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Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" documentary has been as controversial as it is viral, attracting passionate support and ardent criticism. It's clear, though, that its achieved the first part of the group's stated goal: bringing more attention to Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and the problem of child soldiers in Africa generally.
UNICEF estimates that around 300,000 children are involved in more than 30 wars across the world. While the practice is most common in Africa, where children as young as 9 have been involved in armed conflicts, other countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East have also used children to fight adult battles. These haunting memoirs provide a mere glimpse into the nightmares of children used in war.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
by Ishmael Beah
229 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $12.
Beah takes an insightful look at his childhood, when he was forced to shed his rap-adoring, Running Man-practicing youth and become a AK-47-wielding, drug- and murder-addicted child soldier in Sierra Leone’s national army at age 12. He ruthlessly shot grown men and children and lost his ability to trust his countrymen. The violence appeared to abate after he was taken in by UNICEF at age 15, but unrest broke out again two years later, sending Beah to the United States for good.
The author, now 26, learned about American culture through music and graduated from Oberlin College. Through talking to his classmates he began to understand that his experience and those of his fellow soliders was not widely understood, and decided his war-torn memories should be shared.
What is the What
by Dave Eggers
560 pages. Vintage. $16.
What is the What is not a wholly nonfictional memoir, but it's based on haunting, devastating reality. Eggers' novel centers on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of Sudan's "Lost Boys," who Eggers interviewed over three years about his attempt to find "home" after being permanently separated from his family in his war-ridden homeland and spending 13 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Deng's survival story is one of almost unimaginable obstacles: mines, fellow human killers, illness, air forces, and wild beasts.
Deng's story culminates in America, where theft and crime manage to find him repeatedly. While the story is heartbreaking, Eggers shows the power of the human spirit.
Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children
by Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell
240 pages. Chosen Books. $14.99
Akallo's memoir about her time as a member of Kony's infamous Lord's Resistance Army is a story of how faith kept her alive. Akallo was forced to join the LRA when she was 15 after soldiers raided her school. The book catalogs her nearly unbelievable experiences—including waking up after being buried alive—but also describes Kony's political-religious visions and ideologies. It serves as a reminder that tens of thousands of child soldiers continue to suffer, as well as a desperate call to action.
They Poured Fire on us From The Sky
by Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsian Deng, and Judy Bernstein
336 pages. PublicAffairs. $13.95.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky is another tale about Sudan's Lost Boys, recounted by men who were small children when they fled their country for refugee camps. Their only option for survival was to join with thousands of other orphans trekking to the "promised lands" of Ethiopia and Kenya. This vivid, heart-wrenching account tells of traveling more than 1,000 miles, battling land mines, crocodiles, starving lions, vultures, hunger, cold, thirst, and fellow Lost Boys all the way. And the refugee camps became a breeding ground for more suffering, disease, and theft. The boys land in the United States in 2001, but the land of milk and honey can't block the nightmares from their past.
by Emmanuel Jal and Megan Lloyd Davies
272 pages. St. Martin's Griffin. $14.99.
When Jal was 7, his father, a high-ranking official in the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army, sent him off to Ethiopia, promising a chance for education and peace. But when his boat sunk, he was forced to fend off hippos, crocodiles, and snakes just to survive. After realizing that his mother has died and his father has fled, he was enlisted into the army as one of 10,000 child soldiers. Jal witnessed the death of many loved ones, killed people with a gun he could barely hold, and starved to the point of considering eating his dead friend. He escaped the camps through the kindness of a British aid worker, and ultimately found healing through music. Jal has since performed with Bono, and hopes to use music to bring peace to Sudan.