Estoy Libre

May 6, 2009

I open one eye, then the next. Then shut them both as I wince in pain. Something is not right with me. I am not feeling as I should be. I sit up slowly, groaning in pain as I do. Where am I? Where am I? I begin to panic as I stand up and look around, more urgently than before. I have never seen this place before. I look at the low roof. I look around at the wooden walls. I look for a window, but there is only one – a very small one. This window is very high up – higher than I could ever reach – and is blocked by iron bars. This looks a lot like a jail cell, I think, feeling a tightness grip my stomach. The hut is approximately ten feet by ten feet and is carpeted in dirt. I feel claustrophobia sink in, and try to push it away, but I can’t. I want to know where I am. I tell myself to calm down. I will get out of here and go home. I have to get out of here. Where do I live? I try to remember, but for some reason it escapes my thoughts. I begin to feel alarmed. Just think about your parents, and that will help you to remember. But try as I might, I cannot think of my parent’s names. Who am I? What is my name? Where am I? I fall on my knees and begin to sob. I lift my head and draw in a shuddery breath as I hear the wooden door open. I look up, not knowing what I will see when I do. The bright sunlight hits my eyes, forcing them shut once again. There is silence in the hut. I slowly look up and see a man standing in the open doorway. He is not smiling. He is not talking. He is standing there holding his shiny black gun with a mean look on his dark face. He stands there, looking down on me, making me feel a little like the tiny insect crawling past me. I find myself shivering, even though the hut is very warm. His dark eyes bore a hole through my head as he keeps his gaze leveled on me. He says something to me, something that makes my blood run cold.
“Come.” I stand up slowly and walk hesitantly towards the door, not knowing what is going on. How am I supposed to know, when no one is telling me anything, when I don’t know who this man is, when I have no idea who I am? I follow the man through the door and into the bright sunshine. I blink my eyes, because the light is so painful, so unknown to me. I look around as we walk. I see many little huts that look similar to mine. There are guards in front of every hut. I see a large grey building with guards also standing on either side of the door. Then I see something that tightens my chest and makes me feel more frightened than I have been in a long time. In an open field, just beyond the huts, I can see many people standing, holding up guns to their shoulders, and firing at targets. These are not just any people – they are children, no older than 12 years of age. I feel even more horror as I see their empty faces – they are void of any emotion. They are wearing the same army habit as the man I am with – a dark green uniform. I stop for a moment to watch the children, and immediately feel the cold butt of the gun jabbing into my back. I keep walking. We get to the front door of the large building, and the guards salute the man I am with. We enter the building. It is cool and inviting. There are doors on both sides of the long corridor; we are moving at a rapid pace. We get to one of the doors and the man knocks. We stand in the doorway, and he salutes someone in the room; I cannot see who. The man enters and motions for me to follow after him. I enter the room, apprehension growing inside of me. I look down at my feet feeling lowly and scared. “Look up,” says a harsh voice – the voice of a leader. I look up into the face of the man behind the desk. What I see there is the meanest, hardest looking face imaginable. His eyes are so brown they are black, and they are unblinking, unwavering, cruel eyes. I feel my heart leap into my chest. I know almost nothing, yet I know that this man means trouble. I know hard times are coming, whether I am prepared for them or not
“Well, he’s young but he looks fit,” the man says, sizing me up and down. I glance at his nametag as he speaks. Captain Kali, I thought. What an appropriate name for someone with an appearance like his.
“He can go straight to the West Quarters,” Captain Kali said, not looking in my direction.
What is the West Quarter?, I wonder to myself. I will soon find out. The man leads me back outside. By this time I have nicknamed him “Chisulo”, which means ‘steel’ in the African dialect. I see him to be somewhat akin to a steel wall; something that cannot be climbed over, because it is too sharp; something that you cannot penetrate because it is too thick, and something that has a harsh glare thrown off it. We are walking towards a hut that looks very similar to the one I had woken up in. “Chisulo” opens the door and grunts at me, beckoning for me to enter. I walk into the shadows and watch as the sun slowly fades away with the closing of the door. I lean my head back against the wall and rest my head in my hands. A tear slips through my fingers, falling to the earthen floor. I tell myself to stop the tears, to stop shedding the blood of my soul; otherwise I may drown and never leave this place – this Hades on earth. The days slip by unnoticed as I wait in the dismal recesses of my new home. The time gives me the opportunity to think about my current situation. I still do not know who I am. I have asked the little boy who brings me my daily portion of rice and fish many times over where I am, but he does not say anything. I have the feeling that he has been instructed not to talk to me. The days and nights blend together and I begin to feel the effects of my close confines, and the aching need to feel warmth on my sun-deprived skin.

