1 – – – – – – – – – –
She woke up quietly and sat up on the bed, rigid and immobile; afraid that if she moved, she’d make noise and wake up the doctor lady.
She was alert, and hadn’t slept well in days –
The eyes were keeping her awake.
So she sat in the dark, not knowing what to do and, although she really wanted to, she didn’t switch on the light.
Even though she was wide-awake, she kept seeing the eyes, kept seeing the tears, kept hearing the words being repeated in her mind …
The doctor lady had said drawing would help. The doctor had given her a lot of crayons and paper. She had told her to keep drawing… draw whatever came to her mind.
The doctor lady was right. Drawing made her feel better somehow; it was also doing something else.
Something she didn’t want.
Something she didn’t like—
Something she hadn’t told the doctor lady—
Drawing was making her see the eyes more often.
So she didn’t want to do it anymore.
She didn’t even want look at the pictures she’d drawn earlier. She didn’t want it to be like yesterday night; she’d finished drawing, and then looked at the picture.
She’d felt a big bad thing inside her head.
It was the eyes. They were making her feel bad.
So she’d taken a black crayon and smudged it over them: blotted them out … so they wouldn’t look back at her like that.
But when she was done rubbing them out, she’d felt the big bad thing inside her head get bigger.
She knew it was because she’d erased the eyes.
Now the big bad thing was keeping her awake. But she didn’t want to wake the doctor lady.
2 – – – – – – – – – –
The bus dropped the 12 children outside the refugee registration office; they got out and huddled together, looking frightened, anxious, uncertain, and near tears.
After the bus left, they stood in a tight crowd around one girl.
She was short, about five feet tall, and thin—almost emaciated. Only the press of the 11 children clustered around her made her stand out.
I took their milling around her to be a sign that they trusted her, relied on her, and continued to do so now.
She was dark; her skin almost jet-black, and against it, the milk-like whites of her eyes stood out in striking contrast. Her hair was short and knotty, and budding breasts poked out of her ribcage. Not a child then … a young woman … she would have to be at least 16; I thought and found myself intrigued. Young girls caught up in war rarely had positive stories and yet here was one who had seemingly earned the loyalty of a whole group of kids…
I noticed that one boy stood a little outside the press of the children; just far enough to suggest that he saw himself as somewhat … independent. He hadn’t completely broken rank though, which I felt was a good thing. He had a hard look to him, and, had he not betrayed a lingering need for support by staying inside the circle, I wouldn’t have had much optimism for his outcomes.
He must be about 15; I calculated, sighing … Fifteen was a troublesome age even under the best of circumstances …and this boy’s circumstance had most-certainly not been the best.
I walked over to the group, beckoning to the translator as I did.
Kakuma camp was established in the 1990s to take care of Sudanese refugees fleeing the north/south war; consequently, we had many translators for Sudanese dialects on hand. But despite being a Sudanese refugee camp, Kakuma infrequently hosted a number of Ugandans refugees. Most, like these kids, were from Northern Uganda where the predations by the Lord’s Resistance Army on the one hand and government campaigns to wipe out the group on the other, trapped innocent people in the middle, rendering life untenable—breaking up families, scattering them, and forcing survivors to flee.
In spite of the situation back home, Ugandan refugees rarely stayed on at Kakuma. Invariably, they found ways to return to Uganda or integrate (often illegally) into the Ugandan community in Kenya. So it was pure chance that we had a Ugandan at camp when the children arrived, and one good enough in both English and Acholi to serve as a translator.
Two dozen eyes appraised me warily as I explained who I was, what my role was, what the registration process would entail, and where they were to be housed afterwards.
As the translator repeated my message in Acholi, I studied the group. My eyes caught those of the youngest boy. He was trembling.
I wanted to walk over and embrace him, reassure him. They were all afraid, I knew, but the little one showed it the most.
I gave the young boy my most reassuring smile, but inside I felt a jab of uncertainty at the task I’d undertaken.
3 – – – – – – – – – –
The girl’s name was Alal. I found that out when we registered them. There were two other girls in the group, Achieng, who was probably 14, and Aneno, about 10. They were all painfully thin, with roughened skin, yellowing rashes, old cuts and multiple scars.
The two younger girls and the smallest of the boys turned out to have malaria, and they were all significantly malnourished, our camp doctor told us.
The eldest of the nine boys was called Arweny. He was the one who’d hung back from the group. The other boys were 14 to 7 years old. The two youngest seemed to be recent abductees.
That might make things easier to trace their families, I thought. If the family members are alive, they may be looking for their children…which always helps.
None of the rescued children had serious injuries.
The official report sent to us stated that 15 adult fighters at the LRA camp had been killed in the fight to rescue the children.
