Ordeal of a child soldier_George G. Karanja
Marial drew a deep breath and gazed at the yellow ball of the setting
sun. It was slowly sinking behind a couple of low hills to the west of
his home village. Deep in his heart, fear was sizzling, and he wondered
what would happen if the sun were to set never to rise again.
It was six in the evening, the time when darkness crept to the village
unnoticeably and brought fear to everybody in the village. Since the war
began, there has been fear of attack, especially after sunset. Darkness
also lured crickets out of their holes and nightingale out of their nests.
Marial could hear the crickets chirping among the bushes nearby and
the nightingale singing from a treetop a few metres from the village. The
bird often consoled him because he was caught up in a war he did not
understand. He cradled the gun in his hands firmly and wondered if male
children his age in other countries were like him. He had been forced
to drop out of school and trained as a child soldier. That was a few months
after he turned twelve years old. For two years now, he had been in the
local army as a boy soldier.
The day he joined the junior army was still vivid in his mind. It was a
week after a band of enemy soldiers attacked their village, shot almost
every able bodied men and burnt their thatch roofed houses. It was terrible
and sad to see many people, especially women and little children
wailing at the burning houses. Wounded and dead people lay everywhere.
It was a near genocide. Many people fled away and though most were
back, some were yet to return. Though Marial’s family survived the at-
tack by a narrow margin, the village was never safe as before. There had
been growing fear all over the region and it loomed everywhere, even
in people’s mind and hearts. Tumult was everywhere and he could feel
it floating in the evening air around him.
While he stood there, holding the heavy gun and feeling uncomfortable
in his oversize military clothes, he tried to imagine what lay ahead of
him. He often thought about school and had always loved going to
school even during the drought season when food was scarce. But now
as a child soldier he could not go back until the war was over. Sadly, its
end did not seem near, and every time there was peace, it was short lived.
Many a time and oft, he had yearned for peace but it seemed along
time since he had tasted a bit of it. Actually, he had not seen peace for
four years. The war had spread like bushfire, ultimately reaching his home
As the evening wore on, Marial fear deepened. He gazed at a crowd of
little children playing innocently with a destroyed military truck. They
were too young to care about their uncertain future.
His eyes were still at the small children when a shrill ominous cry of a
whistle came to his ears. He shivered fearfully and his heart almost froze
over. Immediately, he perceived the cause of its cry; the guard on duty
had spotted some danger.
Marial stared at the graying evening sky and caught a sight of four military
planes flying from north towards his village. Their sounds caused
more ripples of fear in him, and he knew what would follow. Not
once had he seen bombs being dropped from the sky. At the planes roared
over him, he suddenly thought of his family. Where were they?
He wondered. He swung the gun to his back and scurried to a deep
dug shelter near him, the sound of the planes above him. He watched
helplessly as women and children ran confused. Wails of worried people
filled the air.
More screams came as the bomb fell to the ground, destroying the straw
thatched houses in the village. Worry increased in his heart as roof after
roof got blown off, even that of the village’s only health clinic.
Some of the bombs fell in the cattle enclosures and the animals ran scared
as fire razed down the place. He was still in the dug shelter when
he saw a little girl child emerge from one of the house yet to be destroyed.
Blood nearly froze in his veins as he recognized, Achier, his only
sibling. Courage siezed him and he dropped the gun and jerked out
of the trench. As he ran to meet her, his mother came out of the same
house wailing after the little girl. Marial gasped and increased his speed.
Then, as he neared them, everything turned black. He could not remember
what followed afterwards. His last remembrance was seeing his sister
and mother running to meet him, then the loudest sound he had ever heard
struck his ears and the ground under his feet shook tremendously. Dust
filled his eyes as a monstrous force lifted him off the ground. He flew
in the air and feel to the ground. Dazed, he tried to rise up but the pain
in his body could not let him. He passed out.
The moment he fluttered open his dust filled eyes, he could not at first
know where he was. But after the mist in his eyes cleared, he recalled
what had happened. A bomb had exploded near him. He realized he was
lying on the ground; face up, his eyes at the sky.
