly invisible because she was so terrified –she was only four years old when it happened– when the rebels came that night; when the pale, pearly, full-moon light was overpowered by the angry orange light of the flames that consumed the huts and fields; when blood turned dirt into mud, when blood dripped off the blade of the panga that the man used to hack her father apart, to nearly hack off both of his arms, before he brought the blade down in one more swift blow on her father's head, splitting it open like a jackfruit, splitting it open from the crown of his head to the bridge of his nose; when they stole her four strong healthy handsome older brothers, the ones who always made her laugh with their jokes and the way they'd pretend to run into the mango tree behind their home just because it made her fall down with laughter, the ones who loved her and whom she loved like nothing else in the world; when she watched all of this from behind the latrine, crouching, huddling, making herself smaller smaller smaller, making herself invisible, making sure the rebels couldn't see her, wouldn't take her, but no, they wouldn't take her anyway, she was too young to be a wife, she was too young for them –even for them– to rape, they would have made one of her brothers kill her, they would have forced him to kill her, would have wrapped his fingers around the handle of the panga until he gripped it himself, and she could never put her brothers through that; did she really make her self nearly invisible –translucent; you can see right through her, if only you're paying close enough attention– that night, through force of will, through force of terror? Or was it witchcraft, a spell cast on her because of something else she'd done, something her mother had done?

Some people believe her, some don't.

It was never clear why some people didn't; she'd never done anything that would warrant the hiring of a witchdoctor, the casting of a spell, and who'd have requested, and paid for, such a spell to be cast on a child? But some people simply choose to believe some things and they don't ever explain their choice because they don't know why they made it in the first place but now that they have, they can't change their mind, they can't choose again, and they steel their will against those who made the right choice in the first place, they become more and more adamant in their belief and more and more defensive when an explanation is asked of them, and, in the end, they go through the rest of their lives believing in something that they don't want to believe in anymore. 

Still worse than those who were intent to believe, and even defend, something they didn't want to believe in, were the people who didn't care about her story at all. For them –and, sadly, this group had many members, though they wouldn't call themselves that, nor would they (and in this way they were the same as the people who believed what they didn't want to believe anymore) explain why they felt the way they did– it didn't matter if she turned herself nearly-invisible on purpose, if she did it because she was a terrified child in a terrifying situation –a situation they were all witness to, in one form or another, and so were able to understand the terror and the desire to be unseen– or if it was the work of an odd spell purchased from an odd witchdoctor. What mattered to them was that she was no longer like them. They would never explain why this mattered –fear (of becoming like her, or, simply, of her), disgust (it is not natural, they might think, to be able to see through someone), pity (it is too sad what has happened to that girl, they might think, and I can't look at her without feeling terrible). 

But the reason was less important than the result: she knew that people avoided her, she knew that people talked about her and about her story, she knew that she had few friends and would live with her mother for the rest of her life.

I couldn't help but believe her, though, believe what I saw. At that point, I'd been living in Uganda and working with some of its children long enough to know what violence and horror could do. If a man could be compelled to make a mother put her infant child inside a mortar used for grinding millet, if he could then hand her the pestle and watch her weep and pound and pound and pound until there was less of child, less of flesh and life in the mortar and more of a thick soup of blood and gristle, why couldn't a girl make herself nearly invisible? Each seems equally impossible, each seems to smack of the inhuman, but we knew that mothers had been forced to put their babies in mortars and were handed the pestle, there was no question of that, so how could you question Mary? I'd heard or read enough stories about the attacks by the rebels, that it was almost like I remembered them herself. I feel guilty when I say that because I feel like I'm belittling those impossibly real memories of the people here, because there was no way –it was impossible; I'd lost no brothers, hadn't watched a father be turned into a bleeding armless torso topped by a bloody, split-open jackfruit of a head– that that night was seared, carved as if by panga, into my mind's eye as it was into Mary's. And yet. I saw it, too. Just in brief tableaux, like photographs, the flashbulb popping in the dark; I could see it: a burning hut; silhouettes –rebels? neighbours?– running past Mary's homestead, backlit by flames, lit from above by moonlight; and, because I could see it, I believed her. 

I knew the facts, too, of course, had read about the rebels before I came to Uganda, and had heard the stories. Still, at that moment, I felt like I knew nothing. Mary probably knew as many –or as few– of the hard facts as I did, and ... no, I can't say that, of course she knew more, she knew everything, there was nothing she didn't know: about the rebels, about life, about God and death and anger and hatred and fear and love; she knew as much as anyone else on this earth; nothing was unknown to her. 

