Thursday, September 22, 2011

One Take on the Machine Gun Preacher

In August of 2006 a series of unfortunate events at the Cornerstone Children's Home (CCH) in Nimule, South Sudan, left me - a young volunteer at the home - sitting awake between the hours of 2am and 6am, brandishing an AK47 to protect the children from intruders. Peace in South Sudan and Northern Uganda was still fresh, and various militias and rebel groups were known to be on the prowl, and I had been given a three minute tutorial in the Arabic phrase to call out to someone to find out whether they harbored malevolent intentions; that three minute tutorial did not include what responses a person could offer. It also didn't include a primer on how to operate my weapon, because - as anyone who has ever handled the automatic Kalashnikov will attest - any moron can figure it out. At the time I considered myself a pacifist, yet there I sat with my weapon in hand coming to terms with the fact that, yes, if someone tried to harm these children I would do everything in my power to protect them.

For the next several weeks I kept vigil every night, and when professional soldiers from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) were hired to take my place, I was relieved that I never had cause to use the dreadful weapon - the most serious threat I encountered was a woman coming to the well right by the home to do her laundry at five in the morning.

I don't know if I can call myself a pacifist anymore. During my 2006 stint at CCH, we heard a lot about the other children's home in town: the one where the American director was known for venturing out and raiding prison camps run by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - the most prominent of the local militias - in order to rescue children who had been conscripted as child soldiers. That story has now been turned into a major motion picture starring Gerard Butler, "Machine Gun Preacher." At the same time, the children's home started by the film's protagonist, Sam Childers, was shut down by the local government last month.

Over the course of the last year, Sarah and I knew extended families who were taking their children away from the home, which surprised us. As the LRA's strength had waned in South Sudan, this children's home had broadened its focus from rescued child soldiers to all orphans and vulnerable children - which made it all the more shocking to us that families would be taking their children back: by definition, these children had come to the home because the families were so ill equipped to care for the children in the first place. At CCH, we had families who would lie about their circumstances in order to get their children in, so it struck us as strange that the opposite phenomenon was taking place on the other side of town.

It gives me no joy to report the closing of a children's home; the last news I had was that community leaders were reading out to the NGO Save The Children to step in and take over the care of the children who had been living in the home, and that seems to me a grave injustice. At the same time, I find nothing just in the allegations of neglect and abuse that we heard from the home and which eventually led to it's shuttering. Good intentions are not enough. That's a simple enough lesson. This is a more complicated one: we often sow the seeds of our own destruction.

I don't personally know Sam Childers, only his children's home, so I have no ability to speak about what kind of person he is. But I can say this: when you allow yourself and your work to be defined by a symbol of violence, you should not be surprised if violence seeps into places you'd rather it not be. The desire for vengeance can warp even the noblest of intentions. The good news is that when it comes to orphans, vulnerable children, and former child soldiers there are lots of people doing excellent work; I have seen it firsthand. Instead of arming themselves with a gun, however, these people are armed with reserves of love, compassion, and peace. While that might make a transformative impact on the lives of traumatized children, it doesn't make for an entertaining movie. So be it.

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