Unto The Inferno
“For Them All”
He continued to gawk into the open and I turned my head to follow his line of sight… but he was staring at nothing. His eyes were clouded and seemed almost lifeless. There was no joy, no laughter, no energy – only nothingness. I was told that he was only 13 years old and was forced to watch the rape and massacre of his entire his family and village. He was then captured and then brainwashed into becoming a rebel fighter and at the same time forced to kill, forced to rape and also used as a sex slave. He was also heavily drugged during the three years he spent in the bush. Finally, I turned back to face him and I smiled kindly.
It was then that I reached for papers and crayons…
“You believe that the strong exist to cull the weak. To use them as food. But you are mistaken. The strong exist, not to feed off the weak, but to protect them!”
– Hitokiri Battōsai (1849 – unknown)
When I was a child, I had trouble sleeping. I would wake up around midnight and walked to the living room to find my mother folding laundry, the TV quietly on. She would turn to me and sit me on the couch to watch TV with her. I remember one night when a commercial for starving children in Africa appeared and my mother quietly watched. In the middle of the commercial, she turned back to me and in Vietnamese said, “Learn to feel for them. Learn to be compassionate to them. They are very poor and they are suffering.” Little did I know, that memory would be amongst one of the stepping stones that became the foundation for my moral obligation to protect the innocent.
There are many accounts in my life where children suffered instead of playing with youthful joy – boys that should have been throwing balls instead of hand grenades; girls that should be playing jump rope instead of fleeing from civil war and rape. They say that the laughter of children can help relieve stress and I have found that to be true. It brings about a certain innocence in the atmosphere and the feelings of peace. There are times when I would cross my arms and lean against the walls outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles while on lunch break just to watch children play on the museum lawn. There are few things now that make me smile but sometimes, I catch myself smiling in the moment. As a museum educator, I absolutely love working with children who come into the famous “Dinosaur Hall” of the NHMLA. Their eyes are always lit with imagination and curiosity as they bombard me with hundreds of facts and questions in regards to dinosaurs.
In a way… they help me retain my humanity.
Part I: Innocence Lost
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to it’s children.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Syria. 2012. The events of the Syrian Civil War would forever change my life. The United Nations have deployed humanitarian and security convoys in the country while numerous international military Special Operations Forces were already conducting operations deep in the country. Following the Houla Massacre on May 2012, civil war was declared on June as al-Assad government troops bombarded Aleppo and Damascus in the early morning – before the sun could even rise. Thousands were killed in the initial bombarding and violence quickly engulfed the cities like wildfire. The sun’s light was bloated by the smoke and ashes of chaos.
While conducting humanitarian relief operations, there was one morning which engraved only memories of agony and sorrow. The limits of the cities were to be soon decimated by impending air strikes. In the blankets of war, war crimes and atrocities were committed on both ends by both al-Assad government troops and rebel fighters. They were less than animals until the very end and it was the first time in my life that I witnessed humanity at it’s pure savagery and immorality. Men were publicly executed while women and children were raped – killed shortly after. No one was spared.
There was a hospital deep within Aleppo that held temporary medical relief for fleeing refugees before it was overran by rebel fighters. The hospital was a five story building that provided the perfect tactical advantage for rebel fights against al-Assad. When the convoy stopped, I stepped out of the APC only to smell the stench of burning human bodies and smoke. My eyes widened at the horrors that were painted in front of me: entire neighborhoods annihilated and bodies littered the streets. My eyes began to water from the stench and I wanted to throw up.
As we came closer to the hospital, we heard gunfire and screaming from inside. We stormed the building in force before coming upon the second floor and as we cleared each room, we heard faint wailing from inside the upcoming room to the left. Upon entry, a woman laid nude upon the right corner of the room and lifeless on the tile floor. Her hair was mangled and covered half of her face while her body was covered in bruises and cuts. She had been shot in the head, judging from the blood splatter on the wall from where she lay. Across from her, two male fighters were gang raping her presumed young daughter. The girl couldn’t have been more than around ten years of age. Possibly younger. Because their penis couldn’t fit, they had used a knife to cut open the girl’s genitalia to conduct the rape.
Eliminating the immediate threat, we ran over to the little girl and I fell upon my knees, removing the gaiter that covered my face. Overwhelmed by sudden emotions, tears rushed down my cheeks while she quietly gazed at me, her face pale. Quickly looking for anything to cover her, I grabbed the nearest blanket on the floor and wrapped her before rushing downstairs. I ran to the closest APC before a medic gave her a quick look over and frowned, slowly shaking his head. I begged and begged but I knew it to be hopeless; she had already lost too much blood and was going into shock. I dropped onto my knees and the girl’s brown eyes began to roll back. To this day, I would like to believe that her fear and trauma changed to relief upon seeing my face. A different face – a younger face; the face of a teenager. To this day, it is still nothing more than a foolish man’s hope.
After a few seconds, her eyes became lifeless… and I raged. And I cursed humanity. And I sobbed.
