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The Children of War

By Wray Herbert

The former child soldiers of Mozambique's civil war offer insights into morality and human resiliency

Alfredo Betuel Macamo and Joaquim Fernando Quive live only a couple of hundred yards from each other, and they share a lot of history and culture. These two 23-year-old men grew up in the same primitive village near Malehice in the rural Mozambican province of Gaza, and both still live there today. It's a poor place, and neither Macamo nor Quive is doing that great financially. Macamo is struggling to raise three kids--6, 3, and a 4-month-old--by harvesting reeds on a riverbank. Quive does odd jobs when he can find them, though these days he doesn't work much at all. They both live in small reed huts with dirt floors and no running water.

Despite all they have in common, Macamo and Quive are worlds apart psychologically and socially. When I visited Macamo recently, I was greeted not only by him but by 12 members of his extended family, all decked out in traditional African garb. We sat around in plastic chairs, the kind you buy at Kmart, or on mats under the mafureira tree that is the center of their yard, and talked about Macamo's life, past and present. It was celebratory.

Quive's home is a lonelier place. It has two huts, but the larger of the two--his father's--sits empty. His father has been expelled from the village for stealing a radio. Quive occupies the smaller hut in a grim, empty yard. He doesn't have any chairs, but he borrows a couple of the Kmart chairs from a neighbor and lays out a reed mat for a visitor. Quive has also dressed up, in a silky white shirt. But there's no family here, just Quive.

I'm talking to Macamo and Quive, and other young men in a few villages nearby, because of something they all have in common. During the 16-year civil war that devastated this sprawling coastal nation in southeastern Africa, Macamo, Quive, and their neighbors were all child soldiers, abducted from their villages as kids and taken to distant camps run by the rebel forces trying to topple the government at the time. All, eventually, escaped and through circuitous routes ended up in the Lhanguene orphanage in Maputo, the capital city to the south. All the boys were eventually reunited with their families in their natal villages, and that's where most live today. And there the commonalities end.

U.S. News first reported on these child soldiers in 1989, when the war was still raging. The purpose of my trip to this beautiful but primitive region of Africa was to revisit the child soldiers 15 years later, to see how they are doing now that the civil war is over and they have resumed something like a normal life. Most, like Macamo and Quive, are men now. Some, like Macamo, are raising kids of their own. All suffer to some degree from their abductions and their experience of war as children. Some are doing better than others.

Soldiers and spies. Mozambique has not known much other than war since the mid-1960s; until the 1990s, many Mozambicans grew up not knowing what peace looked like. First, there was the 10-year revolutionary war to oust the Portuguese, who had colonized the country in the 1500s and ruled it for more than four centuries. The Portuguese were finally challenged by the Mozambique Liberation Front, or Frelimo, the Marxist insurgency that ousted the colonizers in 1975. But as soon as Frelimo prevailed and the Portuguese fled, the new Frelimo government faced an insurgency of its own, financed mostly by what was then the neighboring nation of Rhodesia and later by South Africa. The guerrillas, known as the Mozambique National Resistance, or Renamo, were based mostly in the rural north. They had no particular ideology, other than their desire to oust Frelimo.

That's where the child soldiers came in. The Renamo leaders began recruiting from rural villages, and if they couldn't recruit able-bodied young boys, they simply kidnapped them. Most of the recruits were 12, 13, 14 years old, but some were as young as 6. The youngest boys often served as porters and servants to Renamo officers, or as spies, but most were systematically trained to be soldiers. They were exposed to the noise of rifle blasts, to desensitize them. They were ordered to kill cattle; then, when they got used to that, to kill other humans, often those who ignored orders or tried to escape. The perimeters of the rebels' camps were often littered with the skulls of those who had tried to escape but failed.

It is remarkable, given all of the terrorist indoctrination, that Renamo converted so few of the kids it captured. Perhaps because Renamo stood for nothing, perhaps because its soldiers were so brutal, it appears that most of the child soldiers in its ragtag ranks never stopped thinking of themselves as captives or victims. Some certainly "went Renamo" out of self-preservation, and some even liked their newfound power as warriors, but most kept their minds focused on finding a chance to escape.

Inevitably, given Renamo's obvious lack of soldierly deportment and order, the opportunities eventually presented themselves. Rafael Vicente Saveca's chance came when his camp was switching locations. Rafael was sent by Renamo officers to fetch water. He seized the chance to flee, hiding in huts in friendly villages before finally returning to his village, near Chibuto. To avoid recapture, or worse, Rafael disappeared, wandering for months, until Frelimo soldiers finally detained him in a prisoner-of-war camp.

A lot of Mozambican boys like Rafael had similar experiences. The Renamo camps were heavily policed, but the boys managed to escape during battles or while on missions to gather wood or hunt for food. Then, often, they would vanish into the bush, moving from village to village at night, resting and hiding during the day. The stretch of bush between Maputo and Gaza is pretty desolate even today. Back in the late 1980s it was salted with land mines, almost constantly policed by government and guerrilla troops.