In truth, though, no one ever seemed to know much about the rebel army beyond the fact that nights like that night were commonplace; that what happened to her brothers, what was done to her father, the things that made her try to make herself invisible, things that would be unimaginable to most people, those things happened, and not only in their village, not only to them. No one, not the villagers, not the government nor the army, seemed to know why nights like that were commonplace, why the rebels did things that would make a child try to make herself invisible. There had been vague, cryptic talk of overthrowing the government, of running the country based on the Ten Commandments, of fighting the Lord's war. But it was never clear what the abduction of children, the murder of fathers, and the rape of mothers had to do with the Ten Commandments or why the Lord would fight a war like that. And most people stopped asking why. It didn't matter, knowing why. How could why possibly matter?  

What the rebels were was understood, though, all too well. It was understood that they were the burning of homes, the razing of crop fields. They were the raping of mothers and of daughters. They were the bodies of fathers left armless and split open from the crowns of their heads to the bridges of their noses. The rebels were the blood that flowed onto the dirt until it was saturated, and then they were the blood that pooled in the mud and blackly reflected the dancing flames. They were fear, unadulterated, distilled into a form pure enough to turn someone invisible. They were the sorrow, too, that greeted the sunrise on the morning after, and the anger. They were the stores of food, the cows and goats that would be missing, that after everything else. They were the night, the darkness, the time when no one was allowed outside the home, except the children close enough to the bigger towns –three, four hours away by foot, if they could make it before dark, and they had to make it before dark; there was, in fact, no if– who made the daily journey late each afternoon, slept on the tarmac streets, slept under awnings and in alleyways, under security lights, the dull yellow bulbs the only relief from the darkness, and then woke with the sun to do it all over again in the morning. The rebels were the grass, some tawny-coloured, some a crisp green, all of it tall enough to hide a man, tall enough to hide something that was less than a man, yet looked so similar, something that was more pure evil than human but took a human form, because the rebels were that, too. And yet. They weren't less than human: how could they be? How could they –Mary's four strong healthy handsome older brothers who were taken away from her sobbing mother at gunpoint and who were never seen again after disappearing into the tall grass and the darkness– be anything less than human? What the rebels were was understood, was feared, despised, hated. Who the rebels were was understood too, but was loved unconditionally, grieved over daily, longed for relentlessly.

Because the rebels –the darkness, the burning, the blood, the fear– were also her brothers –strong, handsome, able to make her fall onto the ground in laughter, all four of them, each as perfect and loving and loved as the next– and how could they be anything less than human? And they weren't just her brothers, either. They were the brothers of thousands of girls just like her. They were the brothers of girls just like her who weren't alive now, who hadn't been able to make themselves invisible, who couldn't save their brothers from the horror of being forced to kill their sisters. And those brothers were sons, too. Those brothers had strong, handsome fathers with heads split open like jackfruit, they had weeping, grieving mothers who loved them, rebels now, unconditionally. And they weren't just brothers, either. They were sisters, too, and daughters. They were girls just like her who had only had the unfortunate luck of being born seven, ten, twelve years before her. And now, after years in the bush, after years of brainwashing, of beatings, after years of rape and rape and rape and finally, broken down into fragments of themselves, broken down into –yes, it's true, though not in the same way as the commanders of the rebel army, the ones who were not like her brothers, the ones who were not, couldn't possibly be, men– something less than human, consensual sex, many of these girls who had been just like her but with unfortunate luck –no, something so much worse than that– they were sisters and daughters and, now, mothers. And if the rebels were her brothers and thousands of versions of her brothers, and if the rebels had fathers and mothers like hers and thousands of versions of fathers and mothers like hers, and if the rebels were thousands of versions of her with unfortunate luck, and the rebels were now thousands of babies born to thousands of versions of her with unfortunate luck – if the rebels were infants, her brothers their uncles, how could they be less than human, how could they be evil, how could she –how could anyone– hate them?