It seemed impossibly lucky that all the children had survived without even a scrape… too damn lucky if you asked me.
We’d talked a bit about it with my boss. Takumi Shouta was our senior-most Child Protection Officer at the Kakuma refugee camp. He was a skinny, restless, and almost permanently anxious Japanese man who had worked in way too many refugee camps. It had taken its toll, but it came with a lot of experience.
It didn’t seem at all likely to either of us that the children would have come out a fight in which 15 adults died and not have major injuries. We figured the LRA fighters had most likely been shot after they’d surrendered. But we were speculating. We weren’t there. All they’d told us was that a Southern Sudanese Army patrol near the Kenya-Sudan-Ugandan border had accidentally come across the LRA camp and rescued the children.
LRA operations had always been closer to Uganda. From there they could sneak in, abduct kids, and vanish into Sudan. Over time, reprisals from Ugandan and Sudanese troops had reduced LRA numbers and the remnants had scattered into the Congo, Chad, and even the Central African Republic: anywhere they could go to put distance between them and Uganda.
These children were lucky to have been found.
4 – – – – – – – – – –
We put the twelve through a thorough health check in the course of the next days. The results were sad, but not surprising for abducted children. They all had sexually transmitted diseases, even the smallest boy.
The really difficult news for us was that Achieng was pregnant. We knew that such things happen. I’d seen it before, in Sierra Leone. Still, when I read the report my stomach clenched.
I called Achieng into my office and broke the news to her through the translator. She didn’t cry. She just sat, limp, and silent, as if resigned to this new bad thing that was happening to her.
I thought a lot after she left.
Despite popular negative belief to the contrary, psychologists know that anger, tears, and fear are emotions premised on hope. We feel angry, afraid, or cry because we have, deep inside us somewhere, an expectation that things should be different, better, more fair. We feel surprised, hurt, wounded or upset because they have turned out not to be so.
The type of resignation that Achieng showed was something far more disturbing than anger or hurt. Resignation meant that the child had stopped hoping for anything good. She had given up on a better, more fair, more just world. She had settled for just waiting around helplessly for bad things to unfold.
I wanted to cry for her. But I knew that it would be of little help to her. So I forced myself to concentrate on organizing for them to be put into our school at the camp.
The system we use for such children is called an accelerated learning system. Part of the goal is to improve the child’s English, Arabic or French (depending on where they camp is) so that help-providers like me can communicate better and more directly with them.
But, more important, the return to schooling is intended to create a sense of normalcy. In our case, Alal, Arweny and Achieng had missed about six years of schooling. While evaluations and decisions about how to resettle them back home were being made, schoolwork was supposed to occupy the children’s minds, give them something to do, so they didn’t think too much about the past and get depressed.
At least that was always the hope.
5 – – – – – – – – – –
We start treatment and rehabilitation of traumatized children by asking them to draw what they’ve seen or lived through. It’s supposed to be cathartic, but more important; it’s a way for the child to tell us about the things they have lived through, things which they may find hard to tell us verbally.
Initially, the children drew things that we expected abductees in an irregular army to draw—campfires, beatings, guns, meager bowls of food, children scrambling over paltry bits, long lines of children walking or bent over in exhaustion.
Even the disturbing aspects were what we expected. Pictures of sexual violence, sometimes with one perpetrator drawn, sometimes a child stick figure surrounded by many armed men. Achieng drew many of these. So did the smallest boy.
Arweny drew himself with a gun many times. One of the images had a child lying prone, head blown off. I learned later that he’d been forced to kill an abducted girl who fell sick and couldn’t walk.
But Alal’s pictures were different, and they bothered me, because they didn’t make sense. She drew a man with a gun, fighting off other gunmen. He was a soldier, obviously protecting her, which, in itself was odd. She alternated this picture with numerous others of weeping eyes. The teardrops dripped down to the end of the picture frame. But the eyes she drew had no face.
Sometimes she would draw a small boy covering his face with his hands, so as not to see something. She drew the same three pictures over and over.
I interviewed each child twice a week over several months—slowly, bit by bit, cautiously.
So I knew.
I knew from the stories told to me by the other children what I should see in Alal’s pictures.
They had told me of her rapes, her pregnancy, and all the violence inflicted upon her, all of which were absent from her drawings—instead there was a soldier with a gun, protecting her, a small boy covering his face and faceless eyes that dripped endless tears.
It was unsettling, and I needed to understand it.
“Is that you?” I asked through the translator, pointing to the weeping eyes during one session.
I expected her to say yes. Her answer, I planned, would then give me an opportunity to help Alal talk about the things that had happened to her, and help her deal with it.
To my surprise, she shook her head. “It’s mama,” she said.
