Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese “lost boy” who led 600 American athletes onto the field during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, could be Christophe, one of the main characters in Heart of Diamonds, my novel of scandal, love and death in the Congo. Lomong’s story had a happy, triumphal ending; Christophe’s tale is more typical of the thousands of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations where boys and girls are kidnapped, drugged, brainwashed, and bullied into becoming killers, rapists, and sex slaves.
In 1991, Lomong fled the Sudan at the age of six after having been separated from his parents by the civil war between the Arab north and Christian south that left two million dead in his still-deeply-troubled native land. He was one of the “lost boys” who trekked on foot for hundreds of miles, many dying of starvation and even lion attacks as they made their way to refugee camps in Kenya. In 2001, he was one of the 4,000 boys resettled in the United States.
Lomong is now an American citizen, a successful middle-distance runner, who was chosen by his teammates to carry the Stars and Stripes in the parade of nations during the opening ceremonies in Beijing. Christophe is a fictional character, but his story is much more typical.
In the opening scene of Heart of Diamonds, Christophe tells how he was captured and forced to watch his mother’s brutal rape, torture, and murder by guerrillas who attacked his village near the Congo’s border with Angola. The fourteen-year-old is forced to kill a fellow villager before being marched away to begin his life as a child soldier. He plays a key role throughout the book, but his story doesn’t end as happily as Lopez Lomong’s.
Heart of Diamonds is a work of fiction, of course, but thousands of children in the Congo have suffered Christophe’s fate. They are captured by militias, guerrillas, and war lords like dissident general Laurent Nkunda, whose National Congress for the Defense of the Congolese (CNDP), was reported to have deployed child soldiers as recently as December, 2007. Bosco Ntaganda, chief of staff of Nkunda’s militia, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for conscripting children, but Nkunda has refused to turn him over for trial.