'Soldiers' Looks at Children of War Charles London's book One Day the Soldiers Came explores the plight of children affected by war. Young people from Congo, Thailand and the Balkans still suffer from emotional scars, but London hopes they will be part of a more peaceful generation.
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'Soldiers' Looks at Children of War

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'Soldiers' Looks at Children of War

'Soldiers' Looks at Children of War

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During wartime, we look forward to the end of hostilities. We hope that once peace arrives, a new generation will rebuild and move forward. But that new generation often emerges from war with at least as many scars as its elders.

Charles London has spent years studying the effects of war on children around the globe and has published their stories in a book called "One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War." He traveled around the world from Sudan to Burma to the former Yugoslavia.

I asked Charles London why he focused on the children in each of these places.

Mr. CHARLES LONDON (Author, "One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War"): I saw one of those ads for an organization like Save the Children and it showed me that standard image we all know so well of the poor child, usually black, with the wide eyes and the distended belly staring at the camera, pleading. And looking at this ad, I realized it showed me nothing about the culture, about the conflict or about the child. I basically knew nothing except that here was a vehicle for the suffering of a continent and I should give some money or something.

So I wanted to capture their stories. I didn't really know what I was going to find. That time, there were 20 million children displaced by economic disaster, natural disasters, warfare and political instability. Three hundred thousand were being used as porters in military units around the world. And all I knew was this image from television.

Luckily, I found an organization called Refugees International that send their advocates out to the frontlines of a crisis to talk to people about what their needs were, what the situation is, and convinced them to take me along. At the time, they didn't have anyone focusing only on children.

SEABROOK: How did you gain these children's trust?

Mr. LONDON: It started a lot with soccer. It kind of everything started with soccer. I'm awful at soccer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LONDON: It should be known and that it helps…

SEABROOK: It helps.

Mr. LONDON: …because you come in as a Westerner. You get out of a white, usually jeep, and they think, oh, this is someone important who we got to say the right things to and make sure this is someone who holds the first strings in the strings of our lives. What happens next depends one what this person thinks. So my being bad at soccer actually helped relax them.

SEABROOK: Let's talk about this boy named Siha(ph).

Mr. LONDON: Siha. Yeah.

SEABROOK: Siha is in Thailand.

Mr. LONDON: Yes.

SEABROOK: Near the border with Myanmar, Burma. He's a Burmese child who - whose family fled into Thailand.

Mr. LONDON: His mother was a human rights activist.

SEABROOK: Siha is in a family that does not have refugee status.

Mr. LONDON: Exactly. Even…

SEABROOK: What does that mean for him?

Mr. LONDON: It means he has essentially no right since he and his family are illegal and they live below the radar. He has no right to go to school. He has no right to even walk around. If the neighbor saw that's a Burmese family over there and their kid kick his ball too much into the side our house, he was potentially at risk, so he had to be very careful. And it robbed him of the ability to play so freely. My trip for this book right before this trip to Thailand, I was in the eastern Congo with demobilized child soldiers. And I thought that was about the worst it could get. But when I went to Thailand and found these children who were just so afraid to play, it was really a powerful thing.

SEABROOK: And also in the former Yugoslavia, you talk with children who were at war and are now trying to learn to live without war. And there you also found some really disturbing open wounds.

Mr. LONDON: Yeah. I found a lot of children who were still mired in this ethnic hatred that had caused the violence in previous wars. To Serb children would talk with just horrible racist language about the ethnic Albanians, the Albanians would do the same about the Serbs and there seemed to be no bridge between them. And at first, I assumed they were just spewing what they heard their parents say. But I realize that they were actually choosing this hatred because what they were seeing in the world around them was an adult world where the Serb and the Albanian politicians were bickering, where violence constantly erupted on a small scale between the groups. They felt that war was inevitable, that there would be violence again. And it was just too scary to reach across the lines and make a friend. So they were choosing this hatred as a defense mechanism.

SEABROOK: Was there a specific child in Serbia and you know anywhere in former Yugoslavia that you could point to?

Mr. LONDON: There's a girl name Nora(ph). She's an Albanian girl who is eight years old when Siberian paramilitary units came to her house. And they put a knife to her neck in front of her mother. They said, give us your ring, get out of this country, it's not your country anymore or we'll kill her. And the mother was trying to get her wedding ring off and it was stuck on her finger and they said, well, hurry up we'll just cut your daughter's throat and then cut your finger off.

The mother got her ring off, they fled and I asked her a question that I asked a lot of the children. I asked her, what would you do tell children who've been through what you've been through or similar things around the world that I've met that aren't coping with the past? And she had some great advice. She said you must live. And I was immediately inspired.

And as was I dreaming - day dreaming about, you know, all the children in the world living and holding hands and singings songs together under the banner of Norah's advice - she kept talking. She said expect for the Serbs, I wouldn't give the Serbs that advice. To them, I might say go straight to hell.

She really showed me how the politics impacts these children and how they see everything - every kindness, every cruelty. And they tally those things up in an odd equation and it becomes who they will one day be.

SEABROOK: Do you think that the scars are so great that they will create war again?

Mr. LONDON: I don't think it's inevitable. Every one of these children I met had the potential to do anything. Ninety-nine percent of the child soldiers I met - the former child soldiers I met - somewhere inside them had a sense that what they've done is was wrong or was not good. They all have the innate capacity for peace and for building a society. What they want is to play soccer.

SEABROOK: Charles London is the author of "One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War."

Thank you very much.

Mr. LONDON: Thank you.

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