Posted by Sara Terry:
so, the other day i spent most of the afternoon with a former ex child soldier named emmanuel. claire and i had interviewed him already and i was letting him use one of my cameras to take pictures that represented himself and his relationships within the community. he’s by far the most unsettled ex child soldier we’ve met. even after coming to the refugee camp here, he left to fight in other wars — most notably, fighting three different times with the janjaweed in sudan, all that fighting and he’s only 24 years old. emmanuel can be aggressive — he was quite angry with claire because he thought we hadn’t shown up at a time we had “promised” to (his interpretation of our schedule!). but there’s a lot going on with this young man. when he sat down to be interviewed by us, he started by telling us the title he was giving the interview, “telling the truth far away from home. this is the name of my story.” we set out to make photos and he knew several places he wanted to go — but along the way, he offended one man who ran a small tailoring business by not properly asking him if he could take a picture. it turned into quite an argument, but we eventually were able to go on our way (the man didn’t want to let us leave). we talked a bit about what went wrong as we were heading on our way to our next destination, and we passed a group of women who gathered under a tree, singing. we had just moved out of sight of the women when emmanuel stopped and said, “can i take a picture of those women, as a way of apologizing to all the mothers i have hurt?” it was the last thing i expected him to say. he had not expressed much sorrow about being a soldier when we had interviewed him. i said, yes of course, and we went to greet the women, who had begun to pray. emmanuel took off his hat, waited respectfully, and when the woman in charge asked what he wanted, he told her that he had been an ex-child soldier and that he wanted to make a photograph with the women as a way of saying sorry, and to show that he was trying to be a changed man. . .well, i can guarantee you that just about every woman in that group had been affected by some great loss during the liberian wars — had probably lost at least one family member to the violence, possibly at the hands of a child soldier. and these women just looked at emmanuel, and invited him to sit with them so that i could take their photo. emmanuel was 11 when he was taken by rebels, 12 the first time he held a gun in battle. these women understood what had happened to him, and took him in in what felt to me like a collective embrace. emmanuel chose to sit at their feet when i took the picture, and they gathered around him. one woman called him over to speak to him privately, and told him, “God bless you.” there was a quietness among them all, a gentleness, a bit of sorrow. i think emmanuel was stunned by the reception he received. it was overwhelming to me, and i was really just an observer. . . after we left the women, we went on to talk to the director of a vocational school where emmanuel hopes to study plumbing. this director — who has ten ex-child soldiers as students at his school — was very patient with emmanuel, and very kind, urging him to know that he could build a new life if he focused his energy and his mind on accomplishing it. he said emmanuel would find support in doing these things — and i mentioned the women we had just been with, and the way they had embraced him. . i looked up at emmanuel and saw his eyes redden, then brim with tears. the kind of tears that don’t just come in a moment. the kind that have been building up inside you for a long long time, with no release, until something happens and they just start spilling over. that kind. one tear began rolling down emmanuel’s cheek, and then a few more. he didn’t say anything. he was just standing there, looking away, and it seemed like he was really far far away in his thoughts. maybe remembering who his own mother, who was wounded by rebel gunfire when she was trying to escape the violence with an 11-year-old emmanuel. she was bleeding and there was no one to help her as they were fleeing. a week after being shot, she passed away, in front of him. not long after that, emmanuel was taken by the rebels. i think he had been thinking about his mother because as we walked away from the school, he was quiet for a bit, and then the first thing he said was, “do you know how many years i have been homeless? how many years i have been motherless, fatherless?” i think he had been rocked to the core of his being by what he had just encountered — by the kindness of this man and even more, by the embrace of the women. many ex-child soldiers have told us the one thing they need is love. and i think that’s what emmanuel felt that day. i know i did. we saw him again the next day — he’d already been back to see the director of the school, and he’d asked me to write down the days the women would be under the tree again – -they had just started a baking school and said he was welcome to come back to see them. i don’t think it’s going to be easy for emmanuel. he got mad again that day about something — it’s hard for him to find the skills to get things done when obstacles are in his way, the kind of skills that most of us learned in some way or another as we grew up. but that’s something emmanuel never got to do. neither did any of the other ex child soldiers at the buduburam camp, or any of the other ex child soldiers in the world for that matter. i hope emmanuel goes back to see those women who sing and pray and bake. they have the heart, it seems to me, to embrace him again and again, to remind him of what it means to be somebody’s son — and not somebody’s soldier.