The door opens again, and “Chisulo” enters. I am starving for the sight of the sky, but when I look outside I see a sliver of moonlight shining through the dark clouds. “Come”. He says, repeating the word that he said the first time my eyes fell upon him. I exit the windowless hut and breathe deeply of the clean jungle air. We head back to the building where we had gone to see Captain Kali. I feel frightened at the prospect of looking into those eyes from which, once you do, there is no return. We walk past the guards and down a long hallway. We enter a room that is pitch dark. Silence looms. Suddenly a light is flicked on. The room is flooded with the harsh, penetrating light. I blink to accustom my eyes to the unexpected illumination. The room is white. The only items in the room are two chairs, face to face in the centre. In one of the chairs sits a man. He is silent as he flicks his gaze over my slender body. I feel chills moving up and down my spine. An interrogator. This man will ask me questions that I cannot answer. “Chisulo” pushes me towards the empty chair. I sit. He leaves the room, and the door closes with a click. I am alone with the strange man. Upon the exit of “Chisulo”, I feel fear crawl over me. “Chisulo” may be my enemy, but at least I know he will do me no harm. This man, however, has a look in his keen eyes that tells me I am getting away with nothing. He must see the apprehension on my face, for he says, “I will not hurt you. I merely want to ask you some simple questions.” His voice is as smooth as silk and I feel my guard drop ever so slightly. He begins to talk just as if we are having a neighborly chat. I am getting pulled into his stories as they become more dramatic and exciting. Soon I am telling him my own story. About how I am not sure of whom I am, where I am, or what is going to happen to me. He is a good listener, and I feel my guard slip completely away.
“So tell me,” he says. “Why do you think you are in this place?”
“I do not know,” I reply.
“I do not know,” I reply. “I do not know why I am here, why I am kept in a little hut, why I am left alone for days on end. I just don’t know!”
He nods. I feel better, just knowing that someone understands my confusion and frustration.
“You are here for a purpose. A very meaningful purpose,” he says in his velvety voice. “You are here to help people in need, to be a pillar, a warrior.” I must look confused for he continues, “You have a job. Your job is to help rid this country of evil things and make it a better place for everyone.” I feel relief wash over me. They are not going to kill me. They are merely helping me to help others. We talk for a while longer, and then there is a knock on the door. “Chisulo” reenters and leads me away. I am placed back into my prison home and the cycle begins again. Everyday I receive my food and walk the hut. In the early evenings I am taken for a brief walk in a fenced-in area. Every few days I am taken back to the white room and have another talk with the kind man. He tells me that his name is Ayize.

A strange thing is happening to me. I have these dreams that seem so real. Almost as if the past is coming to haunt me. My first dream is about a little boy playing soccer. I do not know who the little boy in my dream is, or why he is playing soccer. My next dream is about the same little boy. Only this time there is another, smaller boy playing soccer with him. At my next meeting with Ayize I am tempted to tell him about the dreams. Only one little voice inside my head tells me not to. I don’t know why I shouldn’t, but I don’t.
“Do you have anything you would like to share with me?” Ayize asks. I shake my head no, not meeting his eyes. “Are you sure?” he asks again. I feel myself becoming angry and spit out, “Yes, I’m sure!”
“Do not ever think about yelling at me again!” Ayize says, with a burning look in his eyes. I cringe at that look. “I’m sorry, Ayize,” I say, more from fright than regret.
“Make sure that this is the last time that happens…you may come to regret any other actions like this.” At this Ayize loses the harsh look and puts on his kind face once again.
“You are not having any strange apparitions or dreams?” he asks me, sounding sincerely concerned. Once again I wonder if I am doing the right thing by not telling about my dream.
“I am sure.”

Three weeks later:

My visits with Ayize increase to every other day. He is still friendly, still slick and smooth talking, but something has changed. There is a hidden urgency in his voice when he asks me if I have dreamt or had apparitions, or if anything is out of the ordinary. I almost laugh out loud at the last question. Unordinary? How could anything be unordinary for me when I don’t even know what my ordinary is?

On my daily walks I have been observing my surroundings. All around the camp is a dense rainforest, not foreign to Uganda. There are about 100 huts similar to mine, scattered here and there. The building where I have my visits with Ayize is the only building not made out of mud and wood. While I am walking, with “Chisulo” directly behind me, I observe the children running, shouting, and occasionally holding guns. The guns are almost as large as the children themselves – gleaming AK-47’s. On some days the camp is deathly quiet, and I wonder where the children are. I have become accustomed to all this. At first I have many questions for Ayize about why the children are here, but he assured me they are here for the same purpose as me.

