On August 24th Bethany Haley, Co-founder and President of eXile international, was asked to speak on behalf of child soldiers worldwide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The symposium titled, “Understanding Child Soldiers and the Need for Education,” was held in conjunction with the trial of Thomas Lubanga, a former rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is charged with conscripting, enlisting, and using child soldiers.
What you are about to read is the speech that Bethany Haley wrote and delivered to a group of international leaders and changemakers at the ICC symposium. Please be aware there are portions that are intense and difficult to read.
We ask you to read what you are able to read – but, by all means, read. And keep reading.
“You are ten years old. You are asleep on the floor of your hut and the sounds of bullets wake you. You open your eyes and there is a rebel commander shining a light in your eyes. He grabs you and beats you as two other soldiers take your mother and father and tie them up in front of you. You have difficulty seeing because there is blood in your eyes and the light from the burning huts is blinding you.
You are terrified.
Terrified because of the stories you have heard of the LRA. Terrified because of what you think may happen next. The rebel commander is screaming something at you, but you can’t hear him over the screams of the other women around you being raped and the children crying. The rebel commander puts a machete in your hand. He is screaming at you that you must now kill your parents. That you must chop them. You shake your head and begin to cry. And you are beaten more and more until you can barely move. They begin shooing bullets over your head, and you shake with fear. Now you can hear nothing. Your younger brother is watching you and he begins to cry harder.
The rebel commander pushes you closer. Kicking you. He grabs the machete that is in your hands and begins to cut your parents with it. He tells you that if you do not finish it, then he will kill you in the same way. Even worse. You are beaten again and again. He is screaming at you,
“Chop or you will die. Chop or you will die.”
You see nothing because of the blood and tears in your eyes, but you close them anyway as you bring the machete up and down. Up and down. You feel blood splatter on your face, and it mixes with your tears. You keep your eyes closed, and you begin hearing the screaming.
Screaming of the rebel commander. Screaming of your mother. Screaming of your baby brother. Screaming in your head.
You begin to vomit because of the smells around you and the thought of what you have just done. You wipe the tears and blood off of your face and open your eyes for the first time.
You are ten years old. You are a boy.
You are in a daze and the only thing you can think of is….
“I am an orphan now. I am an orphan now.”
You look down and your have blood on your hands.
You are 10 years old. You are a boy. You have blood on your hands.
I, ladies and gentlemen, have blood on my hands.
We, ladies and gentlemen, have blood on our hands.
This international community has blood on its hands and a grave responsibility to save and rehabilitate these children.
Last weekend I was in Washington, D.C. with our friends at an organization called Resolve. They have worked tirelessly to see the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act become law and to see the strategy become a plan. But a plan is a plan, and a strategy is just a strategy unless action is taken. A promise is simply a promise unless it is followed through. We were there to continue to push promise into peace.
We at eXile international have many sayings. One of them is that in order to change the course of war, you must stop the bleeding and start the mending. With a problem so massive we must start with the smallest child and teach them a different way. To teach them about peace. To look into their eyes and tell them that purpose can come from their pain. To believe in them. To see them as the future peacemakers of their countries. To tell them that the very thing they thought would kill their minds and spirits is the very thing that can bring others to life. I love to watch their eyes dance when we tell them that. When you can see them start believing in themselves again. Our dream for them is not just for them to be survivors of war, but to be the leaders of peace in their communities. That is redemption.
That is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation that is needed and restoration that is deserved.
The last visit to Uganda we had asked the children we work with who had been orphaned from the LRA to write letters to President Obama. They were sitting on the ground around me and I said to them “I have told your stories to Senators and Congressmen. I have shown your drawings to Representatives. But now it is time for you to write to President Obama to tell him your story, in your own words.” Their eyes became so large and some of them stayed awake until 2:30 in the morning writing the letters so perfectly, then asking him at the end of the letters to “now please capture Joseph Kony.”
