An Addiction to War

Sophie was eight when the rebel army took her away. It was almost Easter, she remembers.

Four men came into her family’s hut one night outside of Gulu, Uganda. They didn’t knock.

Her parents stood by, silently.

Sophie says one of the men, pointed a small machete at her and said, “If you don’t cut your brother, we will kill you all.”

“So I did,” she said. “I cut him.”

Sophie cut her brother’s neck. The first time, the rebels didn’t think the cut was deep enough.

They made her do it again.

Charles, her brother, was five. He screamed loud and hard.

Sophie and Charles — bleeding down the front of his tattered green T-shirt, were loaded into a rickety truck where a dozen children were already crammed in. Hours later, the truck stopped and the children clambered out of the truck, unsure of what was going to happen. Charles, badly injured, was roughly handled by the rebels as they wrapped a rope around his ankles and tied him upside down in a tree. The rebels laughed as they tied him, Sophie recalls.

The captured children were warned that if they ever tried to flee, they too would be tied up in trees.

Sophie’s voice trails off at this part of the story.

“The next day, they took us back to see,” she said. “He was already dead.”

“The red ants had got him.”

There are certain stories you write as a reporter that continue to haunt you. They are the stories that send you gasping into the night, on a random Wednesday evening, in a safe, quiet bed in a safe, quiet country. They are the stories that flood your brain when you are home in North America, picking out peanut butter of all things, as you stand in the grocery store tearing up because you can’t figure out which of the 57 options you should buy.

They are, simply put, the stories that mess with your head.

The story of Sophie Akello was one of those stories.

In 2006, I arrived in Uganda with a chip on my shoulder, a small desire to help others, and, above all, a desire to see war, to report on war, and to generally end up like the grizzled war correspondents I used to see — sun baked and grouchy, with eyes lined by too many hours in exotic locales — the kind of person I wanted to be, I believed.

It was my first stint as a so-called “war reporter” (really, I was a rookie that knew nothing) and I dove in, spending time in northern Uganda, a region embroiled in a nasty 20-year civil war between a religious fanatical leader, Joseph Kony, and the Ugandan government. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a radical religious rebel group, had been terrorizing northern Uganda for the better part of 25 years.

Kony is the cruelest of leaders — 80% of his army is under the age of 12. Children, as it turns out, make the best soldiers. They have no fear. They are adaptable. They believe everything.

Sophie’s own story was not unique — she was one of more than 30,000 Ugandan children who have been captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The children are forced to kill their own people, often, as in Sophie’s case, their own families.

Many children, like Sophie, had escaped the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army and now walked miles and miles every night, from their villages to larger towns, such as Gulu, where they could sleep in safety, hundreds of them intertwined on the cold cement floor, a single guard at the front door.

And that was my job. Write about the current situation in northern Uganda. Write about the challenges these children face — much of which revolved about the fear of being kidnapped and conscripted back into a rebel army.

Sadly, it was their fear and the shared experiences of constantly being terrified that created and fueled my addiction to adventure. Perhaps it is more appropriate to call it an addiction to war.

I did not want to change the world by going to the worst places on earth and writing about them. I was certainly not a committed do-gooder. I just wished I was.

I liked the feeling of my heart pounding in my chest. I liked the feeling of hearing bullets and pretending they were fireworks. I even liked the feeling of how people thought I was important if I wrote about them. If those people only knew how little power or sway I had and how little words matter. How the pen is not mightier than the sword, despite our best intentions. If so, we would not have had Rwanda in 1994, or still have Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. No, the pen is weak and pathetic, and yet we still treat it with such reverence. The sword always wins.

And yet, it was the sword I was addicted to.

The other week, as I was thinking about where I might like to travel to next, I stopped, dead still, in the middle of the street, a fine drizzle coming down around me. One question had stopped me cold: what would ever possess a human being to so willingly and excitedly go somewhere like the warzone of northern Uganda to tell these stories? The reasons why someone would go to Sudan for a vacation, to exotic sounding places like Bujumbura, or Mogadishu, or to Goma, where 14-year-old red-eyed drug-crazed boys with Kalashnikovs man roadblocks that I had to pass through, multiple times a day. They are scarcely bigger than the guns they carry.

Through those years, all around me, people have died. My life, I believed, was charmed.

Simply put, it was boredom. It was a type of suburban restlessness that made me leave my comfortable home and jump on a plane to East Africa, to a fantastic, beautiful war-torn country with wounds so deep, I still wonder if it will ever heal.

Adventure is an addiction. That conclusion, years later, I have come to.

And yet, in that same phrase, all I can think is: war is also an addiction. I jumble the words together every chance I get — war, adventure — adventure, war — and yet at the end of the day the feeling is the same and the stories are the same. For me, the terms are interchangeable.

Four years later, it is those war-soaked memories that continue to pop up in the most inconvenient of places all the time. It is on the train in the morning, or in the grocery store when I buy peanut butter. It is when I hear fireworks and want to hit the ground and cry, while everyone around me is cheering because it’s the Fourth of July. It is when people at a party say, “Hey, have you seen that movie Blood Diamonds? You’re like that girl,” and I secretly want to punch them in the face.

Sometimes I fear that I will never shake my addiction to war and adventure. It is a feeling that ebbs and flows, depending on how my boring suburban life is going, depending on how much I miss feeling that tightness in my chest, the feeling of blazing adrenaline, like I can run for miles without stopping, the feeling like something extreme could happen at any moment.

It is a feeling that I cannot seem to rid myself of. And years later, as I dream of going back to those war-torn countries, to tell more stories about the people that live there, I often ask myself if it was all worth it. Is it better to be addicted to war and adventure than to have never experienced it?

The answer, thank goodness, is yes.

It is always worth it.

Portrait Of A Heavy Sinking Feeling In Your Gut That Cant Be Ignored And Then Your Ears Fall Off - Alisha Dall'Osto