It is one thing to be prepared intellectually for violence, but it is quite another to experience the real thing in the form of a gun pointed at your head or the cutting edge of a machete being wielded before your eyes. You never really know how you will behave in such circumstances. You may act courageously, or you may act cowardly. It is really a roll of the dice.
Since the 1990’s, my work as a writer has led me to study violence in Africa in all its forms. Those who have read my novels can testify to this. I have always been a social activist, and I have written many articles criticizing the passivity and cowardice of many of my intellectual peers who have stood by silently in the face of political corruption and the violation of human rights in their countries. I have always seen myself on the side of the weak and the oppressed, ready to pounce on the offender and save the victim whenever I witness an injustice or whenever I see a person brutalized. There was never any doubt in my mind that had I lived in Nazi Germany, I would have been among the Righteous, those heroic men and women who protected the persecuted. And by dint of creating and manipulating characters in novels, I sincerely believed that I was better than my fellow humans, until, one morning in October 1997 in Brazzaville, Congo, beforea makeshift roadblock, everything changed.
The roadblock barring the street in front of us was merely a long bamboo pole with each end sitting on an old oil barrel. A simple kick could have sent it flying and yet none of us was so brave. We were a group of about thirty, all living in the same area, who decided to leave because the fighting between the different militias, the extortions, and the looting had transformed the city into a hell of blood and fire. To avoid being spotted, we took small back streets, away from the center where the fighting was fiercest. After forty-five minutes or so of silent walking, anxious and fearful of stray bullets, we were relieved to see wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs, typical of the shanties built by rural people who had left the countryside in the hope of making a living in the city but having no place to go ended up living on its edge. This meant that we had finally reached the periphery. Salvation was at hand. We began to relax. One more turn and we would be out of the city.
It was only after we took the turn that we saw the roadblock. A dozen kids were in charge of it. The oldest was probably no more than 18, and he was the only one who wore a helmet. He was clearly the boss. Brandishing Kalashnikovs and dressed in the most bizarre ways with sunglasses, wigs, and gris-gris around their arms or their necks, some of the child soldiers had darkened their faces with coal or ashes. Three bodies, including that of a woman, were lying next to one of the barrels. Some of our group tried to run away in panic, but gunshots (fortunately, above our heads), yelling and warnings not to move froze them on the spot. Afraid of making any movement which could be misinterpreted, I was scared stiff, nervously watching these trigger-happy kids. And yet we were more than twice their number!
Suddenly and brutally, they pulled a man from our ranks and two or three of these youngsters started hitting him. Numbed by fear, my brain did not register the incident which led to that poor man’s beating. None of us dared to say a word, much less come to his aid. It was one thing for the others in our group not to say anything, but I knew that man very well! He was my next door neighbor, a high school teacher for whom I was a role model. He had always admired the professor and writer I was, often speaking of me as the epitome of the honest, upright and courageous intellectual compared to other Congolese intellectuals who had betrayed their principles and had sold their souls for money or had become political prostitutes. Yet there I was, indignant, imperceptibly clenching my fists, but incapable of moving or looking away, my body paralyzed by the horror of this terrible scene.
All of a sudden, unexpectedly, a shrill scream pierced the air: the man’s wife broke away from us and futilely hurled herself, not against the militia men, but upon her husband in order to protect him with her body. In a spectacular role reversal, it was the woman who was trying to protect her man. One of the militia kids, taken by surprise, started kicking her. She screamed in pain but remained firmly stretched across her husband’s body. Another aimed his gun, threatening to kill her. He did not shoot, though; instead, laughing coarsely and uttering obscenities, they started pulling off her clothes in order to humiliate her - and believe me, except for rape, there is nothing more humiliating for a woman than being stripped naked in front of her children and a bunch of gazing onlookers. It was unbearable. “Do something, Emmanuel,” I silently repeated several times to myself and yet, the valiant defender of the weak and the downtrodden, the self-righteous writer, crippled with fear, was still looking the other way in order not to see. Was it because I was a coward or was it because I wanted to protect the group from any retaliation?
Just the previous week, at the beginning of the conflict, a friend of mine trying to get back home from work was caught up in such a roadblock. The kids who manned it demanded a 100 francs ransom to let anyone through. While he stood in line waiting his turn, he watched a relatively young man, who obviously did not have enough money, as he counted and recounted the change he had in his pocket and each time came up short by 20 francs. When the kids pulled him out of the line and started roughing him up with the butts of their guns, one of my friend’s colleagues could not stand it any more and said, “I have 20 francs. I would like to pay for him.” “Shut up, you shit head,” yelled one of the kids, abruptly turning towards him. “It is his money we want, not yours. Who do you think you are?” And bang, the man was dead!