It was late night and the moon was like a very thin gleaming bent stick
floating in the night sky. It also looked like a slice of light surrounded by
innumerable families of twinkling stars. And the Milk way stretched and
flowed across the cloudless night sky like a heavenly river. Marial tried
to sit up but a sudden pain in his ankle stopped him. Shrapnel had hit him
and blood was still oozing from the fresh wound. He sighed as more pain
hurt him. He struggled to sit up and looked around. Some of the houses
were still burning and nobody was on sight, and it was gravely quiet.
While he sat there, wondering what had happened to his mother and
sister, he heard voices in the darkness, coming towards him. Then from
a distance a dog howled in fear, warning him. The voices could not be
He gathered his strength and crawled towards the bombed lorry where the
children were playing hours ago. He hid underneath it and watched fearfully
as a group of heavily armed men approached his hiding place. They
were enemy soldiers, probably the same who had attacked the village. Their
language was strange and all he could hear was their low murmurs.
Marial feared it could be the beginning of yet another nightmare. He waited
tensely for anything to happen but the men just stood, few metres
from him. The one of them, a tall dark figure at a distance called out at
the others. At the same time a cold gust of wind blew through the razed
village and Marial shivered as it bit his skin. He looked at himself and
realized he was in tatters. The explosion had left him with torn clothes
and bare footed in one leg.
When the chilling wind came again, he recoiled and sneezed out. One
of the soldiers turned. Marial watched him, trembling in cold fear. If they
came his way he could be in great danger. The soldiers were ruthless
and would rarely spare him. Luckily, nobody among them dared to
walk back. Marial sighed in relief.
Moments later, after the soldiers had walked away, he heard the distant
rumbling of their trucks. From underneath the damaged lorry he watched
as they climbed into their trucks and left the village engulfed in
chilling silence; it was eerily silent.
He crawled from underneath the wreckage and limped around the village
in search of any survival. The village was littered with dead people,
mostly women and children. He searched for his family, eyes filled
with tears, but they were nowhere to be seen. Not even among the dead.
He wondered continuously what could have happened to them and hoped
it was not the worst.
It was long past midnight when he gave up the search. He was sleepy
and tired, his fingers and cheeks numbed by the dry cold in the air. He
wanted to sleep but fear and cold would not let him. How could he fall
asleep when danger hung all over him?
He took the desolate dusty road that lead to the nearest village, an hour
walk journey. Alone, it could seem twice long but nevertheless by morning
he hoped he would be there. Every time he stepped away from his
burnt village, he thought of his family. Where was his father? What about
his mother and sister? Did bombs hurt them? He wondered every passing
Dawn was breaking fast when he approached the nearest village and at
a distance, he spotted flames of open fire, burning faintly in the early
morning cold. He increased his pace and, as he came closer to the village,
his eyes opened and his mind saw what had happened.
Like his home village, the place was also razed; burnt to the ground and
piles of dead people lay everywhere. The few people in the village were
wailing in agony and did not take notice of him.
Seemingly, every village in that region of the country was scathed by
war, people displaced and homes turned into charcoal ruins.
He sighed and turned away from the war scene. It seemed unbearable
as tears welled up in his eyes. Why can’t they give peace a chance? He
thought. He left the village and took a dusty road that stretched southwards
to a hilly horizon beyond the village. Perhaps there peace existed
undisturbed and flowed in streams.
He limped on the whole morning, his oversize military clothes becoming
a burden as hunger and tiredness took over him. At noonday he
found a spring abounding with cool water. It was a wish come true since
the hot sun left him with a dry throat.
After quenching his thirst, he rested for a while after which he continued
with his journey. All the afternoon, he followed the lonely track
that stretched like a long rope before him. In every direction there were
clusters of bushes and few lone trees stood out among tall grasses looking
at him dumbly. Marial felt lost in a wild land, but he walked on tirelessly
until dusk met him trekking. And that evening, under the bright
eyes of the moon he covered himself with a branch and after chewing
a few leaves he slept under a shrub tree.