“That’s your mother?” I asked, puzzled, impatient for the translation.
I pointed to the picture of the small boy whose hands covered his eyes.
“She says that was her younger brother, Pagak,” the translator answered.
“Where is he now?” I asked. He was certainly not among the dozen children, and if this was the name of a living relative, it could help us trace Alal’s family, I thought.
Alal’s face crumbled and tears sprang to her eyes. She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. I could tell the answer from the heartbroken look on her face.
Achieng later confirmed that Alal and her brother had been abducted at the same time but by the time the LRA attacked Alera Modern Primary School and kidnapped Achieng two months later, she found only Alal in the group. Pagak was already dead.
6 – – – – – – – – – –
Eight months after the children arrived, Achieng came lumbering into my office one afternoon, her pregnancy now almost full term. She was breathless, and could barely talk.
“Is the baby coming?” I asked; standing up, ready to act.
“No, is no baby come,” she said, panting, but waving me to follow. “Is Alal. She not good.”
“Alal is sick?” I asked as we left the office.
“No sick, wrong … bad … no good,” she said, frowning after each word, not certain they conveyed her message.
The kids had all picked up some English, but Achieng’s fragmented answers only told me that something was wrong, not what the matter was.
I found Alal slouched on her lower level bunk bed in the small room the three girls shared. She was mumbling something in her mother tongue and didn’t answer my
questions or respond when I shook her.
The translation didn’t help clarify matters. It seemed Alal was muttering the same words, over and over … I see good people. I see good people everywhere …
“Alal?” I said, shaking her, what is it? Are you Okay?
The translator repeated the question in Acholi.
“I see good people everywhere,” the translator told me the answer.
Alal’s tone grew insistent; and she repeated the sentence like a mantra, as if trying to convince herself of what she was saying. After half an hour passed without change, I called for our camp doctor.
Nathan Rutherford was a tall big-bodied Briton with an easy manner and ruddy face. He arrived quickly and checked her. She didn’t have a fever, and didn’t seem be ill.
“This is probably psychological Arisa. That’s your department, not mine. I think that a little sedation might help though,” he said.
We carried her from the dormitory into the extra bedroom next to mine so that I could monitor her. Then gave her a sleeping pill, and I went in search of Tak.
He was working on some reports when I walked in.
“I think we have a problem, Tak,” I said.
I sat down.
“It’s one of the LRA kids.”
“What happened?” he asked carefully.
I shook my head.
“No, nothing too serious, but, one of the girls, Alal, she seems to be having a breakdown of some kind.”
“Wasn’t she the stable one?” He asked.
“Yes, I think… I think she must have been dissociated while with the rebel force and now that she is safe the protective walls are crumbling.”
“How bad is it?”
“She’s almost catatonic right now, quite unresponsive, except she keeps mumbling something about seeing good people everywhere …”
Tak raised his eyebrows at that.
“That’s an odd thing to say … are you sure the translator got it right?” he asked.
“Well, frankly, I wasn’t sure, I found it odd too. The translator’s work has been pretty good up to now though,” I said. “Anyway, the child is in no condition to explain what she means. For now I’ve moved her to a bedroom next to mine.
“You moved her into your housing unit?” he asked, concerned. “Is that advisable?”
“Her mental state is not good and the other girls are obviously being affected by seeing her that way. She needs monitoring and Nate also suggested sedation.”
“We have to be careful. These cases can be so unpredictable,” he said.
“I know that Tak,” I said, nodding. I understood Tak’s concerns.
I got up to leave, and then remembered. “Oh, by the way, Achieng seems ready to give birth any time now. What’s the decision?”
Over some months, Fauzin, the camp’s registered nurse, had talked to Achieng at length about her pregnancy, trying to prepare her for childbirth and its implications.
Achieng didn’t want to keep the child once it was born and we didn’t want to see a 14-year-old forced to bring up a child born of such violence either. Tak had been in talks with the Kenyan authorities and their Child Welfare experts about possible adoption and fostering arrangements.
“But I sent you the paperwork about a week ago!” Tak said, frowning, then reefed through his in and out tray.
“The Kenyans agreed to allow an orphanage in Nairobi to take the child and oversee the placement arrangements,” he said, “yes, I did send the paperwork over to you,” he said after checking his desk thoroughly.
“I haven’t looked at my in tray yet,” I admitted, recalling the stack of documents on my desk.
He shot me an exasperated look. “Well, act on it then,” he said.
I left, feeling a bit relieved. Nate and Fauzin can organize for Achieng to have the delivery in Nairobi, I thought.
I wondered if I needed to accompany them in case Achieng had trouble giving up the child after it was born… no, Fauzin should suffice, I thought. Still, maybe I should discuss this with Tak later, after I figure out what is going on with Alal.
