Children of War

At the University of Vermont, most students and faculty come from cushy middle to upper class homes. Whether from the city, suburbs, or the country, most have lived without the threat of war in their backyards and with all basic needs fulfilled.

However, this is not the case for all here at the University of Vermont. There are several students here who have an understanding of war, an understanding found through the trials of growing up in an area where war is an unavoidable reality of daily life. Hailing from Sudan and Liberia to Bosnia and Albania, these students’ possess much that students of the status quo can learn from.

Raphael Okutoro, UVM Senior and filmmaker understands this. He has recently produced a video entitled “Youngsters in War.” Its visual simplicity gives way to a message of great complexity, poignancy, and importance. Okutoro was born in Nigeria and moved to Liberia at a young age, where he lived until moving to the US in 1998. The video is a taped discussion between he and fellow UVM student, Abraham Awolich, who was born in Sudan and was separated from his family at eight years old and forced to fend for himself and his younger cousin. In the discussion they relate their experiences with each other, giving insight to the effects that war has had on their lives and on the societies the grew up in.

As producer, Okutoro had to find funding to pay for a technical staff, studio time, and many other externalities. He received financial support from UVM, private donors and local businesses, but was forced to sacrifice a few ideas due to lack of funding. Okutoro explains his intentions for producing the video on a subject matter that is so personal: “Awareness, awareness that there might be people around you who have been through things that you haven’t. War is real, and most are unaware of the true negative effects.”

The video begins with the two students outlining the political circumstances behind the civil wars that dominated the everyday life of their childhoods. Awolich explained how for 36 of Sudan’s 49 years of independence, different factions within the country have been at war. The current conflict in Sudan is the continuation of the civil war that started in 1983. After Awolich had been separated from his family he made his way with his younger cousin to Ethiopia where he spent three years at a refugee camp.

He describes in detail the great challenges that he faced as a child fending for himself. With no family to rely on for emotional support, he repeatedly faced times of sheer desperation, carrying the weight of his young life with no assistance outside of international organizations that he frequently relied on for food. He laments, “It is one of the worst things to grow up without family, because it is family that defines who you become or what your sense of life is. Most people commit suicide because they couldn’t find meaning in their lives.”

Although Okutoro lived with his mother and two older siblings throughout the conflict, he recalled similar times of great desperation. He detailed not uncommon moments of emotional breakdowns sustained by family members when the weight of trying to raise children well with fighting taking place on the streets below became too great. He described a few standout individuals who stood as pillars of stability in times of desperation, including a woman who acted as a foster mother and cared for children whose parents had been killed.

In speaking with Okutoro after production, he said that there were many things that he would have like to include in the video but was unable to include because of time and financial restraints.

Okutoro as well as Awolich have many more stories of the true horrors faced when growing up in war. Okutoro speaks of the grim reality that in many cases, children end up fighting in the war they find themselves in. He said of this, “I have friends who fought- there were times that I also fought; it was a matter of survival.”

Okutoro speaks of the effect years of war and being continually exposed to so much death and slaughter has on people; that many times he saw people have violent breakdowns, lashing out at anyone they crossed. Random murders were not uncommon.

Their discussion moves toward the nature of war and who the true victims of war are. Awolich speaks of this without reservation when he states, “[Regardless of] the real reasons for war, the impact always falls back on the people, the weak people, not the people who plan the war.” He continues, “The most vulnerable people are the women and children, who actually have nothing to do with the war.”

Awolich places great emphasis on the fact that those who suffer the most have no control over their situation saying, “It doesn’t matter what the aim of the war is, it is always bad. Particularly to those who are vulnerable, not the politicians or the soldiers, although they [the soldiers] do go through the pain. But, the burden always comes back to the family, whose children are the worriers, displaced or separated.”

Toward the end of the video the two speak of both the negative and positive effect that the circumstance of their childhood has had on the lives today attending college in the US. Awolich says of the overwhelming negative effect, “Even if I get a PhD., I still will feel I have lost something, regardless of what I have gained.” He continued by stating that he now believes that there is no condition that cannot deal with because he has been though it all before.

Okutoro said of the effect it has had on his life, “I learned a lot, it has given me a very different perspective.” He went on to say how he has been able to use the negative events as a positive influence on his life for all he has gone through has made him stronger and more determined.

In conclusion Awolich’s states, “If I become an important person in society and had to make decisions for others, I would always make decisions that are peaceful and would not harm the families.”