When he opened his eyes in the early dawn, he knew it was not a cockerel
that had awakened him. He waited and listened keenly. A minute
passed off and then something with a soft tongue licked the bomb wound
on his ankle. He jerked fearfully, and watched shocked as a surprised
wild dog ran away from him, rustling dry leaves as it picked its way
through the bushes.
He stood up, his body quivering and looked to the east. The first streaks
of light were already peeping from behind the dark hills on the horizon.
It was time to move on and search for his missing family, friends and
The sun was going down in the western horizon, the aging day slowly
bowing down to the oncoming evening. The grey colour of dusk was
already forming in the east and soon it would be nightfall. Twilight sounds
could be heard coming from the cracks in the rocks and the surrounding
bushes. It was the end of the second day since Marial left his home village.
He walked on feebly, doubly tired, sighs of exhaustion escaping his
mouth now and then. Weakly, he raised his eyes and looked at the sun.
It was still watching him quietly, its red ball in a reddish orange sky.
The colours around it were beautiful and enchanting, but he could not
see the beauty of the setting sun. He was tired to the heart, thirst parched
in his throat and hunger gnawing at his stomach.
Hungry, bone tired and his strength failing, he searched for a place to
sleep for the night. The previous night he had slept in the open. A more
bigger and violent animal than a wild dog could have mauled him to
death during the night.
He spotted a baobab tree, towering majestically above some shrubs,
its branches well groomed by nature. He immediately chose the giant
tree as his shelter from wild animals. As he staggered towards the tree,
his eyes, though weak from hunger, caught a sight of ripe wild berries
among the bushes. He was about to pick them but a slithery movement
among the leaves froze his body. His heart beat tensely as his eyes became
accustomed to the sight of a snake, hissing and crawling on its
He took a piece of dry stick and crushed its head. It coiled in pain, and
as he hit again, it stopped moving.
He knew then that it was dead and he was sure it could not bite while
its head was badly crashed.
He picked the berries, put them in his pockets and climbed up the large
tree. He perched himself on the strongest branch and started to eat
the berries. They were bitter as bile, but he was glad they could at least
fight the pangs of hunger in his belly. He munched, staring fixedly at
the silent sky. It was a cloudless night and the stars, millions in number
twinkled miles above him.
A chilling whiff of wind blew, whistling in his ears and his jaw clenched
against the dry cold that nipped his cheeks, nose and ears. He shivered
and wished for a little warmth. He trembled in his weariness and
wished for a good rest but he could not rest quite well until he was safe
from danger that surrounded him. It was unlike him; sometimes back
he was a sheltered boy, protected from dangers by his father and mother
but now he was on his own, wrestling with rising problems.
He slept while perched on the branch, waking several times during the
night due to constant bite of insects and loud cries of wild dogs. In the
morning his eyes were sore and heavy with sleep. He walked all the day,
his strength growing weak with every passing hour. He was lost in a land
without water and food. In due time he could faint because of hunger
The end of the day came fast than he had expected. Darkness covered
the land like a huge blanket, pushing away the light. The moon a bit bigger
than the night before was peeping from behind a dark shapeless cloud
and it seemed as though it was looking down at the lone boy walking
hopeful on his tired legs. He was staggering and tripping against the
ground, his eyes searching for a place to sleep for the night.
While he was hobbling along the desolate road he saw lights flickering
at a distance like glow worms in the night. His heart leapt in joy. At last,
he had found a live settlement. He increased his pace and, as he approached
the village he saw that it was bigger than his own village. A watchman
tower stood in one corner of the village. Marial crept towards the hedge
and crawled on his belly, the way he had been taught. He crept silently
and carefully not to disturb any bomb planted on the ground. He
crawled on until he felt out of danger. He sighed in relief and hid in the
bushes close to the straw roofed houses and listened for any human voice.
But instead he heard shrilling sounds of crickets and the singing of
the Nightingale. Every time the little bird stopped whistling another one
would take over.