Part II: I Am Marie
“Every child you encounter is a divine appointment.”
Around a week later, we arrived at the UN refugee camp built on the southern end near the Turkish border. There, numerous NPOs, NGOs and government organizations to include the Turkish military were establishing a foothold in the immediate area. There were thousands of refugees and misplaced families. Security was heavily needed due to personnel(s) of interest hiding among the numbers with the common theft, murder and rape. Medicine, blankets and food came into short supply. Hundreds were injured and many children were sick. People were starving and hunger combined with fear made many refugees commit the unthinkable. Explosions from artillery and air strikes can be heard in the distance and the sounds never ceased. I was among the security personnel placed at the growing camp and I remember the stench of diarrhea and puke on the ground. There were times that I avoided stepping over puddles and we were warned about the numerous health hazards in the area. This was the first time in my life that I have ever seen a refugee camp and the scene was depressing and mad. During one late afternoon as I went about my patrol, a small Syrian girl accidentally ran into me while playing. She fell onto the ground and began rubbing her head in pain while slowly looking up at me. Those eyes… I could never forget those emerald eyes.
The eleven year old little girl’s name was Saida and I became very close to her. Saida always carried around this energetic joy and she loved to draw especially playing hide and seek. Over the week, Saida became almost like a little sister to me especially since I haven’t seen my own sister since leaving the United States. They were both around the same age. Our interpreter told me that her family was missing and she was now under the care of her aunt and older cousins. He also told me that Saida referred to me as her akhi – the Arabic word for ‘brother’. Whenever I was on patrol, Saida and her cousins would follow me and I would bring them snacks. Even so, I also ‘aquired’ crayons, makers and coloring books from the supply tents.
I remember one evening when I paid a visit to the tent where Saida and her relatives stayed. Saida was excited to show me a drawing of a dog and a horse and I chuckled, patting the girl’s head. I reached for the nearest piece of paper and marker, immediately drawing dinosaurs and showing them to the girl. Her eyes widened and it was quite amusing when I taught her to pronounce the names of the species of dinosaurs that I drew. The poor girl struggled especially since she did not speak any English. She did; however, successfully pronounced ‘T. rex’. The girl’s laughter had reminded me of my own little sister and despite the chaos of war, made me feel somewhat at home.
A few days later, I was preparing to leave the country and I wanted to pay Saida one last visit. When I walked to her tent, the flaps were open and everything inside was gone. Not a single person was there. Not a little Syrian girl with emerald green eyes who giggled while sitting on a chair, drawing. I looked for my interpreter to inquire if he knew where they went but he too, was gone. I knew her name was in the UNICEF database but I did not have the means nor the access to look her up. I didn’t even know what her middle or maiden name was. A bit depressed, I made the long journey home while thoughts clouded my mind.
Many years later, when I was done with work in the Army and finished with the gym, I received a phone call from a friend who was a Special Forces Green Beret. The news I received made me dropped my phone onto the ground and my heart became heavy. My legs felt weak and my eyes widened in disbelief; his voice can still be heard over the phone while calling out my name. Picking up the phone, I told him that I would call him back and I immediately hung up, leaning on the back of my computer chair.
ISIL had publicly executed a group of refugees and Saida, along with her aunt and cousins, were amongst those murdered.
Placing my face into the palms of my hands, I wept in the late quite hours of the night.
Part III: Atonement and Repentance
“We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”
– Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)
2018. The Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had the opportunity to work with UNICEF-supported reintegration programmes and Child Soldiers International in their efforts to help reintegrate child soldiers in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, the DRC and more. Countries ravaged by civil war, genocide and unending conflict. On a week and a half trip to central Africa, our NGO paid visit to the Munigi reintegration camp in Goma. On the way, we were provided an armed escort and even some of us carried weapons as well. It wasn’t my first time to Africa and it certainty wasn’t my last. This was but one of the numerous small trips that I have taken to Africa during the year.
I first learned about child soldiers when I watched the film “Blood Diamond” starring actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. The film takes place during the conflict of civil war in Sierra Leone in the early 1900s and it was also the first time that I have learned of conflict diamonds to include the now failed Kimberley Process which was introduced in 2001. The film sparked an even greater personal morality to venture to Africa to help a bleeding world but even that morality has a price to pay. The camp was an established UN base and security personnel manned the gates and towers as our convoy approached. I stayed there for four days and briefings were conducting during most of the afternoon on the first day.
For most of my time, I watched Congolese children play soccer and attended school. Some; however, would stare into the open space and few were aggressive. Of course, it is not their fault for such behaviors. Most of these children were abducted from their homes from the FLDR domestic terrorist groups and were forced to watch their families slaughtered and raped. Most were forced to kill or be killed. Most were forced to rape or be raped. Perhaps even both. A lot of the children showed symptoms of PTSD and I noticed many that would not eat from their plates until extreme hunger set in. Most cried and most laughed. For the time being, I personally did not choose to interact with any of the boys as I only stood from afar and watched, studying their behavior.
