While no two rescues are exactly alike, this particular trip into the bush has a lot in common with previous operations. I got word of an LRA attack on a village along the road to Pageri about twenty miles away, an hour’s drive along the rutted dirt road through the bush from Nimule. After so many years of fighting, large numbers of people who used to live in the countryside have moved closer to Nimule for protection or they’ve picked up stakes and left the area entirely. As you drive east and north along the road, you can see the population gradually thinning out. Close to town there are plenty of people on the road walking or riding bicycles. The farther from town you drive, the fewer people there are.
We snake along through the bush in our Land Cruiser as fast as the rutted, rocky road will allow. As usual, we have a brand-new set of tires, cheap insurance in places where the roads are unpredictable and being stranded could mean dying as sitting ducks awaiting an ambush. The morning is already scorching hot under a cloudless sky when we roll on through the tall grass past an occasional bush or acacia tree, their silhouettes squashed into a horizontal shape, almost like a rectangle of leaves and branches balanced on top of a trunk.
I have my AK bouncing around in its customary position on my lap, the barrel resting on my left arm and poking out the window. My SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] squad rides in the back, some dressed in fatigues and some in slacks and brightly patterned shirts. All thoughts are on our destination and what we might find there. As the village comes into view, we strain to see or hear any hint that LRA soldiers might still be around. We don’t want to be surprised in case they heard our car coming and are waiting in ambush. Nothing moves anywhere around us; there is no sound, no insects, no animals in the area to make noise. Even the bugs are afraid to stay where the rebels had been. The only sound comes from our little two-truck convoy as we pull within sight of the village.
The low thatched roofs of the tukuls [cone-shaped mud huts] and storage sheds pop up into view all of a sudden. We are in the middle of the village before we know it is there. Around us are maybe two dozen tukuls dotting the edge of the clearing where the village common had been. Crops are trampled, cattle and chickens scattered. Some of the tukuls had their mud brick walls bashed in. Others were burned, leaving the smell of charred thatch and human flesh hanging in the air. Fresh graves, some of them covered with bricks, are scattered through the village near the entrances of the victims’ tukuls. The LRA killed twenty-seven people in the village that day and wounded many more. They abducted children, of course, some of whose parents were murdered as they watched.
The locals know who we are and why we are there. A couple of my soldiers go out into the bush to find children who have been scattered in the raid or grabbed by the LRA, then left behind. Some of them, maybe most, will have at least one parent or another relative who could take care of them, though the adults sometimes tried to hide that from us; they figure we will take better care of the children than they can, plus they won’t have another mouth to feed. We will sort all that out later,
What we have to do now is wait for word to spread that we are there and for the children to come to us out of the be her brother or her son or a baby she found abandoned in the bush. Then three boys walk out of the tall grass, three stair-steps with the oldest one about ten or eleven. Soldiers talk to the adults. Where are the parents? Aunts or uncles? Supposedly these children are all orphans. They tell us there are more hiding out but they’re still too afraid to come back to the village. I tell them we’ll send a truck back in two days to get anyone else.
We return with the children to the orphanage where Slinky Schillingi, our compound manager, interviews them and fills me in on the details.
According to the survivors he talks to, two children were shot and killed, and five more are still in the bush. The oldest boy we brought back is named Emmanuel. He’s very quiet, barely speaks above a whisper, and looks down at the ground. Sometimes he glances up to the side but never looks anyone in the eye. He saw the two children killed. He saw his mother beaten with a rifle butt and both parents shot to death. The blank expression on his face is almost cracked by a quiver of the lip, corners of the mouth turned down, but he holds fast. Doesn’t let the emotion out. He can’t. Doesn’t know how. What he saw is too horrible to think about now. It may come out later in the nightmares so many of these children have.
Another new arrival sports a brand-new Aristocats sweatshirt from our stock of donated clothes. She has precious, delicate features and talks even less than Emmanuel. She is seven years old, and her name is Gift. She doesn’t know where her parents are. She spent a month carrying luggage for the LRA. Our caretakers say she was probably sexually assaulted, but she says nothing about it. I tell Slinky to let every child know that they are safe from the soldiers they know as Tom-Tom, meaning “cut-cut.” Every child deserves to wake up in the morning and not be afraid, to face the future without worrying about whether he or she will see someone killed that day or be killed him- or herself.
Adapted from Another Man’s War by Sam Childers. Copyright © 2009 by Sam Childers. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.