Sharon McKay Reveals The Life Of A Child Soldier In “War Brothers” [Interview]

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Photo: (Sharon McKay)

Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army only recently became household names, but the reality of the child soldier is a global phenomenon. Throughout the world children are being forced to become soldiers, and writer Sharon McKay is using her storytelling abilities to educate people on the issue.

After doing extensive research and interviewing child soldiers, and even one of Kony’s lieutenants, Sharon wrote the novel “War Brothers.” A graphic-novel adaptation was made soon after, and while the books are about a fictional child soldier named Jacob, everything in them is based on reality. Sharon told MTV Act about her inspiration for “War Brothers,” why there are so many child soldiers these days and what people can do to help.

ACT: What was your inspiration for “War Brothers”?

SHARON: It started with a radio show. It was broadcast on a beautiful Friday afternoon, and the last thing I wanted to hear about was child soldiers. I didn’t know anything about them. I was concerned mostly about dinner that night and turned the radio off. Then turned the radio back on, didn’t like what I heard, and turned the radio back off. I ended up listening to the entire show in my driveway. Then, as people came to a dinner party that night, I ended up sitting in my office, reading about child soldiers. I know I ate something, but I couldn’t take myself away from it. I couldn’t.

It was hard, because I’m white, I’m middle-class; I was living in a log house. I was as far away from these kids and this conflict as anyone could be. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wrote the first chapter very quickly and sent it off to my editor, and I was offered a contract. The next step was to get on a plane. I went with a man named Adrian Bradbury, who at the time was head of GuluWalk [a campaign to help war-affected young people in Uganda]. I went with another friend and we ended up in Gulu, Uganda, hot on the trail of Joseph Kony. I did end up interviewing child soldiers. I interviewed one of Kony’s lieutenants. I found fact checkers and fact checkers. And there it was — it was a novel first before it became a graphic novel.

ACT: How much of the story is based on facts?

SHARON: All of it. That doesn’t mean it is the story of one person. It’s probably the story of three or four people. But there’s nothing in that story that hasn’t happened or isn’t happening. It isn’t exaggerated. If anything, I’ve pulled back. And you know how hard it is to read. It’s brutal. But there’s nothing in there one can’t find in the life of a child soldier.

ACT: Why did you decide to do a graphic-novel adaptation?

SHARON: That was just luck. I was in Alberta and this other graphic novelist told me about this man named Dan Lafrance [who ended up becoming the illustrator]. My life hasn’t been the same since. This young man said, “You’ve got to meet Dan. He’s really into child soldiers.” I said, “Here, give him this book.”

I went on with my life, never gave it a second thought. One day I opened my email to these amazing drawings. I sat there utterly speechless. I printed out everything, called my publisher, and said, “I’m coming now.” It’s a two-hour drive, and I showed him and said, “Look at this.” He was just winded and he said, “We’ve got to do this.” Dan and I are working on our second book now.

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ACT: What’s something about child soldiers that you think people need to know about?

SHARON: They’re everywhere. Child soldiers are not only in Africa. They’re not confined to one area of the world. In most cases, these children are on heavy-duty drugs. Child soldiers are put on drugs as a means of control, and as a means of blocking any compassion they might have. These are man-made drugs. There’s a hallucinogenic in there, there’s gunpowder, there’s dirt. There’s anything you want. They’re made up and shot into their arm. It’s whatever’s handy. These are not street drugs. And what comes with these drugs are filthy needles, so we have the added component of AIDS or any other disease that comes with sharing needles. The results can be horrific immediately, or these kids can live on them a couple months, a couple years, no more than that.

What makes children really good soldiers is that they are not fully emotionally developed. The other thing that makes children good soldiers is that they’re dependent on adults. If they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them, they’ll go to the nearest authority figure. Another thing, of course, is that child soldiers don’t have to be paid. They don’t even have to be fed well. They’re easily replaced if they die. Just go raid another village and you have more soldiers. Also, weapons are quite small these days. Think of guns in World War I. A machine gun in World War I would take three men to shoot. Now you can give a child a machine gun that will fit in his arms. So for all these reasons child soldiers are on the rise. Child soldiers are a relatively new development. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been child soldiers before — there have been. What I’m saying is we haven’t had armies of child soldiers.

The children are forced into it. It’s not a choice.

ACT: A lot of people got their education on Joseph Kony by watching the documentaries from Invisible Children. What do you think are important things people should know about Kony that weren’t touched on by the documentaries?

SHARON: One of the things that struck me, is that Kony can come across — and many of these guys do — as really nice guys. They have this creepy charm. You’re listening to him, going, “Really? You’re the guy who’s murdered thousands of children?” Yet you can look at some of these documentaries and he’s speaking like any other man, quite gently. He thinks of himself as a good man, which makes it even more horrific.

ACT: After reading “War Brothers,” how can people take action?

SHARON: I think the very first thing to do is become informed. A 15-year-old reading something like “War Brothers” and learning about child soldiers will soon be a voter. I think becoming aware of these issues at a young age will make you a stronger citizen, someone more sensitive to the issues.

If a reader feels compelled to learn more about child soldiers, here are a few starting points:

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative

War Child

Human Rights Watch

Amnesty International

A Long Way Gone” by Ismael Beah

Ishmael Beah — Child Soldier – YouTube

If still in school, at whatever level, making child soldiers the focus of an oral or written report is also one way to learn more and spread the word. Talk to your teacher or professor and ask if this is an appropriate topic for your class.

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