He was falling in a trance when he heard somebody talking. He peered
through the semidarkness at the dark shadows, standing closely together,
not far from him. He crept again towards the shadows, until he was
near them. With the help of the hazy moonlight, his eyes made out two
figures. He opened his eyes more wide and saw two boys, same age as
his, cradling assault rifles almost tall as themselves. Their voices were
low and barely audible.
He crept closer and listened again. One of the boys was telling the other
how he had escaped an attack. “Soldiers came and destroyed everything.
A lot of my people got hit and died while those who survived fled and
left the village to its ghosts”.
Marial breathed in as he recognized the voice. It was that of Riek his
long-time friend and classmate. Both had been plucked out of school
to become boy soldiers and duties served to them had kept them apart
for a number of days. But their friendship could not wither even in time
While he listened to Riek telling his ordeal, Marial remembered how
they often called each other secretly. And he cooed like a dove and then
whistled a nightingale’s song. Riek and his friend stopped talking and
listened. Marial whistled again. Riek whistled back.
“Marial?” He called out, unbelieving. Marial cooed and whistled.
“Is it you, Marial?”, Riel asked in a steady voice.
“Riek”, Marial called as he emerged from the bushes. “It is a pile of days
since the last time I saw you”.
“Goodness!”, Riek exclaimed as they embraced. “I thought the worst
had happened to you. I’m glad to see you”.
“So am I”, Marial said.
“You must be very tired”. Riek said, his eyes riveted on his friend’s face.
The rising moon sparkled on it, revealing his tiredness and joy of
meeting a close friend. Their meeting was unexpected miracle.
“This is my new friend”. Riek said, pointing at the tall black boy standing
next to him. “His name is Deng”.
Marial smiled lamely at the boy.
“He has been a good friend since I came here”, Riek continued.
“When?” Marial peered through the semidarkness at him.
“Two days ago”, Riek replied, cradling the gun in his hands.
“And have you seen any of my family?”, Marial asked anxiously gazing
hopeful at his friend. Riek nodded.
“I saw your mother and Achier climbing into a humanitarian truck.
They were taken to a refugee camp down South”.
“How far?”, Marial asked.
“About twenty miles from here”, Deng answered, “but don’t worry; they
are safe there”.
“But what about my father?”
“I’m afraid, I don’t know”. Riek said sadly, “I, too have not seen my parents
and brothers for four days now; I don’t even known where they are”.
“Who did we curse?”, Marial lamented.
“Nobody”, Deng and Riek answered in unison.
Marial closed and opened his eyes, trying to blink away the tears that welled
up in them. He looked up at the silent night sky wishing for the end
of the civil war; perhaps then, there would be no more ordeals.
He watched as darkness lifted its veil and wisps of light clouds moved silently
by the moon. He looked around; the surrounding was bathed in an
eerie weak moonlight that made distance objects seem like dulling silver.
Cold wind blew, wailing past them, making bushes and trees dance like
ghosts. And the night grew cold and quiet; gravely quiet like a deserted
home or a lonely cave.
He shivered; a burning sensation seized his stomach and then grumbling
followed. He was hungry.
“It’s turning cold. Lets go into my tukul; it’s warm inside”. Deng said.
“I’ll find something we can eat”.
They followed Deng into a mud house and sat on a rope bed. Deng
brought some food and they ate heartily, chatting now and then amongst
They had just finished eating and were lying on the rope bed, their feet
dangling to the floor when the door burst open. Every eye turned to the
door. A dark figure of a man with a gun on one hand stood in the doorway.
He looked like a bully.
“Deng!”, he called out loudly.
“Yes”, Deng responded in awe.
“Boys”, the soldier called again. “Tomorrow is a training day, so be ready
for the exercise”.
Marial looked at the man, his hope disintegrated. He turned to Riek and
then stared hollowly at the flickering tin lamp in the room. The wind,
howling through the doorway, was trying to snuff it out.
“Who’s that young lad with you?” The man demanded, his eyes sternly
at Marial. “Where is he from?”
