issue 192 - February 1989
How can you help a six-year-old who has been
trained to kill? How can you make 200,000 children who
have lost their families feel wanted and loved? Orlanda
Mendes shows how Mozambicans are finding ways.
Not long ago I was in one of the many refugee camps in the central province of Zambesia. Speaking with the local authorities there, they confirmed what the statistics had told me: that this was one of the regions with the greatest number of children orphaned or abandoned due to the war.
However, when I asked the refugees themselves how many children were family-less not one hand was raised, 'That's strange,' I thought. Then the same question was asked in another way by the Secretary of the camp: how many children do not have their mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or any other relatives with them? Several dozen children's hands shot up out of the crowd of about 300 people. Then I understood - all of those children had been spontaneously adopted by other families also fleeing from MNR attacks.
According to African tradition, when a little bird loses its nest it finds other shelter, The concept of family, of solidarity, has a range and depth that is not always easily understood by people in other parts of the world, There, in front of me were ragged, undernourished, exhausted people. Women, twenty years of age, shrivelled as dried trees, blown by many winds and tempests. Men with a sad, bitter look - that revealed no hope, no future. Children with huge bellies and eyes full of fear. Food was scarce, cooking utensils non-existent. For shelter there were improvised straw huts, barely large enough to accommodate an adult, Fever and diarrhoea were claiming the lives of two or three children a day.
Normally self-sufficient farmers, proud of their culture, these people had been wrenched from their place of birth, from the protective tree of their ancestors. But the feeling of community and solidarity would never be extinguished: each mother would draw to her another daughter or son, each grandparent another grandchild, each child another little sister or brother.
It is for this reason that in Mozambique - where an estimated 200,000 children have lost all contact with their parents - there are so few children in orphanages, And it is not just because the State cannot afford to build and run such institutions, The explanation lies in our way of being, of thinking, not only in the countryside where ancestral values are better protected, but also in modern cities.
Take the case of 10-year-old Osvaldo, an orphan who one night turned up at the humble Maputo home of Gloria and Carlos Lazaro de Andrade Magaja - and became their tenth child.
Carlos, the father, explains it thus: 'That night we just sensed that he should really be one of us.'
* * *
It is not always so simple. Over the past two or three years a horrifying new phenomenon has emerged: that of 'instrumentalized' children. These are children captured, used and abused by the MNR. Many have been forced to witness or take part in acts of violence that beggar the imagination. There are 39 such children - far too disturbed and traumatized yet to be integrated into family life - at the Lhanguene home for instrumentalized children in Maputo.
It is afternoon when I arrive. In the sports field the children, all boys, are playing. All except Franisse S. Six years old and the latest arrival at the home, he looks at me with mistrust. Only with the director and the 'mamas' (volunteers from the Mozambican Women's Organization OMM) will he talk. And so it is through them that I learn what I relate to you now.
Son of peasants in the province of Gaza, Franisse was kidnapped by Renamo during a dawn raid. They set fire to all the houses in the small community. As the villagers fled their burning homes they were shot. Their bodies were then cut into pieces to be cooked. Franisse, the only one left alive, was forced to collect the remains of his relatives and put them in the drums the family used for storing water.
He was then taken back to the bandits' camp and, along with other children, was given military training. One day they were ordered to attack a village and get some food. Franisse could not resist the water melons growing in one of the fields and was just about to gather some when he was surprised by Frelimo soldiers. They seized him - and his rifle. After a brief period of investigation he was brought here.
* * *
As I am observing the boys they observe me - at a distance. But when they realize that I am from the Radio they gather around. They put their ears to the tape-recorder and want to know how it works. In this way I begin to converse with Ernesto Alfredo M.
Although 12 years old he is small and fragile. With large, soft, dark eyes, he is a child who enchants at first sight. He tells me that he was kidnapped from his home with his uncles and his mother. Like so many others he was made to serve the bandit chiefs and trained to kill.
'There were many boys of my age being trained. Life with the bandits was very bad. We were not allowed to play, we were beaten and all we got to eat were animal skins. The bandits would beat many people, some were beaten if they said they were ill and could not train, others were beaten if the bandits said they had not carried out orders properly. I myself was beaten many times.'
Ernesto Alfredo lowers his head and twists his hands nervously when I ask him how he was captured.
'When they came the first time they stole food and killed my grandfather. First they tied him up, then they killed him. Afterwards they hacked his body into pieces and laid it out behind our house. I was full of fear and anger. I felt so bad I wished I could just die. But there was nothing I could do.'
