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Angelo’s story: of survival and finding meaning in life. As told to Sean.

Angelo, MAG South Sudan

From the age of nine until 15, Angelo was a child soldier. He suffered horrendous experiences. He has come a long way and is a highly valued member of MAG's staff in South Sudan, with senior responsibilities. [Photos: Sean Sutton / MAG]

Angelo Lawrence is 30 and has worked with MAG for the last five years, now responsible for leading a number of Community Liaison teams in South Sudan. Life is rewarding for Angelo and he is a role model to many. He survived the civil war, went on to get an education and now has a respected, highly skilled job.

But life was not always so good. At the age of nine, Angelo was taken from his family and trained to be a child soldier. On a hot sunny afternoon under the shade of a breadfruit tree in the town of Pajok, Angelo told me his extraordinary story and I knew he had to share it with you:

“My elder brother was in the army – soldiers came and took him when he was 18. He went to Ethiopia for training but after a few years, he saw a chance to escape the fighting and ran away. Soldiers came to our home looking for him but he hadn’t returned to us and so, after a fruitless search, the soldiers demanded that my mother pay for the loss of her son to their army. The payment was all our grain – and me.

I was taken to a military base, which was to be my ‘home’ for the next two years. It wasn’t good – it really wasn’t. I was one of many boys that the soldiers trained to fight during the day and sent out to raid villages for food at night. The food we ate was often rotten but hunger makes you less fussy. We didn’t have guns then – just sticks. I’m ashamed to say that we sometimes beat people if they refused to give us food. Hunger makes you do terrible things.

'We focused on survival'

When I was 11, we moved from the base, travelling first to Tingongongo and then on to Boor, by foot – a distance of many miles. Many people died along the way, from sickness or starvation. It always seemed to me that the older ones suffered the most – they were always thinking of their families at home.

Us young ones only focused on survival – we could barely recall the childhoods we had and the loving families we had been taken from. I was lucky – my uncle was in our fighting group. I don’t think I would have made it without him. I was very small and remember him lifting me on his shoulders whenever we had to wade across a swamp, however weak he might have felt.

The long journey had left us a weak and starving army. An odd thing happens when you are so thin with starvation – we all developed a tail. Humans have a tail you know, it is just usually covered with flesh. I remember not being able to sit – I had no buttocks.

A crazy decision

After a few months in camp all the child soldiers were gathered together and told that we were to go to school. Amazingly, most of us didn't want to go. We protested – we wanted to stay and fight.

It seems crazy to you, I am sure, and it is hard for me to explain. I can only tell you that we had suffered so much, we couldn’t bear the thought that it may have all been for nothing. The fear, the hunger, the gruelling training, the hardship, the loss – it had to be for something. I thought that something was being part of the fight for our liberation and the victory we all dreamed of.

Some of the children were sent away to school but a small number of us – me included – managed to convince the men to let us stay. We climbed a big hill with our heavy guns, just to prove we were strong and able to fight like men, not the boys we really were. I didn’t feel like a boy then. My life for the last six years had not resembled a childhood in any way, shape or form.

So boys and men alike were sent to the town of Kapoeta, close to the border with Kenya and of strategic importance in the war. I was 15 when I went on my first attack. It was terrible. So frightening. I remember being angry with myself, constantly asking myself: 'Why didn't I go to school when I had the chance? Why?'

The landmine hell

I was the only one in my entire platoon left alive and uninjured after that first battle. Thirty died. Two survived. Me and one other, whose legs were blown off when he stepped on a landmine. All around me, people fell dead to the ground. They just dropped, like leaves from a tree. I saw my uncle go down. There was so much blood.

I was very confused and utterly terrified. I don't know if I was shooting. I just don't remember. I think my mind has blanked out so much in order that I can carry on, as some sort of protection from the horror. I do remember throwing down my gun and crying. I was a boy and this was hell.

There were five rings of defensive trenches. The troops had charged over the first line but the trenches were full of mines. You would jump in and the mines would blow you out again. I can’t believe I alone made it alive and with all my limbs intact. Come out of the trench and you were shot. Leap for cover in a trench and you were blown up by a landmine. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere was safe.

It is a miracle to me that I survived that hell. For that I am thankful – and I have to make my survival mean something.

Leaving the battlefield

Over two weeks of endless fighting and against all odds, we pushed our enemy out of their trenches and they retreated to the airport. The airport was another bad place. The enemy reorganised and counter attacked us, this time armed with many tanks. The tanks just rode over people, alive and dead. No reinforcements came. Many died and many more were captured. Our commander died. Soon after, I left the battlefield for school.

But school wasn't the haven I expected. We still had guns and we still had to perform sentry duty at night. The school was actually a big arms base, about 100 kilometres from the front. Guns had become like money in South Sudan and people used them to barter for food – a much rarer commodity. We were often attacked by civilians who would raid the base, stealing as many guns as they could.

In 2000, I and many other ex-child soldiers were given permits to go to Uganda for proper schooling. I managed to finish year seven and then went to a Catholic secondary school. The UN helped us then. I told them I was 17, which made me eligible for schooling, but really I was 19. I was small and so they believed me.

I did my final examination in 2005 and then I left Uganda to return to Sudan. For the first time I was reunited with my family. I was a stranger to them. I had left my family at nine years old and, a decade on, there was nothing left of the boy that I had been. Now I needed to get work and support my family.

Joining MAG

I saw an advert for a job as a Community Liaison Officer with MAG. I was shortlisted but it was very competitive. I was very quiet then and I think it went against me. But I was put on a reserve list for a job and so I received the training. MAG had two job positions and trained seven people. Four of us passed and, because my exam score was the highest, MAG changed their mind and gave me one of the jobs.

After just nine months I was promoted to team leader. I proved a good team leader and eventually was promoted to the senior role I am in now – Community Liaison Manager for MAG in South Sudan.

It is my job to develop work plans for the community liaison teams, who gather information from communities to ascertain the location, extent and impact of contaminated areas and to find out about the needs of people there. I report to the Technical Operations Manager and to the UN, so I have a lot of responsibility but I am happy to.

Life-changing differences

You see, I know the benefits that MAG brings to the people of South Sudan – and to other war-weary countries. Clearing the land of unexploded landmines does more than just making it safe for people to move freely. Because when people can walk on the land without fear of detonating a live landmine, then they can begin to farm that land. Crops grow and are traded. Water points appear. Schools are built.

Then one day you look around and in lands that were once filled with the threat of death and maiming, you see a thriving community, fed, watered, working, educating their children. I have seen the changes to people's lives. What MAG does is a true thing – true help. There are a lot of positive things and I am so proud.”

Angelo’s story is one of survival against the odds. But it is much more than that. As I listened to this extraordinary young man who has endured so much, I was struck by how Angelo had found meaning in life by giving others the very thing that was denied to him – childhood.

Angelo would be the last person to call himself a hero – but that is exactly what he is in my view. The story of Angelo’s youth is harrowing to read – no child should endure what he went through.

But Angelo’s story is also one of survival, hope and a meaning that brings him peace, where otherwise may lie trauma. Angelo has found his meaning by helping to clear his country of landmines. I hope you choose to be a part of his story. I hope you choose to support MAG.

– Sean Sutton, MAG, UK office

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Page published: 1 July 2013

    Angelo fills out a Dangerous Area report
Angelo completes a report on an unexploded rocket propelled grenade that had been found in a field and then placed on the side of the road by a villager. The nearby technical came shorly and disposed of the item.  

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Mine Risk Education at a school
A MAG Community Liaison Team at Lelere village school in South Sudan, helping to increase the children’s awareness of the dangers posed by landmines and unexploded bombs.

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MAG (Mines Advisory Group) saves and improves lives by reducing the devastating effects armed violence and remnants of conflict have on people around the world.
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