MALAKAL, South Sudan — I didn’t really think he was going to shoot me. There was no anger in his eyes. His finger may not have been anywhere near the trigger. He didn’t draw a bead on me. Still, he was a boy and he was holding an AK-47 and it was pointed in my direction.
It was unnerving.
I don’t know how old he was. I’d say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19. But there were a few soldiers nearby who looked even younger — no more than 15.
When I was their age, I wasn’t trusted to drive, vote, drink, get married, gamble in a casino, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. It was mandatory for me to be in school. The law decreed just how many hours I could work and prohibited my employment in jobs deemed too dangerous for kids — like operating mixing machines in bakeries or repairing elevators. No one, I can say with some certainty, would have thought it a good idea to put an automatic weapon in my hands. But someone thought it was acceptable for them. A lot of someones actually. Their government — the government of South Sudan — apparently thought so. And so did mine, the government of the United States.
There was a reason that boy pointed his weapon my way. A lot of them, in fact. In the most immediate sense, I brought it upon myself. I was doing something I knew could get me in trouble, but I just couldn’t help myself.
I tried to take a picture. Okay, I took a picture. More than one.