Like Rafael, many of Renamo's child soldiers ended up in Frelimo jails before they were transferred to the Lhanguene orphanage in Maputo. Orphanage, actually, is something of a misnomer. The kids at Lhanguene came from such tightly knit, extended families that their language hardly distinguished between father and uncle, sibling or cousin. With such large families, and such tight bonds among members, the true orphan at Lhanguene was rare. But calling Lhanguene an orphanage had public-relations value for the Frelimo government, because it was a visible reminder of Renamo's brutality toward Mozambique's children. Whatever its significance to the larger world, Lhanguene was a safe haven for the kids lucky enough to find their way there--and the first step on their uncertain journey of healing.

Power of soccer. There were thousands of boys abducted by Renamo and forced to train as soldiers. Some were with the rebel forces just months, others for as long as three years. The person who has treated and studied these kids most intensely is psychologist Neil Boothby. Now a professor of public health at Columbia University, Boothby at the time worked for Save the Children, the international aid organization that works to assist kids around the globe whose lives have been disrupted by war, including the deslocados who ended up at the Lhanguene orphanage.

The interventions at Lhanguene were deceptively simple. Indeed, when I asked the men about their time at Lhanguene, without exception the first thing they mentioned was playing soccer. At first I just noted this and dismissed it as a childish memory, but when it came up again and again I began to realize that soccer wasn't trivial to these child soldiers' psychological recovery. What they wanted more than anything--and Boothby's later research with many other child soldiers documented this--was to once again to be "like everyone else." Playing soccer did a lot of things--it re-established rules and sense of fair play--but perhaps most important, it made them feel "normal" in their own minds. In psychological jargon, they were moving from a survival mentality, which they had adopted of necessity, to a security mentality normal for their age. In other words, they were learning to become kids again.

Other interventions more directly involved resolving the wartime traumas of these children. They were encouraged, for example, to draw pictures, and when they did their drawings included typical childhood things like houses and family--but they also included, often tucked off in a corner, an automatic weapon, a slain body. Such drawings provided an opening for discussion about the horrific experiences they were reluctant to bring up themselves. So did the use of psychodramas, which were explicit opportunities for the kids to act out, and denounce, the hateful acts of Renamo, and in addition to celebrate the virtues of nation, community, and family.

I asked Boothby at one point if there was a clear greatest success story among the kids with whom he worked to heal and reconnect with their homes and families. He explained that there are three dimensions that define success and failure for these young men: financial success, marital stability, and the classical measures of mental health, like clear thinking and emotional steadiness.

If you're talking about traditional western ideals of career and financial success, almost none of these former child soldiers could be called successful. One, Angelo Jose Macouvele, went on to become a professional photographer, working both in Mozambique and in the much more affluent South Africa. But he is the exception. Most are subsistence farmers, raising maize and beans to feed their own families, then looking for real currency income where they can find it.

Take the case of Israel Armando Massingue, who was abducted by Renamo in 1987, when he was 14 years old; he's in his early 30s today. He dresses in western clothes, including an "America on the Rise" T-shirt. He is handsome and fit, like a college running back, with an engaging smile. He is the president of the local equivalent of the PTA. His wife, Saugina Salvador Sitoe, attests that he is a good husband: He doesn't drink and he isn't rough with me, she says.

Yet Massingue cannot find work. He raises his food crops right now, but he is more ambitious than that and feels he just needs a leg up to start some sort of small business. He dreams of getting a small piece of property where he could build a furnace, and produce concrete blocks for construction, or perhaps have a small chicken farm. But such dreams are a long shot.

Massingue is representative of how these young men were often financially crippled by their abductions and forced servitude in the Renamo forces. Typically, teenagers from rural Mozambique will venture away from home for a few years, often to South Africa to work in the mines, and earn enough money to return home with a financial stake. They use their savings to attract a bride, they marry, and raise families. These young men never got to South Africa and lost those prime earning years.

They also lost their chances for a decent education. Basic education is not an entitlement in Mozambique; the cost of textbooks alone makes schooling prohibitively expensive for many, especially those in rural areas. Yet most of the boys from Lhanguene, who were all offered stipends to resume their education once they were back home, turned them down. They wanted to make up for lost time, to get on with the lives that had been interrupted. So Macamo, who had gotten only to fourth grade, never resumed his schooling. Massingue did try to go back to school, but then he was drafted into the Frelimo Army and lost even more time. Now in his 30s, he sees education as a luxury he can't afford to indulge.

Yet despite their poor financial fortunes, many are married and raising families. By that measure, Boothby notes, most would be considered successes, though raising families in such abject poverty is tough. Massingue and Sitoe's infant daughter had died just days before I visited, the second of their two children to die. The cause of death isn't known. Macamo has also lost one child. Losing children is not uncommon in rural Mozambique.

