What if it was my son?

21 06 2010

I haven’t written here in a while because I have had too much to say…and no idea how to say it.  Two weeks ago I was in Gulu in northern Uganda visiting ex-child-soldiers in a World Vision center.  These are young men who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the last few months and made their way back to Uganda from Congo.

Hearing their stories was heartbreaking.  I have heard and read many similar stories, but it was different hearing it directly from the boys who were involved.  Seeing their scars made it all the more real.  One young man, who had been in captivity for almost 15 years, showed where he had been shot through the back when he was 9 years old.  The scar on his belly from the exit wound was massive.  Nine years old.

One thought has been running through my head ever since.  What if it was my son?

Of course my son, at only 4 years old, would not have been useful to the rebels.  He would have been killed on the spot when the LRA came to raid the village.

I believe that many of us in the West put an emotional distance between ourselves and conflicts like this around the world.  We read statistics about child deaths and read about child soldiers in remote places, but we try to make it seem not so bad.  “They are used to it ‘over there.’”  “They have a lot of children because some of them will likely die, so parents ‘over there’ don’t get as attached to their kids.”  It isn’t that we believe these things, it’s just that we can’t allow ourselves to enter the pain.

Ever since meeting these boys in Gulu, I’ve been forcing myself to imagine it.  To explore the question of “what if it was my son?”  I hate every minute of it, and I can only do it for a few minutes at a time before I have to stop.  I try to imagine those last few minutes of seeing him taken away from me with nothing I can do about it – my ultimate responsibility of protecting my son taken out of my reach.  Then the terrible time of knowing he is out there, somewhere, experiencing all the things I have heard about but never wanted to imagine.  Young, scared, and alone.

Tens of thousands of children around the world are taken from their parents every year, whether to be used as soldiers, sex slaves or worse, and the grief those parents feel must be excruciating.  Because we are all parents, because we are all human, I feel like I owe it to them to feel the pain, even if only for a few minutes at a time and even if it is only a shadow of what they feel.  I know how lucky I am.  When I come back from the depths, I get to hold my son and feel the relief wash over me.  They don’t.

There is a lot we can do to fight against this problem.  We can encourage our government to stop supporting regimes like the one in Somalia that uses child soldiers.  We can research the sources of our clothes and other products to make sure they aren’t the products of child slavery.  We can stop visiting the red-light districts in Thailand or Cambodia “just out of curiosity.”  We can inform others that this issue is real, and that child slavery is happening in nearly every country around the world (yes, even in the United States thousands of adults and children are sold into slavery every year).

At the very least, when we hear or read about these issues, we can stop and take a moment to really feel deeply how terrible this crime is for everybody involved.   It is nice to be insulated from the horrors happening in the world, but sometimes it is more important to try to feel what the real people behind the news reports are living through.  Because if we deeply feel it, we are more likely to do something about it.

Learn more:




Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


Senator Feingold’s statement on Northern Uganda

1 03 2010

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold’s address to President Obama about the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act:  (http://feingold.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=322591&)

February 26, 2010

Mr. President, I rise today to speak about a bill that I introduced a year ago with Senator Sam Brownback to confront Africa’s longest running rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. This bill was passed unanimously by the Foreign Relations Committee in November and it is now cosponsored by 63 members of this chamber, a supermajority. According to the Congressional Research Service, no bill specifically on sub-Saharan Africa has had this many cosponsors since at least 1973, which is as far back as our online records go. This demonstrates an unprecedented bipartisan consensus to address an issue that was called “the world’s worst neglected crisis” just a few years ago.

This historic consensus, Mr. President, should not go unnoticed and it must ultimately translate into action.

Mr. President, for two decades, the LRA and its brutal leader Joseph Kony terrorized the people of northern Uganda. They filled their ranks by abducting children – some estimates suggest over 66,000 of them – and forced them to fight as child soldiers. Meanwhile, the people of northern Uganda were forced into displacement camps with little protection from their own government, where they were vulnerable to attacks, disease and starvation. In 2007, I visited those camps and saw first-hand the terrible conditions people were forced to endure.

In recent years, the LRA have been pushed out of northern Uganda and fortunately many people have been able to leave those camps. But that has not meant an end to the LRA’s terror; it has just shifted to a new theater. Under pressure in 2005 and 2006, the rebels moved into the porous border region of northeastern Congo, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, where they have recently resumed their attacks and abductions. According to the United Nations, between September 2008 and June 2009, the LRA killed some 1300 civilians, abducted 1400 more, and displaced 300,000 others. That level of violence persists today. The stories are jarring: families locked inside huts and burned alive; people having their lips and ears cut off; people hacked to death with machetes; villages massacred as they gathered for church on Christmas Day.

Mr. President, this continuing violence is senseless and it is horrific. It shocks our collective conscience. That is why Senator Brownback, Senator Inhofe, and I, along with 60 of our colleagues, leading human rights groups, and thousands of young idealistic Americans have come together around this bill. We may not agree on all the specifics of how the United States should go about addressing this issue and what role our government should play, but we all agree the ongoing atrocities committed by the LRA demand more attention, more resources and a more proactive strategy.

Our bill would require the Obama administration to develop such a strategy for how the United States will work more actively with regional governments, the UN and others to bring a lasting end to this war. That strategy would need to integrate all elements of U.S. policy – economic, political, intelligence and military – and coordinate our efforts regarding the LRA across the four affected countries. Our bill also authorizes a modest of amount of additional funding, $40 million over 3 years, so we can better support peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda and help meet the humanitarian needs of communities outside Uganda that are currently affected by the LRA’s violence.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, one Senator has objected to passage of this bill because of the authorization of funds. Now let me be clear: I share concerns about our record deficits and believe we have a responsibility to our children and our grandchildren to control reckless spending. That is why I make a point to include an offset whenever I introduce a bill that authorizes funds. This bill was no different. When it was introduced, it included an offset to reduce excess secondary inventory for the Air Force; inventory that the GAO found wasteful and the Air Force acknowledged it didn’t need. Unfortunately though, some objected to this offset and it was removed in committee.

Now, I have offered to stipulate that the bill should use already authorized funds, rather than authorizing new funds. Apparently that’s not sufficient. While I am disappointed that the offset was removed from this bill, I do not believe it is sufficient cause to stop this bill from moving forward. We should keep in mind that passing this legislation would not automatically trigger increased spending. This bill authorizes funds, but appropriating them is a different matter. I am more than willing to work with lead cosponsors of this bill and others, during the appropriations process, to ensure this bill does not increase our overall budget. In fact, I’d like to work with all of my colleagues in general to eliminate wasteful spending.

Mr. President, we need to pass this bill. We have a unique opportunity right now as members of Congress to make a statement that the mass killing of innocent life by the LRA is unacceptable, and that we as a country will not stand by as it continues to happen. By passing this bill, we can charge our government with looking seriously at how we can do more to help bring these atrocities to an end. When we look back at Rwanda in April of 1994, I think each and every one of us wishes we had done more to save lives. The same can be said about the brutal massacres by the RUF in Sierra Leone or by Charles Taylor’s army in Liberia. But we need to not only acknowledge those regrets; we need to learn from them.

Mr. President, the LRA’s massacres are taking place now. They are on our watch. This time, let us not look back and wish we had done more. I urge all my colleagues to come together to pass this bill.