And, in truth, few people did. Few people hated them, few people thought of them as evil, because there were, simply, few people left who didn't have sons or daughters or brothers or sisters or nieces or nephews or cousins or granddaughters who were, now, both sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and granddaughters and rebels. It was simply not possible to hate them. It was not possible for mothers and fathers and nearly-invisible sisters to hate their sons and their strong, healthy, handsome brothers for killing the fathers and mothers and sons and daughters of other families, for burning the homes of other families, for stealing the cows and goats that belonged to other families. Because how can you hate your son or your brother for doing something that they are forced to do? If you want your son, taken away at gunpoint while you weep, while the last blood leaks out of your husband's body, not to do the things that he is being forced to do, then you want your son to die. The truth is brutal and ugly and simple. You want your son to continue to be a rebel because at least that means your son is alive. And no mother would want her son to die rather than to do unspeakable things against his will, not here, in this country and this war, and not when there is a chance that her son will come back, not when there's a chance that one day her son will come back and he will no longer be a rebel, he will only, once again, be her son; he, they, will only, once again, be her brothers. Because that is the only way to think about it; that is the only rational thought process that any mother or father or nearly-invisible sister can take when they know their sons and brothers are in the bush, swinging pangas and firing rifles and killing and burning. The night the rebels came, up until the very second they disappeared back into the tall grass and the darkness taking her brothers with them, those four strong, healthy, handsome boys were her brothers and her mothers' sons. The moment they disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness, they became rebels, and the moment they became rebels, she and her mother both prayed, daily, hourly, for the health and safety of the rebels – the darkness, the burning, the blood, the fear: they prayed for the health and safety of the young men who were these things. How could they not? Because the chance remained –the chance would always remain; once those four boys disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness, news of their death would never come, and so the chance would always remain– that one day, when the sun is lowering itself in the late afternoon, when the light is warm and amber-coloured, when the sky is brushed with cloudless strokes of gold all the way across the western horizon and deep purple thunderheads in the east, when fat drops of rain fall from the cloudless sky, drops of liquid sunlight, when your nearly-invisible daughter –beautiful, strong, resilient– comes back down the path toward your home, gracefully balancing a bruised and dented yellow jerrycan full of water on her head and a white-teeth smile on her face, one day, just like that one, four strong, healthy, handsome young men will walk out of the grass. You won't see them coming because the grass is tall enough to hide a man, but you'll feel them coming with your heart – no grass is tall enough to hide four sons from their mother. They'll walk out of the grass and they'll be taller than when they left, they'll have aged, and not only physically, but you know your sons, you always will, because you never stopped picturing them, you never stopped praying for them daily, hourly, even when they disappeared into the grass –just boys, all of them– and became rebels, because they were still your sons. But they were rebels, soldiers, too, and they did unspeakable things. They –each of them– killed a father or a brother or a son. Three of them shot people, killed them. One, your oldest, your first child, was forced to chop off the head of a boy his own age, and the boy wouldn't stop crying, wouldn't stop asking your son not to do it, not to kill him, please don't, please don't kill me, please, please, please. But he did. He had to. He had to, he had to. They all had to kill someone else's father or brother or son because, if they didn't, they would have had to kill one of their own brothers, and they wouldn't do that, they couldn't. Was it the right choice, to kill someone else's father or brother or son to spare their own brother, your own son? You don't know. You don't care. You'll never ask them, though they asked themselves constantly, every day they spent in the bush, and still ask themselves now. They ask themselves that question and others –unanswerable, all of them– and you asked yourself questions, too. You always wondered, If they come back when they come back, you always corrected yourself– will they be the same? Will they still smile like they used to? And all they've done since the night they disappeared into the tall grass and the darkness is ask themselves these questions and think of you and their sister, and even in the bush, the thought of you and their sister made them –each of them– smile. They'd never been able to see through her, but as they walk out of the grass, they'll recognize her, of course they will, instantly, and they will understand why they can see through her and they will love her for it and they will want to thank her for it, again and again and again, but they will know they don't have to, they will know she would never ask that of them. And everything is happening so slowly, you're not even moving towards them yet, you can't move yet, the only movement you can feel are the tears that start to run slowly down your cheeks. The raindrops are suspended mid-fall and they dance and shimmer in shafts of golden sunlight, everything is perfect and warm, the earth has stopped turning. Nothing in the universe is moving, nothing else is happening, nothing else even exists except this moment, except these four young men and your beautiful daughter, these four young men who walked into that grass and became rebels and are walking out of that grass and becoming your sons. You are there in this instant of time that might never move, and you never want it to move. You want the rain to stay in the air, the light to stay golden, the earth never to move again, because in this instant in time you are with your sons and the daughter who saved them –and by saving them, saved you– by nearly making herself invisible, and suddenly you skip forward one infinitely small increment of time –the raindrops haven't moved, the earth hasn't begun to rotate again– and your sons are smiling now, your daughter smiles, and the grass smiles behind her, and you know that they will be the same, eventually, their hearts are the same –heavier than before, yes, but still pure– and you know that they're still your sons and that your daughter saved them, and you are smiling, too. 