Despite such losses and the accompanying grief, Massingue and Macamo would have to be considered successes in terms of social functioning. Certainly compared with Firinice Nharala. Firinice was only 6 when he was abducted by Renamo and witnessed the brutal murder of family members who were Frelimo supporters. When he ended up at Lhanguene, he was mute, and although he later regained his voice, he was by all reports never completely healthy again. He was delusional much of the time, and in his early 20s he was still living in the care of his mother. That is where I was supposed to meet him, but I never got the chance. Ten days before I arrived in Mozambique, Nharala drowned in a nearby lake while fishing.

Quive is another who never really recovered from his wartime experience. He has never married, and his prospects aren't very good. The fact is he doesn't have much to offer. His teeth are rotten, and he has no income. Indeed, he represents the walking wounded of the children's civil war. He spent two years in a Renamo base camp, working as a colonel's bodyguard. In that role, he would have both witnessed and committed some brutal acts. He says he still has nightmares and flashbacks about his time with Renamo, sometimes so disabling that they keep him from doing even the simplest work. One day, while cutting wood with a machete, he had flashbacks so severe that he nearly severed his arm, and he hasn't worked much since. If he were in America, he would most likely be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and treated with psychotherapeutic techniques and perhaps psychiatric medications.

Stress and culture. Diagnosis and healing in Mozambique are very different from western practices, but there are interesting commonalities as well. I spent some time talking to traditional healers, known locally as curandeiros: Rosalina Mondlane and Teresa Xitlango live and work in the same Malehice village as Macamo and Quive. Beatriz Armando Massingue lives in Israel's village; she's his sister. These women are highly regarded in their communities. They have all apprenticed to other healers for three to five years, and although the specifics of their healing practices appear to vary a bit, they all share some general beliefs about mental health and psychotherapy.

They wouldn't use those words, of course, though when pushed they do come up with words for conditions that are roughly translatable to our psychiatric diagnoses. For example, the Shangana word kuxukuvala is a close equivalent of what we would call clinical depression. Kuxukuvala is characterized by abnormal sadness and emotional paralysis. Similarly, Quive and others are thought to suffer from npfuka , which corresponds pretty well to what American psychiatrists would label PTSD. It has the symptoms of nightmares and flashbacks to specific experiences of trauma and violence.

But the Mozambican healers' theories about the causes of such stress disorders are quite different. They believe, for example, that when a soldier murders someone, the spirit of the dead takes up residence in the killer--even if the murder has been coerced, as with the child soldiers. For the sake of mental stability, the spirit of the victim must be driven out.

To that end, the healers might heat a concoction of local herbs and have the returning soldiers breathe it in to accomplish spiritual cleansing. Or they might kill a chicken or a goat, mix the blood with water, then use this potion to "vaccinate" them through pinpricks in the arm. If the healers sense the need for a stronger treatment, they might take the child down to the riverside, because certain spirits are known to reside in the water or in the riverbanks and exposure to these spirits can be tonic. All of this must be done before the emotionally traumatized child is allowed to re-enter the household, to prevent contamination of the home. The healers appear to have an innate sense of what American mental health practitioners call psychiatric prevention; they assume that such trauma and stress will take a toll even if it hasn't already, so they intervene immediately to ward off illness by realigning the spirits.

It's impossible to know which specific elements of these healing practices helped the returning child soldiers, but it's clear that the cleansing rituals were essential to the kids' transitions back to community and family life. When the civil war came to an end, there was a widespread fear that the boys who had served under Renamo would be socially tainted and unwelcome back in their villages because of their "treason" and the hideousness of their war crimes. Indeed, this idea was perpetuated by the Frelimo government, which saw PR value in the idea that Renamo had ruined these kids' lives. But the rejections never happened. Most of the kids were welcomed back with compassion, even joy, and the healers' belief in recovery certainly helped the communities embrace their victimized sons.

Back home. So why have some done so much better after the war than others? Put another way, why aren't all of the former child soldiers psychological wrecks given what they were put through? The answer is no doubt complex, but at least two factors appear important to the survivors' resilience. The first is the amount of time the child spent with Renamo. Some, like Macamo and Rafael Saveca, escaped after just a couple of months, while others, like Quive, were in Renamo camps for two years or more. According to Boothby's analysis, there is an emotional "threshold" somewhere between months and years. Once passed, it's much harder to repair the psychological damage.

Then there is family. All of these kids got basically the same psychological help at Lhanguene, and almost all went through some kind of cleansing ritual upon returning to their villages. But Macamo and Massingue came home to large, exuberant families. Quive, by contrast, came home to a disintegrating household. His parents had split up while he was gone, and when he sided with his mother, his father disowned him. The village healers, Mondlane and Xitlango, say Quive's mother is unstable; they use a Shangana word that roughly translates as "she sleeps around." Indeed, she and her latest boyfriend left the village soon after Quive returned.

So Quive has not had much emotional support at home. But consider that he is one of the lucky child soldiers. He at least ended up at Lhanguene, where he benefited from Save the Children's model therapy program. When the civil war ended in 1992, both Frelimo and Renamo denied ever enlisting children in their war efforts, so about 25,000 kids were left to reintegrate themselves into their communities without any help whatsoever. Those young men's life stories are not known.

Copyright 2004 U.S.News & World Report, L.P. Reprinted with permission.

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