On the third day, I decided to finally try my hands at interacting with one of them. There was a particular young teenager that I have studied over the past few days and his eyes were but glass. For most of the day, all he would do is sit on the bench and stare into the open. He would only eat when he was extremely hungry even when supper was put out. He did not interact with any of the other kids and they seemed to ignore him as well. I was told that he would wake up screaming and crying to night terrors – of things I could only imagine. On that morning, I walked over to the bench where he was sitting and I sat across from him. I noticed his eyes quickly shifted towards my attention – perhaps never having seen anyone of my ethic background before? I sat there for a short moment, not saying anything and I did not smile.
He continued to gawk into the open and I turned my head to follow his line of sight… but he was staring at nothing. His eyes were clouded and seemed almost lifeless. There was no joy, no laughter, no energy – only nothingness. I was told that he was only 13 years old and was forced to watch the rape and massacre of his entire his family and village. He was then captured and then brainwashed into becoming a rebel fighter and at the same time forced to kill, forced to rape and also used as a sex slave. Finally, I turned back to face him and I smiled kindly.
It was then that I reached for papers and crayons and I immediately began drawing dinosaurs. I drew an Allosaurus, a Stegosaurus, a Brachiosaurus, a Chasmosaurus and a large marine reptile called Kronosaurus. All five species were drawn on five separate pieces of paper and I even wrote down the name of each species in English below the drawing. I spent a good half hour quickly doodling in each animal while the boy continued to sit motionless. I am unsure if his eyes ever shifted to see what I was doing. When I finally finished, I laid down each piece of paper in front of him and pointed at each one while pronouncing their names. I made hand gestures to show the boy that the animals were massive and even clenched my hands together to show which species bit and which species ate leaves. Of course, I picked up pieces of vegetation from the ground and placed them on the papers that depicted the herbivores. His eyes slowly shifted and he began to stare at each piece of paper.
And for the first time in my life, despite my faults and failures, I have truly believe that I have done something right. By using dinosaurs as a bridge, I believed that I have provided the first steps in helping him regain his humanity – his innocence. I pressed on with my enthusiasm and after some time, the boy grabbed the paper with the Kronosaurus drawing and spoke the world ‘Crocodile’ in Lingala. I sat back and smiled greatly. By using something different – something these kids have never seen nor heard of before, dinosaurs have been my number one tool in helping children in countries of conflict retain their imagination and innocence. I do not recall any adult in the First World that at one point during their lives had never loved dinosaurs.
The next year, I brought two Mattel “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” miniatures with me when I was working in northern Afghanistan. I was hoping to give them to any child that I saw in the area but the small Diplodocus and Triceratops provided to be a greater tool than what I originally hoped. Five young girls were sold by their parents to become wives to older males and the thought was absolutely sickening. Liberating the girls, I was informed that two of them (both were less than 15 years of age) were unfortunately already raped by their ‘husbands’. If the girls refused thier husbands initially, they would have been buried up to their neck and stoned to death. It was a miserable fate – for any young girl. They huddled together inside the van and one was weeping softly, burying her face into the shoulders of the other. I slowly approached them and reached into my pocket, pulling out the two miniature dinosaurs and placing them gently onto the palm of one and on the lap of the other. I pointed at the dinosaurs, pronouncing the names of each species as I struggled to smile. I did this a few times and they both stared at the dinosaurs, eyes widening.
The crying had finally stopped.
If I could even take their thoughts away – even for a few seconds, then I believe that their humanity is on the step to recovery. Where their fate lies, I am uncertain. It is quite astounding (and depressing) to meet children in Third World countries that have never heard of dinosaurs. Perhaps one of the children whom I have encountered in my travels would be so fascinated that he/she would eventually escape their war-torn lives and live a new life where they can seek an education. Perhaps when they are in school, they will remember one man’s kindness and in turn – become future scientists, engineers and even a paleontologist.
Unfortunately, the reality of this ‘wishful thinking’ is grim and the chances of it actually happening is slim to none. Many of the children will not survive to their mid-20s’. Many will become captured and forced to join domestic terrorist cells or become a statistic in human trafficking. It is a thought that I have always hoped to come true. Perhaps it is nothing more than a fool’s wishful thinking for a better world.
As I typed this, I cannot help but lean back on my chair and contemplate. The sorrow and the successes. The fears and the hopes. Despite the pages turning in the chapters of my life, I will endure any hardship and any turmoil to help any child in need. As I watched the summer camps and school field trips play in the field in front of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, I cannot help but to hold appreciate for the scene before me. Leaning against the wall with my arms crossed, I would close my eyes and just simply listen to the laughter of children. Smiling contently, I would turn up to the blue sky and allow the wind to caress my face and hair.
This is dedicated to all the children in the world whom suffer and the innocence lost. This is dedicated to the hope that we can perhaps give them a world in which they will only know of joy and peace.
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