Some of these thoughts flickered across my mind, some registered, some didn't, and in the passing of another brief, interminable, and unfamiliar period of time, I came to know her story, to see her future and her brothers walk back out of the grass, and a strong wind whipped down the path we stood on, tilting the grass sideways, and the wind filled my ears and carried on it words or thoughts, the wind passed them between us and our mouths never opened.

She didn't know how to explain that she was also ten-thousand years old, that she felt like she'd lived longer than anyone in the village, like she'd seen everything terrible that could possibly be seen. How is a fourteen year-old supposed to express these things: that she knows more about life and death than all of the elders in the village; that she knows more about man and the world than all of the teachers in the schools; that she curses more people than all of the witchdoctors in the district; that she wishes death on the men who killed her father and took away her brothers; that, sometimes, when she thinks of her brothers, she pictures them killing their commanders; she pictures rebels with their heads split open from the crown to the nose, soldiers lying face-down in pools of their own blood, the faces of her brothers –their faces victorious and speckled with the blood of her enemies– reflected in the blood of the men who took them away that night? She doesn't want to imagine these things, but they come to her without her permission. She pictures her brothers killing their commanders because she imagines that's how they'd escape, she imagines that's how they'd make their way home. She knows she shouldn't hope for those men to die; she doesn't think her brothers would want that, either. But when she pictures her brothers standing over the bodies of the rebel commanders, she doesn't care how much blood there is, she doesn't care that her brothers -} 3ef their commanderO d'vY. 9T6y ng else; thinking about dead rebels and living brothers makes her happy. And she doesn't know how to feel about that, and she doesn't know how to explain it. She didn't have the words to say these things; she wouldn't want to use them even if she did.

She looked me in the eyes again. I looked away; I couldn't help it.

How does a fourteen year-old tell about anguish, about death, faith, hate? How does she explain that every day when she wakes up, she asks God to keep her brothers safe when she isn't sure if she thinks that there is a God? Fourteen-year-olds shouldn't have to wonder if there's a God while they pray for the safety of their brothers. They shouldn't have to ask God not to make their brothers have to kill too many people – and every day. She has to ask God not to make her brothers have to kill too many people every fucking day. All of this since she was four years old. She didn't know anything else anymore. She could remember other things, but she didn't know them; she only knew, really knew, that night and after, the thoughts and pictures that have plagued her since then, like flies on a corpse – a droning pestilence that, when it comes, drowns out everything else. (And yet. Like flies will eventually leave a corpse, somehow she knew these thoughts would eventually leave her too, and this –along with the thought that she saved her brothers– would make her smile, occasionally and briefly.)

She shook her head. Her thoughts had been racing –spattered blood on the faces of her victorious brothers; a God who may not even exist; a total dearth of words to explain herself; the thought of the flies eventually leaving the corpse– and she shook her head, once, as if to bring herself back down, to dismiss the topic.

And she smiled to herself. She didn't need to believe in God; she didn't need God. She never truly believed she was cursed; she never truly wanted to curse anyone else. She believed in her brothers and in their hearts –heavier now than they were before they left, but pure– and she didn't need anything else. The boys that disappeared into the grass that night were rebels; her brothers were still with her, they would never disappear into the grass, she didn't care where the rebels went because her brothers were still at home, in her heart. 

I wanted to believe, for her sake and mine, and I wanted to see this: the sun lowering itself in the late afternoon, the light warm and amber-coloured, the sky brushed with cloudless strokes of gold all the way across the western horizon, deep purple thunderheads piled up in the east, fat drops of rain beginning to fall from the cloudless sky; she looks up into the golden expanse and laughs out loud, she sticks her tongue out to catch drops of liquid sunlight, she rounds the last bend and walks into the homestead, the jerrycan still balanced gracefully on her head, a white-teeth smile balanced on her face, her mother comes out of the kitchen hut and –stifling a brief, shocked, almost silent, Oh!– covers her mouth with both hands, as four young men walk out of the tall grass and time and the earth stop, and time moves forward only enough for smiling.

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