I am having another dream. In this dream the bigger boy gets hit on the head by the soccer ball. He is unconscious and remembers nothing upon awakening. The little boy is sad and cries very much. I awaken with a start. I still have not placed who the boys playing soccer are, but seeing as I don’t even know who I am, this comes as no surprise.

It is still dark out the next morning as I am marched outside. We walk for a very long time; where we are going, I do not know. We walk around the huts and occasionally stop at a hut to pick up a girl or boy. They all look the same as I do – bewildered and confused. We walk a ways into the rainforest, feeling our apprehension grow as we do. Eventually we come to a clearing in the forest, and all around that clearing are strange items. There are target-like statutes, mysterious black bags, and uniformed men all in a circle around the clearing. We are told to stand in ranks, and then we wait. Finally a man steps into the clearing. I gasp. It is Captain Kali. His eyes cut over the group, stirring the children to stand up tall under his glare.
“Welcome.” He says, without an ounce of welcoming in his voice. “You al know the reason why you are here. You all know that you have been given a task; the chance to do great things. There is much evil in our country, in Uganda. It is our duty to expel that evil – to enroll freedom. You are no longer children, but warriors in the good fight. You are fighting for God, for Jesus. You are my people. Together we will conquer and make this world what it once was. We will do it all for our God.

I stand up tall and proud as I hear these words. Fighting for God! That is a great honour! We are handed one of the dark green uniforms from out of the black bags. Next we are handed a gun. I am standing there looking at this beautiful new AK-47. All my own. We are given instructions on how to shoot it, and then we are told to aim at the targets. My first shot hits the edge of the target. I see some of the men looking at me in surprise. I am doing better than many of the other children. Their bullets are whizzing overhead, underhand, and crisscrossing this way and that. My next shot is one ring away from the bull’s eye.

Over the next weeks we are brought out to the shooting range to practice. I am not allowed to speak to the other prisoners; we must be absolutely quiet. I gain a skill at shooting that places me in the group of older children. I can shoot the bull’s eye from fifty yards. We are brought to classes in which the leader tells us everything we need to know to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army. I am now a soldier.

One month later:

We have been called to fight. I have been warned about this day. The horn will go, and we will have to run about, collecting the necessary items and be ready to go in a matter of seconds. We are marching; there are hundreds of marching children. We are loaded into heavy trucks and are brought away. The commander tells us that if we see anyone who is not wearing the dark green army habit, we are to shoot them – regardless of age or gender.

I am kneeling in the bushes; my gun is on my shoulder. I am a soldier. I feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I hear some gunshots resounding through the woods, but I stay quiet. I jump when I feel a hand on my shoulder. It is one of the boys from the older group.
“We have been brainwashed. We have been told to do bad things. We are told to kill innocent lives. Do you know what you are doing?”
I look at him with disgust in my eyes.
“Traitor,” I hiss. “How can you say all that? We are doing the Lord’s work. We are helping Uganda become a safe place for everyone to live in. We are soldiers. What is your name? And who do you think you are?”
“My name is Dembe. I am a child who has been kidnapped from my parents. They drugged me and brought me to the camp. There they have arranged for me to have meetings with a man who attempted to brainwash me. The only reason I have kept my mind intact is because I keep telling myself that they are telling me lies. Slowly my memory is has come back. I remember my family. I remember the stories that my mother told us about the Lord’s Resistance Army. And I know that every child here has been told that they are doing something great, something that will help the needy…but we are the needy. These children are killing innocent people without really knowing what they are doing! They may even be killing their own families. We raid houses and kill the inhabitants. Does that sound like the Lord’s work to you?” He is panting from the exhaustion!
“Shutup!” I almost yell. “You are just lazy and don’t want to work. If I tell the guards what you have said, you will be shot immediently.”
“I would rather die knowing that I did the right thing then to die when I am expiring from the regret. Regret kills the soul. Get out before it is too late.”
“I cannot leave,” I say. “The only way out is through death.”
Dembe shakes his head. “I warned you. You know in your heart what is right. Act upon what you believe in. With that he is gone as silently as he came.

I sit on my haunches for a few minutes, pondering what he has just told me. Then the guard nearest to me yells at me to ready myself for attack. He tells us to kill everything and everybody that crosses our path. I walk a little ways through the forest and stop. Ahead of me is a little boy, not much younger than myself. He is not wearing the uniform. I lift my gun. We have been told to kill everybody. I focus on the boy. He is looking the other way. He turns around and sees me. His eyes widen with fear and his mouth drops. He looks like he wants to run but is paralyzed. I hold my gun closer. I try not to look at his eyes, but I cannot avoid them. They are the saddest eyes that I have ever seen. I put my finger on the trigger before I can change my mind.
Three…two…one…nothing happens. I cannot do it. I cannot kill this little boy. I know that he has done nothing wrong. I understand now what Dembe was saying. We are killing people who have been living their lives in peace. I am trembling. I am trembling so hard that my gun is making a clicking sound against the badge on my shirt. I look again at the boy. He is still standing there, not sure of what to do. I motion for him to run; to get out of this place while he has a chance. I cannot steal the soul of this child.