Was he courageous or foolhardy? Neither, probably. He was perhaps instinctively driven into action by this quality embedded in our DNA, human compassion. If these kids cannot understand such a simple and basic concept as human compassion, what could I have done for this woman and her man which would not in turn endanger the other people in our group? Or was I only trying to rationalize my unworthy behavior?
Even today, I still do not want to confront this question; rather, I prefer to keep myself in a comfortable safety zone by not seeking an answer. And not knowing the answer is the only way I can still preserve a tad of my self-esteem.
Suddenly, the boss, the boy with the olive-green metal helmet, yelled: “Hey, Chuck Norris, bring me a grenade!” “Yes, chief, I am coming,” came a voice from a hut on the side of the road, probably where the weapons were stocked. I was on the verge of nervous laughter when I saw a kid no taller than the Kalashnikov he was carrying come out with the grenade. It was surreal: here we were, in a backstreet of a miserable neighborhood of a city in strife in Equatorial Africa; and a young boy had chosen the name of an American actor of B movies as his nom de guerre. Where in the world had he ever heard of Chuck Norris?
The phenomenon of child soldiers in Africa has been so well documented by many reports of international organizations, documentary films, scholarly publications and novels that there is no new information for me to give. It is very difficult to know the exact number of child soldiers but as of 2010, it was estimated that there were about 300,000 in the world, a “child soldier” being defined as an enrolled child under age 18. Unfortunately as so often, Africa holds the record with about 120,000 of them. What I would like to point out here is that most of these studies concern child soldiers who were recruited by force or who chose to enroll because they had no alternative means of survival.
The case of the Republic of Congo, a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville, is somewhat different. In 1997-1998, a fratricidal war erupted after disputed elections. Both sides in the conflict recruited and used child soldiers. These children were in no way kidnapped or coerced to join the combatants. Their histories were very different from the well documented ones of Uganda, Sierra Leone or Liberia where children were forced to enroll and where, after systematic brainwashing, they were brought back to their villages to commit unforgivable crimes like killing a family member or raping their grandmother, mother, or sister. The aim of these ritual killings and rapes was to break all links between the child soldiers and their villages or their clans, thus making them completely dependent on the warlords and more easily manipulated. As for the girl soldiers, they had the extra burden of being sexual objects.
In Congo, by contrast, these kids joined voluntarily, often with enthusiasm. But even though they joined the fighting groups along ethnic lines, this did not mean that they were less cruel towards their own kin than those in Liberia or Sierra Leone who were coerced into fighting.
It was only after the shock of that unforgettable 1997 October morning that I realized that I should not have been at all surprised by the fact that that kid had called himself Chuck Norris and had joined a group of child soldiers.
In cities like Brazzaville or Kinshasa where movie theaters no longer exist , enterprising young men equipped with TVs, VCRs or DVD players earn their living by projecting pirated films in simply constructed spaces. Often they create these spaces in their own bedrooms or living rooms by pushing a bed here or a table there against the wall, and then adding a couple of benches. Or when they do not have their own rooms they improvise a projection room. With some poles, they delimit a rectangular area in the yard of the lot where they live and encircle it with corrugated iron or old jute sacks called “nguiri” which are sacks used to carry cassava flour. To have the darkness necessary for projection, they top the room with a tarpaulin or black plastic sheets. Every time rain threatens, the session is suspended, the electronic equipment promptly disconnected and brought to safety. They are geniuses at fixing their equipment. For example, for continuity of business in a city where electricity is as iffy as winning the lottery, they have adapted their equipment so that it runs on car batteries.
To advertise the films, they photocopy the illustrations and blurbs written on the cover of the DVD or videocassette boxes and post the images on walls. The matinee sessions for children cost 25 CFA francs (about ten cents), and those prices are doubled or tripled for what they call “adult” movies, a code word for porn films. It goes without saying that there is no selection - everything they can put their hands on in this wild market is good. A pirated DVD costs only five thousand francs (about $9.00) while the original fetches more than double that price.