7 – – – – – – – – – –
To those who didn’t know him, Tak’s had an overly cautious attitude that could seem strange and unusual for a man of his expertise.
I knew Tak relatively well. We had met while working in Sierra Leone. I was a counselor in a child-soldier rehabilitation project and straight out of Pretoria University, with a freshly printed doctorate in child psychology.
UNICEF ran the project jointly with the government. We rehabilitated and returned dozens of children to their families. Some older children, 17 years old or more, sometimes had difficulties settling down with their families after being alone for so long. We gave them vocational skill so that they could live independently. We felt successful as a project; until the setback.
The boy’s name was Brima Tamba. He was 16. His father was a Baptist minister and well educated. His mother, like most Baptist ministers’ wives, ran the women’s activities and the Sunday school. Together, Brima’s parents managed a small church complex with a school, a small health centre, and pastor’s residence right next to Christ the King’s College in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. We learned all this from Brima’s parents when they came to collect him from the centre.
The Sierra Leone war had hit Bo town hard in 1995. The rebels attacked and looted the church compound in October that year; they took hospital beddings, medicines, and bandages. Then they turned their attention to the pastor’s home.
Brima was only ten when he was ordered, at gunpoint, to shoot his parents or be killed outright.
He shot them and was then abducted. He spent the next six years as a soldier in the rebel movement, believing he had killed his own parents.
We had had difficult children at the centre, but frankly, Brima wasn’t one of them. In counseling, he spoke very little about his time in the rebels. He was polite, easy to work with but, very reserved…too reserved and despite his polite and pleasant demeanor, the other children at the centre feared him.
A few children told counselors about things Brima had done during the war. At the time, none of the things they said stood out as being particularly different from many of the other stories we heard from and about other children.
Still, Brima made the other children uncomfortable, and they stayed away from him. We were still trying to figure out what the problem was when we traced his parents.
They had both survived the shooting, and were so eager to reunite with their son they came to the centre within days of our contacting them. I remember Tak explaining to the parents why Brima needed rehabilitation and counseling before he could go home, but his father would have none of it.
We had a meeting about it and some of the staff members felt that we should insist that Brima stay and go through the full rehabilitation process. But the family obviously loved him and wanted him back, and that trumped any benefit that counseling that strangers could offer. It was up to Tak, as the project manager to decide.
Tak insisted that Brima spend at least a month at the centre. It was not nearly the amount of time we would have spent with a child like him but, after a month with us, Brima went home with his parents.
Three months later, on a Wednesday afternoon, two police officers came to the centre. They introduced themselves as the head of national police and his deputy.
Brima was dead. There was an empty can of the chemical next to his body and the police concluded he had ingested a pesticide killer.
But that was not why they had come to see us. Before killing himself, Brima had first killed his parents while they slept. A bloody mallet had been found next to their bodies.
Neighbors and church people had told the police that Brima and his father had been at odds in the previous weeks. The pastor had quarreled with Brima about leaving the house in the morning and returning late at night and refusing to say where he had been or what he was up to.
The police wanted to know if they should be concerned that other abducted child-soldiers could turn out to be potential killers. We struggled to convince them that they were not, that so many others had adjusted without undue trouble and that Brima’s case was unique. We also tried to explain that he hadn’t had the benefit of adequate professional help.
Was there a way to know definitely if a child was going to do such a thing? They wanted to know. We couldn’t exactly answer, we hadn’t known Brima that well, we had had a few difficult cases, but even our biggest failures had only ever committed petty crimes such as theft, never murder.
The police left unsatisfied.
It was a hard blow to all of us, and to the project, and I knew it was on Tak’s mind as we dealt with the LRA- abducted children.
I pushed those thoughts aside as I closed my office; for now, I needed to focus on figuring out what to do with Alal.
8 – – – – – – – – – –
It took several days for Alal to return to her previous self.
When I entered her room at about 5 AM on the morning of the fifth day, it was starting to get light out. I was going to peek in, check how she is doing, then take a shower, breakfast, and head to the office. I was surprised to find her dressed and seated in the semi-darkness.
I switched on the light so I could see her better.
“When did you wake up?”
“Just now,” she said.
I sat next to her. She trembled.
“Alal, was it a long time ago?”
“You can’t sleep?”
She nodded again.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
I went to the medicine cabinet and got a sleep aid for her. Then I brought a clock, I showed her the clock face and told her that in future, if she woke up before the hands showed seven, she was to come and let me know.
I put her back to sleep then picked up the drawings Alal had done the night before. They were frantic, and quite unlike anything she’d drawn since her arrival.
I’d seen that before in Sierra Leone. Children in bad situations had a way of blocking away everything except survival, but once in relative safety what they’d kept out often flooded back in.