Riek explained Marial’s ordeal.
“So you’re from the same village?”, the man said. “Then let him rest
for a while. He will join us later; the day after tomorrow”. As the man
left the room, Marial and Riek glanced at each other, surprised and
equally worried. Deng looked at them tongue-tied.
“They want us to fight?”, Marial asked in disbelieve.
“I’m afraid, yes. We have no choice”, Deng whispered. “I wish I could
run away from this”.
“We can do it”, Marial said hopefully.
“That’s dangerous”, Deng said in a low husky voice. “They are going
to hunt us and punish us”.
Marial thought about that for a moment. He knew it was a frightening
thing to run away, but if he stayed back he would end up in a recruitment
centre, and that was frightening too. He had to flee the ordeal.
“I will not stay and become a child soldier; I’m too young to die. Nevertheless,
I want peace; I want to find my family and if possible go back
to school”, he turned to Riek. “Will you come with me?”
Riek said nothing, but as he sat there, he made up his mind to go with
Marial. “Will you come with us?”, he asked Deng.
“I… I… can’t”, Deng stammered. “This is my home; my family and relatives
lives here. I can’t leave them behind”.
Marial nodded, his eyes at Deng. He would have done the same thing
were he in the same position. “Do you have a brother or a sister?”
“Yes, a brother who’s younger than me. He’s ten years old”, Deng replied.
“I have a sister, she’s a seven year old. I’m missing her right now and I
want to see her and my parents”.
Deng went out of the house and brought some food and water.
“You will need this for your journey”, he said to Marial and Riek. “It
may take a whole day before you reach your destination”.
“We are glad”, Riek thanked.
“For what?”, Deng almost shouted.
“For your kindness”, Marial answered.
A while later, the three boys were deep asleep.
While the village was still asleep and before the waking hours when the
sun lights the day, Marial and Riek said goodbye to Deng and crept out
of the house. They took the dirt track that led to the nearest town. Deng
had said that it could take them a whole day but they were determined
to reach there before afternoon. They trekked across the savannah, recalling
beautiful memories. If it were not for the war, they would have
been in class learning. But now there were chaos in the country.
Both boys knew that if the civil war did not end soon, fear and chaos
would wake with them as they woke every morning. After many sleeps,
dawns and sunsets, they would grow up but with no perfect education.
They followed the endless dusty track, meeting no one on the way. Some
times they ran, and when exhausted they walked. At midday they
ate the food Deng had provided and continued trekking. Dusk found them
tired and hungry. As night settled, darkness seemed to fall from heaven
in masses and rudely blinding their eyes. The night grew gloomy and
eerily quiet, and the only sounds they could hear were their own footsteps
And from a distance, a nightingale sang a desperate sing.
“Where will I sleep? Where will I end up?”
“Marial”, Riek whispered.
“Yes”, Marial responded.
“What would you do if a man eating animal appeared?”
Marial breathed in heavily and stared blindly at the mass of darkness
hovering around them. “I would fight it”, he said, clenching his fist.
“We are empty handed”, Riek told him. “I think we should find some
sticks to defend ourselves”.
“Yes”, Marial agreed as his foot crunched a dry twig. Behind them an
owl hooted against the quiet night. Both boys shivered in cold and their
teeth crunched. Marial recalled something he had often heard about owls.
“People say an owl is a bad omen”, he said quietly almost to himself.
“And do you believe that?”, the other boy asked.
“My father and mother believe so, and somehow I do”, Marial replied.
“Although sometimes I pity the bird. It’s never with the other birds; it
lives on its own”.
“Maybe it hoots because it’s sad”, Riek tried to explain. “It’s a lonely
As the moon began to emerge out of dark clouds above them, the owl
hooted again. Then a shadow moved rapidly before them and both boys
stood still, frozen to the spot, their heart beating wiedly. His legs felt
numbed and each boy felt a chill creep the length of his spine.
“Don’t run”, Marial warned, holding his stick firmly.
