At a small school in the city of Gulu, Uganda, children are encouraged to play war. Teachers hand out wooden guns, fake machetes and clubs, then shoo the children into the courtyard to pretend to be soldiers, guerrillas or villagers. When the play fighting begins, the children actively participate, one small child yelling, "Let me kill someone, too!" The adults stand by and watch, laughing at times, until the last young villager has been covered in leaves and ostensibly set alight. Then it is time to collect the bogus weapons, round up the children and head inside for lunch.
What may appear horrifying to an outsider is nothing more than an exercise in healing for children who were forced to kill, torture and rape their friends, neighbors, families and strangers as involuntary guerrillas in the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. In "The Night Wanderers," award-winning Polish journalist Wojciech Jagielski writes a painstaking portrait of the evolution of conflict and unrest in an African nation that has struggled for peace since its independence from Britain in 1962.
Jagielski focuses on the plight of the children who are trying to reintegrate themselves back into society after their coerced roles as guerrilla fighters under Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, and specifically follows the story of a 10-year-old boy named "Samuel" (who represents several different children). Jagielski writes with the skill of a master craftsman, folding the story of Samuel into the history of a country that cannot escape a constant onslaught of troubles: disease, drought, government ineptitude, angry spirits and war.
Midway through the book, Jagielski travels to Kampala, and as he writes about Uganda's long history of corrupt governance, he ruminates with honesty about his own questionable code of ethics as a journalist. "In a way, the journalist's profession has betrayal coded into it. It demands gaining people's trust and extracting confidences from them, purely in order to publicize and reveal them, all for a sense of a job well done, for satisfaction, applause and prizes."
"The Night Wanderers" is a balanced union of reflection and reporting, with a fine eye for ironic detail (for example, when a remorseless ex-guerrilla LRA commander delicately asks, "Would you like a drop more milk with your tea?"). In this way, Jagielski expertly shows the consistent uncertainty for the Ugandan people and the horror for the children and their surviving families, who will never be seen the same way again.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.