That night, back in camp I learn the horrible truth. Two thousand men, women, and children have died at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army. I have killed no one, and for this I am punished. They bring me outside and beat me many times with sticks. My blood pours out of my open wounds and onto the ground. I feel tears come to my eyes but do not let them spill over. I am already crying in my heart.

The next day I awaken to many shouts and the screams of terrified children. My door opens and “Chisulo” tells me to come. We go outside and walk a short distance. I see a mass of people clustered around something lying on the ground. When we get closer I can see that it is a boy. He is lying there, wrapping his arms around his thin body. I realize with a start that it is Dembe. Why is he lying here? Why is everyone gathered around him? I almost choke on my dear. Are they going to hurt him? At that moment the commander tells everyone to grab a rock. We must stone Dembe alive. This cannot be happening. What did he do to deserve this? Why Dembe? The one who wanted peace through good works? I am filled with rage. How could Captain Kali order us to kill our comrade? I look at Dembe and realize that he is looking at me. He tries to smile, but struggles. I look him in the eyes. His mouth moves.
“I am being set free.” I break down and begin to sob. Immediately there is a gun jabbed into my ribs. I stop crying. The commander steps up to speak.
“This boy attempted escape through the quagmire and to so-called freedom. There is no freedom. Only through death. You are all tainted by the blood of men. Even if you escape this place, you will not be welcomed back into your village because you have killed men. And this is what happens to those who try to escape. Stone him till he is dead!” children began throwing rocks at Dembe. I cannot. I look at his pain-filled eyes. Yet behind the pain there is peace. He is going to be free. I can scarcely hear the last thing that Dembe says before he dies, “Estoy Libre.” I am free.

I am lying awake tonight, thinking over what has transpired today. I wonder if I will ever be free. I am dreaming again. The smaller boy is now trying to save the older boy. I am awake, and lie here thinking about my dream. Something is bothering me. I have seen that little boy before. I know who he is. I just can’t place his name. Then it hits me. Mi hermano – my brother. I have a brother. I can see him in my mind. His dark sparkling eyes. I hear him call my name.
“Amadi, Amadi!” My name is Amadi. I sound it on my tongue. I hear myself responding, “Ayodele!” My little brother. How he must miss me. How he must miss the soccer games that we played. Dembe said that his memory returned. Mine has too! I know my name; I know I have a brother.

Over the days my memory slowly comes back. I have only one brother and no sisters. My father is a shop owner in Hope Village – the place where I was born. I remember that my fathers name is Kaikara Undi. My mother’s name is Jendyose Undi. I remember the home that I left behind. Then I think about Dembe. He is free. He is in Heaven. Free. What a glorious word. Maybe one day I will be free to see my family again – even just one more time.

One year later:
“Amadi, Amadi!” Ayodele cries. “Here it comes!” He is kicking the soccer ball my way. I give him a happy grin as I save the ball from going into the net. I have been through counselling to help rid myself of the nightmares that haunt me every night. I have gotten off easily. Many children have lost limbs or their precious virginity. I am healthy all around. And for this I am extremely grateful. I owe my freedom to Dembe. I have never forgotten him. The peace in his eyes as faded from this life to the next will forever be in my heart. I have come to love God, and know that I can thank Dembe for this too. When the American’s came and freed me from the Lord’s Resistance Army, I was grateful. I only wish Dembe could walk the path of freedom by my side.

My mother comes outside and leans against the hut, smiling proudly at her two sons. In some ways life is how it once was, but I know that it will never be the same again. I am scarred for life. But inside I am free. Estoy Libre. I am free.

The author's comments:
I wrote this story because I was inspired by the horrors that are occuring as of today in Uganda. Children as young as five are being forced to kill innocent civilians. The Lord's Resistance Army is a real sectarian guerrilla army based in northern Uganda. They formed in 1987 and are led by Joseph Kony. Up to 30,000 children have been abdicted by the LRA since the beginning, and more are abducted each and every day. Children that are abducted are forced to carry arms and kill civilians. Those who attempt to run away and are caught are then put to death by order at the hands of the other children. Such a cruel and injust treatment of human life. "Estoy Libre" focuses on the fictional story of one boy who goes through the nightmarish life of a child soldier. Enjoy!

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