I had the distinct pleasure of hand delivering those letters last Friday to Jon Carson, who assured me they would get into the hands of President Obama. We copied them before we delivered them to the White House. And as I was thinking of my time with you, my thought was this. I do not want you to see me. I do not want to stand before you with words and tears.
I have not been in war. I have not been forced to tear my brother apart with my teeth. I am not a mother who had to make the decision whether I would be forced to chop my son into pieces or know if he would be forced to do the same to me. I am not a six year-old girl who has been raped so severely that she bares the scars of surgery to put her body back together.
Do not see me.
I ask you to see them. I ask you to take a moment and picture this room filled with well over 30,000 children of war whose spirits, bodies, and minds have been ripped apart because of a type of torture that, as a psychologist, I cannot begin to understand.
I ask you to see them. Some of them died in the bush. Some of them were killed because they fell beneath the load they were forced to carry. Some young girls were killed after a gun was placed inside of their vagina and fired. Some of the boys were chopped apart by other children until they were dead. Some of them are still alive. Some of them are in the bush right now. As we sit here in our black and white dresses and our suits, and as the world goes on, and as the sun sets, and as the moon will come up tonight. They are there. They are here. Do you, ladies and gentlemen – see them? Can you hear them? We stood back and watched the genocide unfold in Rwanda. Day after day after 100 days. And when it was over, the world shook its head in pity and false penitence and said “Never Again.” And here we are searching for Joseph Kony, 25 years and over 30,000 precious children later. Again. Here we sit with 300,000 child soldiers in the world.
I would like to commend the prosecutor and the International Criminal Court for your diligence and passionate commitment to this issue. I am excited to see what is going to come out of today.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the bottom line is this: Each day little is done becomes a day that another mother is forced to make the decision of whether she will kill her 7 year old son or if he will kill her. It is another day of a young girl whose brother is forced to slice off pieces of her face until she bleeds to death. I could fill the room with stories, but if nothing is done, there will be just as many or more stories this time next year.
Each day of doing nothing is another day of the world utterly and undeniably failing these children. These children that could easily be ours.
After reading these letters to President Obama I realized what they were really asking. What they were really asking was this…. Do you see me?
Do you? See me? Do you? Care? Do you really care?
“Dear His Excellency President Obama, We are the children of Northern Uganda. We have been orphaned by war”
“Dear His Excellency President Obama….
Do you. See me.
When I co-founded eXile international after I first returned from Congo and Uganda three years ago, I remember being unable to sleep one night. And I sat up in bed thinking, “They don’t know. There is no way the world knows. They can’t. I refuse to believe that the rest of the world knows of these horrific tragedies to these children and are doing nothing.”
I have since discovered two things:
Most of the people in the world do not know. And the ones who do know are either the change agents in the world who are not doing enough, OR they are the ones of us who are crying out and begging to be heard.
These children cannot come directly to those in the world who can stop this madness and tell them their stories. They are hidden, they are in the bush, they are in orphanages, they are on the street, or they are dead. They cannot be here today. Those of us in the middle do not have the power to put policy into action to bring true change and past promise into a peace. But we can bring the stories of these children and place them in front of the change agents of the world and say:
Do you? See Them? Will you? Do Something? Now?
Will I wash the blood from my hands because it is messy and dirty and it may stain my very soul in order to go to bed and sleep better tonight – or will I? Will you? See them. Hear them. Honor them. As if they were our very own? Because they are. They are not someone else’s child. They are my children and your children and we, ladies and gentlemen, are failing them.
I ask you to see them. They deserve to be seen.
Not only are we failing them by allowing this to continue without doing everything we can to stop it, but we are also failing them and dishonoring them by failing to provide a proper means for them to heal and live again. Stopping the problem of war begins with the process of peace – starting with the children to teach them peace-building skills and with implementing consequences for those who hurt them and their countries.