Her pictures had some familiar themes, like the LRA soldier who appeared to defend her, as well as the small boy covering his eyes.
And then there were the eyes.
Only, this time the picture didn’t just have tearing eyes, there was a face. If I went by what she had said, this should be her mother’s face. Yet she had rubbed the eyes out, over and over again.
A flash of alarm shot through me.
9 – – – – – – – – – –
“Who’s the man with the gun?” I asked her the next day through a translator. Alal had learned enough English to answer basic questions. So had the other children, however, I still relied on a translator when it came to the interviews to avoid misunderstandings.
“Why do you draw him?”
“He stopped the others from making me their wife.”
“Were they trying to make you their wife?”
“They made everyone their wife. They made Achieng their wife many times.”
“Did you have a baby Alal?” I asked.
I knew from Achieng that Alal had been pregnant once, but I wanted the story from her.
She was silent at first, and then tears streamed down her face.
“I…had a baby in the stomach. They didn’t want children. So made me their wife, I bled. I was very sick. They wanted to kill me but Colonel Lakwor took me into his tent. He made me his wife and he stopped them from making me their wife again.”
“And you think he was being good?”
She nodded, obviously grateful to the Colonel.
10 – – – – – – – – – –
Are you sure she is dissociated? Tak asked me. “From what you are telling me this insistence on people being good could be her way of dealing with the trauma.”
“I would be happier if I knew that she has really internalized and accepted what happened, Tak. But that’s not what I see. I see a child who has done everything to cut herself off and not deal with her experiences. This fixation on finding something good in every horrible circumstance is definitely a survival mechanism but honestly, I don’t think it will continue to hold now that she is out of that environment. Inevitably the stuff will start leaking out of those walls she has built and she’ll probably find herself unable to deal with it.”
“You think she may be suicidal?” he asked, rubbing his forehead anxiously.
“No… actually, I don’t know. I get a bad feeling that I am missing something. Something … significant.”
“Something that can cause real trouble?”
“At this point I don’t think so, but I am not sure,” I said.
We looked at each other. We both knew there were no certainties sometimes.
11 – – – – – – – – – –
“How was life in the camp Alal?”
“There were good people.”
I decided to challenge her and see what her response would be.
“There were bad people there Alal, like the men who made you their wife,” I said gently.
She frowned, as if trying to comprehend what I had said and then shook her head in denial.
“No, mama said there are good people everywhere.”
“Well, there are good people everywhere Alal, but there are also bad people, like the people in the camp with you.”
She shook her head even more vigorously. “No! Mama said there are good people everywhere!”
She started to tremble, so I ended the session.
12 – – – – – – – – – –
Her head has been hurting. It hurts more when she sleeps, and she keeps waking up. By morning, she feels tired and exhausted and wishes she could spend the whole day in bed.
The doctor lady says it is okay, that she is sick, and she should rest as much as possible. But she fears someone will find out she is sleeping too much and punish her for not getting up and doing what she is supposed to do, so she’s been getting up and going to the classes, but she can barely hear what they are saying and her head hurts.
Today, she was sitting in class when suddenly, everything went dark. When she woke up, the doctor lady and the white doctor were standing over her. They gave her an injection and told her to stay in bed. She feels so bad inside.
13 – – – – – – – – – –
I am confused about Alal’s insistence on her mother’s words.
“Does your mama talk to you?” I tell the translator to ask her a week later when we resume our sessions.
“When did she tell you that there are good people everywhere?”
“When we were at home.”
“Before you were taken?”
“Was it long before you were taken?”
She shook her head in denial.
“Before she died?”
“You saw her die?”
“Was she killed?”
“Who killed her?”
“Can you draw the person that killed her?” I asked.
Alal took the crayons but all she drew was a face running with tears.
“You don’t remember who killed her?”
“What happened when she died?”
“They took me and my brother away.”
“Where is your brother?”
“How did he die?”
14 – – – – – – – – – –
“Tak, I think I’ve found out what is wrong with Alal. I believe she saw her mother and brother killed. She’s obviously suffering from more than the abduction and abuse trauma,” I said.
“Makes sense that she would refuse to think about the events then,” Tak agreed.
“Yes, but unfortunately she is remembering. She may not be conscious of it but she is remembering and it is making her come apart,” I said.
“What do you plan to do with her?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I can keep working on her but I’m not sure we should consider her for resettlement yet; she would not be able to operate in a normal family setting.”
“Do you feel she would be violent?” he asked, pensive.
“Fair enough,” he said after a while. “Okay, tell me what you want to do with her.”
“Alal needs long-term trauma therapy. She is turning 17, next year she will be legally an adult. We can keep her here at the camp; get her a basic job in the office helping me, which would allow us to continue her therapy.”