“It’s an antelope; I saw it”, Riek said.
“Quiet”, Mariel pointed at the movement among the bushes, on the side
of the track.
A leopard emerged out of the bushes. It stared at them for a brief moment,
roared a little and ran after its prey. The boys sighed in relief.
“I think the owl was speaking the danger we were in “, Riek whispered.
“Probably”, his friend replied. “We need some rest”.
They sat on the way side and drank some water and later dozed off unknowingly.
At dawn they set off their journey. It seemed long and they wondered why
Deng had said it would take them a day. Marial guessed he had said that
so they would not give up. At sunrise they heard the sound of rushing water.
Marial stood still and listened.
“It must be river Nile!”, he exclaimed.
“Then we are almost there. Look!”, Riek pointed at the direction of the
sound and walked hot foot towards the shimmering river.
A heavy morning mist was lifting off the rushing water when they stood
by the riverbank. There was no bridge to cross the wide river as it had
been blown away.
“What do we do?”, Riek asked.
Marial strained to think. He stared at the river, his mind caught up in a
web of ideas. Ultimately, his head became clear and he led the way along
the riverbank, Riek closely behind him. They walked due south, their legs
brushing against the dewy bushes. Every time they spotted a military boat
they scampered into the bushes and hid until it was gone. The thought of
being made child soldiers again haunted them much. At noonday they rested.
Marial perched on his heels and Riek stood crumbly besides him, their
eyes at the calm surface of the flowing water. It might have been along
time before they raised their eyes off the water, for when they looked up,
a white boat with a red cross on its body was sailing on the side of the river.
Both boys stared at it in amazement.
“Aid workers?”, Marial exclaimed.
“They must be”, Riek replied.
Marial’s face beamed with joy. “Help at last. This must be our red letter
day”. He said hopefully. “Let’s call for help”. The aid workers heard their
shouts and came to their rescue. Later they were taken to a refugee’s camp
where they met their families. Both families were safe, although Marial’s
mother had a bomb wound on her leg while little Achier had a slight
scratch on her knee. His father was all right and was looking after them.
That evening, the moon rose like a big, ripe yellow berry fruit and while
Achier and other little children played under its light, Marial and Riek
stood outside a tent house chatting to one of the charity workers they
“What would you like most in your life?”, the aid worker asked them.
“I have dreamt of peace many times. When there’s peace one can go to
school and learn instead of fighting”, Riek said after a brief thinking.
“And you?”, the man turned to Marial.
“I’d like to heal the world and make it a better place for everybody to live
in; a world full of peace”.
“That’s great. You are thinking like grown up men”.
“We are, aren’t we, Riek?”, Marial smiled proudly.
“We were told that we are grown up and should know how to handle guns”.
“That’s not true”, the man shook his head.
“They made us believe that”, Riek said.
Marial giggled and bowed down his head. Later, each boy joined his
After several nights of considerable worry and insects’ bite in the savannah,
the two boys were able to sleep soundly. The following day, while
Marial was standing outside their tent house feeling happy to be with
his family, he spotted a man coming his way. And when he was forced
to take a closer look, however, his joy melted, chipped away by the sight
of the tall and black as ebony soldier holding a gun. The sight of guns
endlessly reminded him of war he had seen and endured; the war he hoped
would come to end one bright day.
“Over here”, the soldier said, quite sternly.
Marial obeyed and hurried towards him; slicing air between his legs.
“Tomorrow you will join the other boys”, he told him.
The boy’s face darkened and he turned to his mother and sister. Boy
soldier again? He wondered and shook his head in fear and confusion.
“But… Sir…”, he stammered. “… I don’t want to be a child soldier again”.
“You are not going to be a soldier against your wish; you are going to
school; you are supposed to be in class”.
Marial’s eyes sparkled and tears of joy welled up in them; he had hoped
for a moment like this. He turned to his mother and sister and saw
them smiling at him, their wounds seemingly healed. He smiled back,
lamely at first, then peaceful. He knew a part of his wish had been rewarded.