I once asked a young boy to write down for me the titles of the projected films screened over the course of a month. As expected, the most popular ones were violent action and karate films, followed by Bollywood films from India. It is only very recently that live broadcast of European football championship matches have become most popular. Inexpensive Nigerian video films, Nollywood films as they are known, have also made their appearance on the market. Names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris were household names. This is quite incredible when you realize that these kids could not name a single Congolese government minister! Only some star soccer players were able to compete with these Hollywood names.
These kids do not know that films are “made”. For them, this “imaginary” violence they see in movies has the same reality as the violence in the real world which they watch on the international satellite televisions one can get these days in any big African city. They watch this violence from Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sierra Leone almost in real time, without any mediation or contextual explanation. They internalize even more violence when they go to what are called “casinos” in Brazzaville, places with PlayStations® where they play videogames such as “Bloody Roar®” or “Street Fighter®” or “God of War®” or “Tekken®”. With these games, where they interact physically with the machine, they have the feeling that they are also participating physically in the actions of their heroes.
This inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy makes these children redoubtable fighters. They have no real consciousness of what they are doing; they have no sense of danger. They can be cruel without having any idea of the suffering they are inflicting. I suspect that for them there is not much difference between real killing and killing on video.
To all the preceding factors, one has to add their African cultural background, the belief in magic, which leads them to believe that their charms, amulets, and the potions they are made to drink by their recruiters make them invisible, invincible, and invulnerable to bullets - that they can fly like birds if ever they are cornered.
Now, I am not so naïve as to believe that these films and these video games with their violence are the sole reasons that lead these kids voluntarily to become child soldiers. It is rather that, when conflicts erupt and the State fails as it did in Congo, these children, lacking guidance, are naturally drawn to where the action is and they instinctively mimic their heroes. It is their chance to live for real what they have been living vicariously through their imaginations. A very good example of this is that during the conflict in Congo, whole neighborhoods in the capital city of Brazzaville were renamed Sarajevo, Kosovo, Beyrouth or Koweit; fighters took Rambo, Ninja, Cobra, Saddam as noms de guerre. Though their parents’ generation dreamed of big luxurious cars, large houses with swimming pools and bundles of greenback dollars when they thought of America, these children now dream of Hollywood or PlayStation® heroes.
And that’s not all. One has to add the influence of one of the characteristics of African political culture since independence in the 1960s, the cult of the “strong man”. Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Robert Mugabe, Mobutu Sese Seko, all of them were “strong men”. Even today, with few exceptions, behind the smokescreen of model constitutions which guarantee democratic liberties and human rights, the “strong man” still exists. He has the absolute power to nominate and repudiate anyone he wants, to use state violence against his opponents, to dispose of the country’s finances as he pleases with no accountability whatsoever, and to change the constitution as it suits him. Just look at Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Zimbabwe and Niger. This quasi-absolute power does not come from ballots but from bullets, and is caricatured by the posse that escorts the President any time he moves through the city. This “strong man” culture has so completely permeated all society that, for instance in Brazzaville, neither a minister nor a high ranking military officer stops at a red light, thus showing that they have power, since only common people obey the rules of law.
Thus, for the urban youth from whom are recruited the majority of child soldiers in Congo, the epitome of the respected and feared person is that kind of politician. Therefore when the state no longer exists and chaos takes its place, to possess a weapon is the shortest road to respect and power. Since all their lives they have learned that power, brutal and pitiless, is the “normal” way of getting what one wants, be it money, girls, cars, DVDs, or TV, nothing is more natural than to become a Rambo or a Chuck Norris in order to transform one’s fantasies into reality.
Once fighting ceases , the big challenge in the rehabilitation of these kids is to find a way to reorient their violent fantasies into positive, non-violent visions, to make them understand, for example, that the magic of education is mightier than that of a gris-gris or of an amulet, and that the real power of a gun is when you use it to protect a human life.
All things considered, we got out of our situation rather cheaply. After threatening to blow us up with the grenade brought by Chuck Norris, the head of the soldiers was probably satisfied by what he looted from us, including a Yankee baseball cap worn by one of the children in our group. He let us go. He also let go the couple they had beaten up so badly for no apparent reason. The woman was transformed in my eyes; she radiated a tranquil dignity. She had become a lesson in courage for me. I avoided her eyes when, still clutching the arm of the man she protected, she walked past me. After glancing obliquely at the three bodies still lying next to the oil barrel, I put one foot in front of me, then the other, and started walking away.
Emmanuel Dongala is on the Advisory Board for Warscapes.