The second time the bandits came it was to burn, rob and kidnap. They took him and the rest of the family - but separately. His mother and his uncles were taken to what the bandits called 'the people's base', where the adult captives are kept. He never saw them again.
Ernesto Alfredo then tells me how he took part in an attack on the town of Chokwe. 'We - children and a few grownups - were sent to raid for food, clothes and arms. We started to fire at some people who were running away. When we got into the town there were dead bodies all over the place. Maybe some of them were people I had killed, I don't know. I only shot, shot, shot, because I was so afraid.'
Finally I ask him how he feels about the children's home. He says he likes it because here he can play, joke, go to school and have friends. When he grows up he wants to be a teacher.
* * *
Using children as fighters is a natural development for the MNR. They have never had a social base from which they can recruit voluntarily so they resort to mass abductions, mostly of peasants. The use of children serves two functions: not only does it provide troops for fighting and raiding, it also deeply damages the principle resource of this country - the children, the future. Impressionable and vulnerable, children are easy to use and abuse - with long-lasting effect.
To free these children from fear and mistrust takes love, care, patience and understanding. These are plentiful at the Lhanguene home - but they are also the only resources available. Initially the home received the help of British psychologists (and later an American) who assessed the psychological state of the children. But the day-to-day running of the home is down to people who are not specialists. The director is a 30-year-old secondary school teacher, Reinaldo Mucavele. Working with him is a voluntary team of the women from the Organization of Mozambican Women (OMM) and two young helpers from the Frelimo party youth movement (the Continuadores).
The atmosphere of tranquility and understanding that exists at the home, the spirit of solidarity and comradeship between the children and the adults, are the means by which the children are slowly rediscovering the world.
'The worst is over,' says Reinaldo Mucavele. The children are less aggressive than when they first arrived. Nor are they passive. Some, especially those who spent most time with the bandits, are still deeply disturbed however and require special care.
Attending the local school is also helping to reintegrate the children into society and everyday life. But to make this possible the home ran a 'sensitization' programme for teachers and other children in the community.
Training seminars involving teachers and psychologists, which now take place in every province, are vitally important. Teachers learn techniques for identifying and counselling 'children in difficult circumstances'. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has devised a special programme of activities - involving sports, hobbies and games - for instrumentalized children.
But the agonies and the difficulties persist. The war is not over. Families must eventually be found for its most troubled victims. And there always more, even more troubled children, escaping or being captured or rescued from bandit ranks, in need of help.
So far most of the attention has been focussed on boys. Although there must be many, little is known about the girls kidnapped by the bandits - the children of nine and ten who are raped and forced to become the 'wives' of chiefs.
The wounds of Mozambique's children run deep. Armed banditry, the favored weapon in South Africa's war against Mozambique was conceived to destroy not only the present but also the foundations of the future. One of the many crimes of apartheid on which history will one day pass judgement.
Orlanda Mendes became a journalist after Mozambique's liberation from colonial rule in 1974. She works with the national station, Radio Moçambique.
Bandit chief - aged 14
Fernando M. is smiling. But it is a sad smile on a face void of emotion. His words don't come out easily, even though he is speaking in his mother-tongue Tsonga. Fernando M. is 14 years old and one of the most obviously disturbed boys in the home. He screams nearly every night, tormented by nightmares.
For about 18 months he lived with the bandits and was made chief of the boy fighters. 'One day they gave me a pistol and said: kill that person. I did not want to but they warned me: If you don't kill them you will die.
'I killed and then they said I could now become a chief. Afterwards they forced me to walk with branches full of spikes on top of my head and shoulders, it was to make me tough, they said. It hurt a lot but I was afraid so I did not cry. This was how I became chief of the other children.'
He took part in an attack on Maluane, a community next to the National Road which links Maputo to the rest of the country. 'I killed two people, children. If I hadn't killed them I would have been killed. These were the orders...'
In a torrent of words, he says that it was then that he gave himself up to Frelimo soldiers. 'I was not captured,' he says with pride. 'I ran away because I killed two bandits during the attack: the witchdoctor and another. The first I killed because he had been trying to choke me, the other because he was one of the bandits who had abducted me from my home in the first place.'
And now? 'I am well, I want to stay here. My mother is already dead and there are bandits where my father lives and they could kidnap me again.'
And if the bandits came here? 'If they came I would find a gun and kill them all.'