By Eric Martin
The term “child soldier: combines two words that do not belong together in any parent’s vocabulary, the innocence of childhood ripped away by the bloodshed and violence of combat in a modern African army.
Yet the historically brutal wars for control of the government, infrastructure and resources in countries such as Sudan, has seen the number of child soldiers recruited into armies more than double since 2012 – in 2017 there were 8185 verified cases of child recruitment, for a total of nearly 30,000 recruitments over the five-year period from 2012.
According to Child Soldiers International, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and continuing unrest in Somalia, South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic and elsewhere are all leaving children increasingly vulnerable to recruitment as child soldiers.
“Boys and girls are routinely being used as fighters and at checkpoints, as informants, to loot villages and as domestic and sexual slaves and the World Index shows that children have been used in war in at least 18 countries since 2016,” Child Soldiers International stated.
For Philip Lako, a refugee from Sudan, these facts are more than just statistics: born in a village north of the capital, Juba, Mr Lako was taken at the age of 10 – along with many other boys – by the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), under the guise of providing them with an education.
“I would not have managed to do anything without the help of God,” he exclaimed.
His story, a narrative of survival against the odds amidst conditions that would horrify most Australians, is also a tale of faith – one which is set to be shared with the wider community through the release of Mr Lako’s autobiography, The 10-year-old Man.
“The book is a recount of everything I have encountered since the age of 5 to this year, and everything that I have gone through,” Mr Lako said.
“So what I want to do is let people know what other people can go through in life – and hopefully it might mean a lot to some people.
“The whole manuscript is done and I have submitted it to Fremantle Press for consideration for publication, I gave it to them a few months ago so they could get back to me at any time from now.”
Central to both the title and the tale is the reality that for Mr Lako, childhood really did end at age 10 with the arrival of the SPLA.
“They took us to a town called Torit which is about 250km east of Juba, the capital city of South Sudan. We were taken there by road train and a few boys became extremely unwell because of the appalling conditions,” he added.
It was 1990 and Sudan was still gripped by civil war, South Sudan would go on to secede from Sudan after a referendum and declare itself independent in 2011.
Their military leaders immediately regimented the boy’s daily activities, exacting harsh punishments for any misstep and forcing them to take part in construction work for the army, where the officers also filled in as ‘teachers’ for the group.
“I think that was the beginning of the real suffering for us,” Mr Lako said.
“We had to learn to live with the understanding that any mistake you made, you could die. We had to live with the sense that if you wake up today, you’d be thinking, ‘so I’m alive today’.
“We would sleep on the floor with only linen, hessian bags and would often be woken involuntarily at 3am by being beaten harshly by the military police.
“And with barely no clothing, we would be shivering uncontrollably during assembly.”
Mr Lako went on to explain that a general assembly would be often be called and boys presenting fit and able to hold a rifle – thus able to fight in war – would be tested and subsequently disappear, having being taken by the army.
Throughout these hardships and constant insecurity from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan Rebel Movement also terrorising people in Sudan, Mr Lako said he found solace in two things: the support of a French doctor, named Dr Ostrowski and a Catholic priest, named Fr Gerry; and his burgeoning Christian faith, which saw him baptised into the Catholic Church in 1992.
As well as providing him with the strength to face each day, Mr Lako says his faith helped him escape from captivity.
It was 1999, and after being moved to a displaced people’s camp the army evicted the young boys to join the army – there was no consideration in the form of screening provided.
“I had no option – There was a priest who tried to get me out, and said that he’d take me to study in a seminary in Uganda, but it was too late,” he said.
“It was one week away from us getting arms and actually going to fight. I managed to escape, and I think it was all the work of God.
“Even now I still live the consequences. Sometimes I literally still wake up at night and cry, still thinking that I am being beaten,” Mr Lako shared.
“So yes, there really were sometimes when I have broken down and cried while I write, but at the same time, every time I share a part of the story, I’ve felt like I’m letting that go from me – it’s made me feel lighter to be honest.”
Mr Lako crossed the border into Kenya in August 2000, and registered at the Kakuma refugee camp, where he sensed despair among the 800,000 people living there.
“I realised that there was a complete despair among the people – the real meaning of losing hope is when you’re at a refugee camp, and you’ve tried all you can, and this is it, it’s going to end like this, the prospect of getting resettled is almost impossible.”
However, an opportunity for resettlement appeared for Mr Lako when a family he befriended at the camp came under threat from people back in South Sudan, and the authorities decided to move them, and those in their social circle, to another location.
“A case was opened on the fact that these people [from South Sudan] could come at any time, at night, and take this lady’s children, and harm everybody who is known to her or her husband.”
Thus in September 2002, the group was flown to a refugee camp in Dadaab, North Eastern Kenya, where Mr Lako continued his schooling.
Two years later, the UNHCR decided to move him permanently to Australia.
“When I woke up the first morning, I cried terribly. I wondered why these people had helped me – for someone who is not even related to you, or who comes from a different country to help you that much, was something I could not understand that morning,” he said.
“And this is why refugees are very grateful for what has been done for them – they want to pay back that gratitude.”
Reflecting on his time in the camps, Mr Lako praised the work of the Church and its role in bringing help and hope to people without a nation, city or even a house to call their home.
“Honestly, the work of the Church, when I was in the displacement camp, which is also part of the book, there was a Catholic relief organization which is similar to the Catholic Mission here, called Catholic Relief Services or CRS,” Mr Lako said.
“Sometimes, I honestly don’t know what would have happened to us if it wasn’t for this Catholic relief organisation.
“And there was also another, a Catholic priest, who for some reason remained in that camp, in the bush: he was doing farming, his name was Father Gerric, he learned the language and he lived there for years.
“And also because of him, many of us survived – so certainly, the Church has played its role: I honestly think that if it wasn’t for the work of the Catholic Church in particular, I wouldn’t have lived.
“And if it wasn’t for the Church then I think that many of us may have found it more difficult to integrate with Australia.”
The father of three volunteers with MercyCare, teaching English, assisting in the facilitation of safety inductions, and providing other support to refugees.
“When I came here I even struggled to catch a bus, I tell them the little things they need to know, their idea of freedom doesn’t fit with what freedom is in Australia,” Mr Lako said.
“It makes sense for them to hear about it from someone who has been through all that – I am keen to assist any organisation that deal with migrants to aid the integration into Australia.”
Mr Lako last week attended an event where he shared his life story and WTV CH 44 was in attendance to record his tale. The story was aired thrice.