“This gun is your source of power in these times. It will protect you and provide you all you need.”
–Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone
I turn the TV on to devastating news about some war going on someplace. The images trigger shots of pain inside my body, my hands shake and I look at the scar on my knee. I am reminded of my home in Akobo, my childhood in Akobo, my happiness in Akobo –how I lacked all those three things.
My name is Tahir and I am eight years old. You can tell I am young because I still have no gaar on my forehead: the facial markings that initiate adulthood. Hunger began this week, when the Dinka tribe began to loot our cattle. Cattle is a big deal for my tribe, the Nuer. Cows are sacred (spiritually and economically) and without them, we will struggle. Today my mother taught me how to tighten a cloth around my stomach; to trick my system into thinking I am not starving.
Now I understand why the Dinka looted our cattle. It took me twenty years to realize that Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president at the time, was allowing the Dinka to loot our cattle without repercussion, only after they had attacked Kiir’s enemy, the Nuer, under Riek Machar. The government at the time politicized tribal tensions and created a never-ending conflict that would only benefit those shielded by government walls. I don’t blame the Dinka because we would have looted their cattle too.
Tragedy struck this morning. My family walked under the burning African sun to a UN camp, but the officers said there was no more room; they had already packed thousands within barbed wired fences meant to hold hundreds. So we went back to our hut, starving and waiting for the Dinka to loot our last two cows. I wrapped the cloth around my waist tried to sleep, wondering if the kids within the UN fences have cloths around them too.
I still sleep with cloth wrapped around me every night. And I still wonder, as I try to fight the insomnia, if anything could have kept me from joining the war. Education would have, but in my town they handed bullets –not crayons. The Second Sudanese Civil War destroyed our school centers, and Kiir’s government was too busy fighting over oil to rebuild them. Idle children became Kadogos, “little ones who fight”, and all my friends carried AK-47s instead of books. They could not spell their own name, but they could kill a man with a single shot.
War touched me because we were playing tag. Today, it was my turn to be it. I joined the war because waiting to die makes me feel less of man. My mother and sisters are too thin to stand up and the Nuer forces promised money for my family, so I wear my uniform with pride.
I can still feel the weight of the gun, its fore grip bouncing against my back as I walked. I remember the day I approached a soldier and asked him why I was fighting a war. He said I was “defending my tribe” and I believed it. Now I see what a younger me didn’t. I wasn’t defending my tribe –I was only enriching politicians at the expense of millions of innocent people, at the expense of my childhood innocence.
I’ve been a child soldier for three weeks now. I pull the trigger –shoot three civilians dead. I aim, next one. I walk back to camp and rub Brown-Brown on my knee wound, the powdered cocaine desensitizing what little feelings I have left. I kill five more –feel elated inside. Five dominoes falling, one hole through each one. My finger pulls the trigger bang, bang, bang.
I am a Kadogo by choice. Why? Because in my country, it is easier to come across a gun, than it is to find a loaf of bread to eat on my way home.