He didn’t answer immediately.
“There is only you and I here Arisa. We may not be able to put back together what those animals broke in her,” he said gently. “I’m not trying to discourage you, but I would like you to be realistic about your expectations,” he said.
He was right, in a way. The reality was that we didn’t and couldn’t know whether such children would ever live normal lives. But then again, children with normal upbringing sometimes ended up completely messed up and unable to function in society too.
I didn’t like thinking about what I couldn’t fix. It was too easy to give up and do nothing if you did that. My way of dealing with such limitations was to say that we had the responsibility to try our very best to help. It was the least we could do. It was also the most that anyone could do.
15 – – – – – – – – – –
“How was Alal in the camp?” I asked Achieng.
“She was strong. She helped us, a lot. She was very strong, and she knew what to do. Like when they made me their wife, she showed me how to lie still and not twist around. If you stay still it doesn’t hurt too much, and you don’t bleed,” she said.
“She also told the colonel to bring me to his tent, even when he wasn’t making me his wife, so that the others didn’t do it. And she used to share her food with the small ones. The soldiers would laugh at her; sometimes they beat her for doing it.”
“Did she ever say anything about the bad things that happened to her?”
“No, but we saw.”
16 – – – – – – – – – –
“What do you do when you meet bad people, Alal?”
“Mama said not to think about bad things. She said to remember that there are good people everywhere.”
“So you do what your mama said?”
She didn’t answer so I changed tack.
“When you were pregnant whose child was it?”
“I don’t know. We went to get water and the soldiers made me their wife.”
I hugged her.
“How come you don’t draw those things Alal?”
“Mama said not to forget, whatever happened, not to forget, there are good people everywhere. She said … don’t let the things they have done change you. Hold on to the good things you have always known.”
It was more than she ever said about this conversation with her mother, and I decided to test its importance to her.
“But Alal these other people you met in the camp were not good people. They hurt you didn’t they?”
She shook her head.
“The colonel stopped them from making me their wife, and Opiyo helped me get wood and gave me his food when I was sick,” she said.
“Tell me about your father and brother.”
She didn’t answer.
“What happened to them?” I pressed.
“How did they die?”
She started trembling. I decided it was enough for the day.
When I released her she didn’t leave.
“Doctor, I don’t want to go to bed.”
“You are still having bad dreams?”
“I will give you a small pill that will help you to sleep, but if you wake up and you feel bad knock on my door okay? Tomorrow try and draw for me the things that come in your dreams.”
17 – – – – – – – – – –
A year and three months after the children arrived, we found the parents of the three youngest children. They’d been abducted from Palir Primary School and had only been in LRA hands for two years before being found. Tak and I signed their release.
A counselor with Save the Children in Gulu, Uganda would continue to work with them and their families on the many issues they would face in the years to come.
It did not work out so well for the remaining nine. Four boys simply couldn’t remember enough about their villages to allow for a proper search. In the case of Aneno, Achieng and a boy named Ondiek, distant family members were found but they were clearly unable to take parental responsibility. In Alal and Arweny’s case, resettlement with a family did not yet appear advisable.
Tak and the UN refugee agency were working on an agreement with the Swedish government to relocate seven of the kids once they had been adequately rehabilitated, but such processes inevitably took long, so the children would probably be in the camp for at least another year if not more.
We continued our bi-weekly sessions with each of the children and in the middle of the fifth month of their second year at camp Alal had her third breakdown. She was supposed to have gone to her classes, and then help in the office. Achieng went to the office expecting to find her there, and it was only then that we both realized she was not where she was supposed to be.
We ran to her room.
There were pictures strewn everywhere, of guns and many stick figures with lots of zigzag lines where she had tried to erase what she’d drawn. But Alal was nowhere to be seen.
I sent Achieng to look for her around the compound.
I was collecting the pictures strewn on the floor when I heard a whimper from beneath the bed. I knelt and looked underneath. There she was, curled up into a fetal position, her body shaking.
She looked at me, but her eyes were glazed and unfocused.
“Alal, are you okay?”
She started mumbling, “I see good people everywhere, mother said to see good people everywhere.”
I went out and asked someone to fetch the translator. Then I went back and tried to coax her from under the bed by tugging on her hand.
When the translator arrived, I had her seated, but she was still mumbling. “Mother said, remember to see good people everywhere.”
It was time to get to the bottom of this.
“When did she tell you that?”
“When she died.”
“What happened Alal?”
Her lips trembled, and she covered her eyes as if to stop herself from seeing whatever was lurking in her memory.
“Tell me Alal, what happened?” Then I waited.