At exile international, we use art and expressive therapy as a means to help the children heal from their wounds. You will see three of the children’s drawings that I brought with me today. Two of them are drawn by children abducted by the LRA, and one is from a former child solider in Congo. These are their stories in color, and I would love to ask you to honor them by looking at them in detail.
One of them is drawn by a boy from Goma, Congo. He is one of 24 boys who we are now working with through rehabilitation. They are amazing. When I was with them, I asked them to tell me their stories. They came back the next day, and the leader of the group said “Bethany, you have asked all of us to tell you our stories, but we have decided to show you our stories.” They proceeded to go outside the tent and came back with AK47s made out of corn shuck and sugarcane. They had carved walkie-talkies out of wood. They had bandaged their heads and had paper rolled up like cigarettes. And they re-enacted their worst nightmares coming to life. In the drama they acted out being at school and being abducted by rebel commanders. Being beaten until almost dead. Being taken to camp, being taught how to use a gun, and being told they “were men now”. They re-enacted being forced to kill. At one point I felt as if I were in the bush in the middle of an ambush as they started acting out killing each other with guns and machetes that were carved out in tiny detail. They then re-enacted being rescued by MONUC, taken back to safety, and being taught how to live again. I cried. I cried for them. After the drama we asked them to sit down and one by one, we washed their feet. Then we gave them new shoes to wear.
I will never forget one boy. His name is Innocent. He is strong and brave and bold. He told the story of the rebel commanders getting on the backs of the boys to cross a river because it was too deep for them to cross by themselves. The commanders rode on the back of the young boys until they got close enough to the other side so they could swim to land. But in the process. One by one. The boys drowned under the weight of the commanders. Innocence kept saying
“And I. And I give glory to God for saving me. Even me. Even me. I did not drown with the others.”
The most beautiful part of this story is that these boys have a dream of returning to their villages to create peace clubs and speak about peace and reconciliation. We are trying to make those dreams come true. They started that process this month. They are coming alive again. But there are thousands more of them in the bush and thousands more that will replace them if we do not do something.
Our friends at Resolve are working with Invisible Children and, through their research, they have found that there is an LRA attack every 28 hours. Every 28 hours. That is one of many rebel groups. These stories are still happening day after day.
I wear around my wrist a chain given to me by a child who was forced by the LRA to chop his parents into pieces and eat them when he was around 10 years old. You heard his story in detail earlier. I wear around my neck the scarf that we used to wash the feet of 150 young girls in Goma, Congo whose bodies have been used as a weapon of war. They are survivors and have scars to prove it. I wear around my heart a burden that I place before the feet of the world. And I boldly ask as I look into the eyes of all of the change agents of the world this question:
What will we do with it? This burden? What? Will we tuck it away in the corner of
“it’s too big and too much of a mess, and it will cost too much money, and will it really make a difference anyway?” box and put the lid on and go to sleep in our beds night after night, and do the same thing again? Day after day? Would you if these were your children? Because these are your children. They are my children. They are our children.
Or will we say Enough. It is Enough now.
Frank Warren said “It is the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.” You have heard brave and courageous testimonies from our brothers and sisters who are survivors of war today.
As we end, I would ask that we are silent for a few seconds. I ask that you would picture these children filling up this room, laying down their weapons and just whispering.
“Enough. It is Enough now. We are tired. Do you hear us? Do you see us? We are tired”
Step into their soul. Feel their sorrow.
Awareness without Action is an Empty Breath to a Dying Man….. or Child.
If they can experience such torture, can we not be brave enough to do whatever is in our power to stop it and to use whatever influence we have to give them the opportunity to live again?
Can we? Will we?
For more information on the International Criminal Court trial of Thomas Lubanga, please click here.
To view pictures taken by Bethany Haley of the activities surrounding the International Criminal Court trial of Lubanga, please click here.
If you would like to learn more about two of our favorite organizations who truly SEE these children and spend every waking moment fighting for them, please click on their names below: