Nelson Kargbo was eleven years old when rebel soldiers attacked his village, Kamalo, in northern Sierra Leone. He was playing soccer on a dirt field at the edge of the village. When he saw houses on fire, he and his best friend, Foday, ran toward the jungle, following Foday’s mother and dozens of other people. They walked until late at night, when they came across a cluster of abandoned mud houses. Foday’s mother, who used to cook for the boys after their soccer games, told them to sleep under a grove of mango trees. “Tomorrow, we’ll keep walking,” she said. “We’ll make it to the city.”
The country’s civil war, which had begun five years earlier, in 1991, had seemed remote to Kargbo. He’d considered it only when he overheard his adoptive father, Lennard, a pastor who had assumed custody of him when his parents died, talking about it with members of his congregation. Kargbo was the youngest child in the family—he had seven brothers and sisters, who were all the biological children of the pastor—and he was accustomed to being ignored. He was reserved and nearly invisible, except when he played soccer. He hoped to play for the national team.
At 3 A.M., he and the others were woken by soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front, an army that was fighting to overthrow the government. They carried trussed goats and bundles of food looted from Kargbo’s village. The R.U.F. commander, a man in his early twenties called General Mosquito, told the boys and men to line up. Their mothers, wives, and daughters waited in another line. Mosquito asked the boy at the front of the line, who was Kargbo’s classmate, if he wanted to join the rebels or return to his mother, and the boy said that he wanted to go home. Without saying a word, a soldier put a gun to the boy’s head and killed him. When it was Kargbo’s turn, he said that he wanted to join the rebels. Foday said the same thing.
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