“They…. they made mama their wife. They made her their wife in front of papa, in front of my brother and me. Papa cried and they beat him. They beat him and made mama their wife.” She made a strangling noise in her throat.
I sent for Nate. We gave her a mild sedative, but she didn’t fall asleep and obviously needed something stronger. So we put her into a deep sleep.
I sat by the side of the bed next to the sleeping girl and thought, what have I done? Have I forced her to bring down mental walls that should have stayed up?
Tak was right, this was really dicey work.
At the same time, for Alal—or any child in her situation to have any really meaningful chance of returning and reintegrate successfully in normal society, it was best that she deal with the past while she was with a professional who could help her try to understand it.
Thing is, I couldn’t make sense of what was happening with her, and whether what I was doing was the right thing with her. For all I knew, I might be making things worse.
18 – – – – – – – – – –
She was drawing numerous images now. Images of men beating the children, men with guns, men on top of her mother, men on top of her and the tearful face of her mother. But I saw something else, something new. A picture of a boy standing over a child he has just shot.
“Who is the boy?” I asked, pointing at the child with a gun.
“My brother, Pagak. He shot a child. The soldiers made him. The child was too young and was walking too slowly. They made him shoot him so that we could walk faster.”
“How old was your brother?”
“He was eight years.”
“What happened to him?”
“They made him their wife.”
“Two of them. They laughed when they did it. They hurt him and he couldn’t walk. So they made Arweny shoot him, and then they made Arweny make me his wife, and after that they all made me their wife.”
Long after Alal had gone back to her classwork I sat, unable to do anything.
I canceled the rest of the sessions for the day and apologized to the remaining children.
I knew of LRA tactics. In a way they were no different from the tactics of rebel groups in Sierra Leone, except that the LRA were more brutal. I had expected the stories. Many were similar to what I had heard in Sierra Leone, but it was not the same.
The Sierra Leone rebels carried out their brutal campaign in the middle of a civil war; they mostly abducted boys, in order to have them fight. The LRA abducted children, especially young girls and boys too young to fight; they had no real war in mind, just terror.
It was not the same at all.
19 – – – – – – – – – –
I talked to Arweny, asked him why he hadn’t told me about the things that happened with Alal’s brother. He told me Alal had never spoken about it, and he feared angering her by doing so.
“Do you think I am bad?” He asked me. “I did all those bad things.”
It was a question I’d heard a lot in Sierra Leone. I breathed in deeply and looked him in the eye.
“Arweny if someone had a gun and I’d already seen them hurt and kill other people, then I would be afraid. If they told me to do something bad I might do it or anything else they said just to save myself, and I am an adult. You were a child, you are still a child. Those men who took you and made you do those things are the bad ones, not you. It is normal that you were afraid of them and did what they said.”
His face crumpled, he looked like he was about to cry.
“Alal was always good to me, despite everything, but I feared that she was angry with me inside, because of what they made me do to her brother, and to her. Do you think she hates me?” He asked me.
“I don’t think so Arweny. I don’t think Alal hates you; I think she understands that you had no option. They made you do bad things to each other so that you wouldn’t trust each other or try to work together to get away. You and Alal are both victims, even if you were used against her. But if it helps, talk to her and tell her how you feel.”
“I am afraid of doing that.”
“I think she is afraid too Arweny, and I think it would help her if you told her how you feel.”
He was silent but the hard look on his face seemed to have softened. I felt hopeful, more hopeful than I’d felt when I first saw him, but … I wasn’t sure if I could dare breathe a sigh of relief, no, not yet.
20 – – – – – – – – – –
The badness had become too much. It was everywhere, and all the time.
Alal felt it reaching out at her, hurting her, reminding her … but mother, mother had said … Mother had said so much, but it wasn’t all true… Which meant … Which meant …
She couldn’t bear it.
She just couldn’t bear it.
Once, when they had been at the camp, she’d been busy, busy trying to live, busy trying to make sure nothing happened, busy trying to avoid the other soldiers, busy remembering mother’s words. And now she tried to be busy but, it wasn’t the same, everyone was going away and there was nothing else to do, and the badness … the badness was everywhere.
21 – – – – – – – – – –
It was two and a half years before the processing of five of the boys and Aneno was complete. Six of the Kakuma dozen were being relocated.
I should have been happy and proud… yet I felt sad.
By all measures it had been a successful rehabilitation and relocation process, but the cost was that we were breaking up the group. Achieng, Arweny and Alal were not yet cleared for relocation and resettlement.
There was much crying on the day the six children left the camp. Alal seemed to take it particularly badly. It was to be expected, since in a way, she had been their caretaker while they’d been with the LRA.
