The Children of War
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.