With Omar Khadr’s seemingly interminable incarceration for allegedly killing a U.S. soldier in the thick of battle grabbing headlines, Raymonde Provencher’s thoughtful, haunting chronicle of Ugandan child-soldiers adds a vital and compelling perspective to cowardly recruitment as a necessary evil.
While the joyful, innocent festivities of Independence Day 1996 are still fresh in short-term memory, a covey of young girls dreaming the night away in the dormitory of St. Mary’s College begin a life-long nightmare. Members of the incredibly entitled Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) break into the suddenly terrorized slumber chamber and offer the girls the choice of rope (to tie them together in a human chain for the long walk to Sudan) or machete. Thus begins their journey into the twin horrors of learning to kill or steal from their equally innocent countrymen’becoming instant wives and baby-makers to their ruthless captors, some of whom aren’t averse to having a harem of virgins at their disposal.
For obvious reasons, very little archival footage appears in the film. Yet the present-day recollections of some of the survivors and director of photography François Beauchemin’s discreet, beautifully balanced images (from the spectacular long-shots of the magnificent countryside to the intimacy of a baby’s bath) combine to produce the atrocities of systemic slaughter, rape, pillage and destruction in truly awful detail on the screen of the imagination.
Grace, now living with her husband and young child in the United States, survived the ordeal and finally managed to escape. Yet her freedom was flooded with the guilt of leaving friends in the deadly clutches of the liberators. After returning to school then being accepted in an exchange program, the articulate woman began utilizing the power of words (“health children”) to advocate for the thousands of dream-denied kids who are still learning how to shoot and maim before reaching puberty. With a few liked-minded colleagues, she became involved with the Network of Young People Affected by War.
Back in Uganda, the story focuses on Milly (captured at nine-years of age) and Lucy (Milly’s friend who ended up becoming just as cruel as her captors, learning her lessons well in order to please the adults in her life: “happy to impress”). The former tries to salve her physical and emotional wounds through advocacy. Empowering Hands is a self-help group of survivors who preach understanding and forgiveness as the key to living better lives: “work together to bring peace.”
Provencher has wisely brought the daunting issues of child abuse into the stream of consciousness, largely through letting the women dredge up their terrifying pasts (or, in the case of Lucy, “some things are best forgotten”). Still, many of the film’s most gripping moments come from the long, silent looks of the young women’s faces as they relive their forever-lost childhoods. Opening and closing the chronicle of man’s folly, exploiting both religion and race with the cheerful voices of unaffected kids—and a wonderful dance sequence in one of the holding camps—speaks louder than words and, tellingly, underscores the message. Not surprisingly—given the subject matter—not much music was employed.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon promises “bold and decisive action” from the Security Council after hearing Grace’s plea. For her and the Khadrs of this world, it’s one resolution from adults that ought to be kept before even more kids take aim at their elders. JWR