I should have seen it coming; but I didn’t and it was just by chance that I heard a groan from Alal’s room that night. When I checked, she was prone on the floor with an empty bottle of malaria pills. She hadn’t taken enough pills to kill her, Nate figured, she probably took all she had access to, and it wasn’t enough, but she was very sick.
We scrambled to airlift her to Nairobi for emergency care.
We did a lot of soul searching then, Tak and I.
“I just feel so… powerless!” he said angrily.
We were both drained from running non- stop for hours to get her out and under proper medical care, so we sat in silence for a while, and then Tak suggested we look through Alal’s file again. For two long hours, we went through my interviews. In the end we concluded there was nothing there to show us that Alal was thinking of taking her life.
She returned to camp a week later.
22 – – – – – – – – – –
“Alal you have to tell us what is happening. If you don’t we can’t help,” the doctor lady said to her.
Alal looked at her. The doctor lady was kind. Arweny had told her what she said to him about the things he did.
Alal had told Arweny that the doctor lady was right; she didn’t blame him for what he’d done. But she hadn’t told Arweny why she didn’t blame him.
She didn’t blame him because …
She wondered if the doctor lady would be kind to her too, if she told her … but … this, no, this was different. Even the doctor lady would not be kind…
“Alal, you are trembling; tell me what you are thinking about.”
She wanted to tell the doctor lady, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Alal, if you don’t tell me what made you want to die I cannot help you.” I pleaded.
“Was it because the other children left?” I asked.
“But we will find a place for you too, don’t you know that?”
“Was that the only reason?”
Alal shook her head indicating it was not.
“What else is bothering you Alal?”
She tried to tell but nothing came out, then she saw a stack of drawing paper and crayons. She pointed to them and the doctor lady nodded and passed them to her.
She started to draw.
It was a scene Arisa had seen Alal draw many times, her mother crying, her brother covering his eyes. But there, among the stick figures of soldiers, was a new image. A female figure, holding a gun.
Arisa felt her stomach clench.
God! But of course! Why on earth didn’t I think of that?
But she had to make sure.
“Who is that?” she asked, pointing at the new figure.
“It is me,” Alal said.
Arisa reached out to the child’s trembling hands.
“Tell me what happened Alal,” she asked gently.
“It was after they made mama their wife. They made me their wife too, in front of papa and my brother,” she said. Alal’s body seemed to contort with pain. Arisa drew her chair closer, and took a firm but gentle hold of Alal’s arms to steady her.
“They gave me a gun, they told me to shoot papa, or they would do everything again, I didn’t want to, so they hit me on the head, and made mama their wife again and told me they would do it until I shot papa.”
“Then, what happened?”
“I shot papa,” she said, closing her eyes before she continued. “They laughed, and started smoking. They left mama and me and went to kill our animals so they could carry them for food. Mama said, don’t let what they made you do change you, remember there are good people everywhere, and you are one of them. Remember the good things you have always known.”
“She said the same thing to my brother. She knew they were going to take us.”
“They came back to the house, and made me and mama their wife again. Mama was bleeding a lot, and I was bleeding too, but they just laughed, then they gave me the gun and told me to shoot mama, or else they would do it again. Mama was crying, my brother was crying, and papa was lying there dead. But they were going to do it again if I didn’t do it. I didn’t want them to do it. So I shot mama.”
Arisa held the girl until she stopped shaking.
23 – – – – – – – – – –
They say that a counselor should be careful not to get too involved in the life of a patient. They say that because there is a danger that the interests of the patient may get overlooked in the process.
Tak has grilled me intensely about my intentions, and reminded me of the danger inherent in our job. We want to help, and sometimes we get so engrossed in the desire to help, to be important or to be useful in our patient’s lives that we make the wrong decisions, for ourselves and for them.
I didn’t feel I was making the wrong decision. In fact as far as I could see, there could be no better decision.
I had checked and consulted everyone, it was not against any rules, nor was it illegal in any of the three countries involved or mine.
I knew too that with the kind of information recorded in their files there was scarce chance that anyone would ever adopt or foster Arweny or Alal. It was possible to relocate Achieng elsewhere but that would mean that she would be alone and away from everyone she had known in recent years.
I felt happy and at peace with my choice. Returning to South Africa would provide an opportunity for rest, and recuperation, I could lecture for a while, and maybe after about five years, if everything worked out, if things turned out fine, I could return to counseling.
So there we were standing on the immigration line, the four of us; me and my three adopted children, awaiting their newly issued passports to be stamped.
I had no crystal ball, I didn’t know how this would work out, but seeing their nervous, shy, excited smiles, I felt it may just end up being fine.
But first I had to get both Alal and Arweny to stop calling me doctor lady. Achieng on the other hand, seemed to have had little trouble shifting to mum.
© M.W. Kimani