The real stories behind the headlines

Closeup looks at daily life during the intifada, the lives of child soldiers

These are the stories we don't always want to read. Crisp, objective news reports are easy by comparison. They rattle off facts and statistics - a war here, a settlement agreement there - and ask little of us. But these books describe the human experience behind those reports, and that is another matter altogether. These are stories of sights and sounds and smells. Stories of anguish and fear.

We are moved, and we should be: The human cost of wars and failed settlement agreements is devastating. It deserves our attention, our concern, our response.

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and columnist who has occasionally written for this paper, moved to Israel 20 years ago with her husband, a cardiologist and a native Israeli. They have three daughters.

"Maneuvering between the Headlines" tells the story of what life there has been like for her and her family and friends. "Since the Intifada started," she writes, "there have been so many bombings that it is impossible to keep them straight."

How can one support bombs when trying to live among them? While the book is not a political diatribe, the writer touches on her own politics: "I didn't fit the profile of the hard-line American settler living in the occupied territories, or supporting them.... Many Americans who have moved to Israel form the background of the peace movement. I am far from any activism, but I am with them in my sympathies and in my writing."

She aptly describes daily life as a surreal blend of the almost determinedly normal, interspersed with episodes of sheer terror. She writes of waiting in anguish the afternoon her husband was due at the very place the deadliest suicide bomb to date went off, not knowing (in those days before cellphones), that he had rescheduled his appointment.

Schary Motro's essays read more like a blog than a book, as she describes the consequences of daily choices, both personal and political. In the pressure-cooker that is Israel, there is nothing abstract about either one.

"When you see a restaurant you have passed a thousand times turn into a burnt-out gutted shell, and blood on a sidewalk you've walked, and when describing it, you say, 'It's right across the street from that little store where I always bought the children's shoes,' " she writes, "that's when violence is suddenly no longer theoretical."

Schary Motro chose her life in Israel. But the child soldiers profiled in "Innocents Lost" are victims, pure and simple.

Jimmie Briggs is a journalist who spent six years traveling to Rwanda, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Afghanistan to craft these accounts of children who have become soldiers. Their stories are as chilling as they are revealing.

Briggs tells of the careful reintegration of children involved in genocide in Rwanda and the way children in Columbia are brought up in various factions, and of their role in the drug trade.

Readers learn of 15-year-old Duilio, who turns to listen to his friend tell a joke while they are laying land mines. He knocks the mine over; it explodes in his face. With heart-rending nonchalance, the badly injured boy later tells Briggs, "Once you know how to do something sometimes, you don't always do it as carefully as you might. Too much confidence."

Local communities have found strategies to help these children heal, while a 1996 United Nations report called "Impact of Armed Conflict of Children," drew international attention to the problem.

It is a bizarre irony that the very violence, sexual abuse, and drug use these troubled areas of the world are combating, finds their way into video games popular in countries where children are not forced into combat.

But then, that's just it: There is nothing "virtual" about this book. These stories were not served up in tidy press releases. They are graphic and violent, and Briggs took enormous risks to find them, hoping that by exposing the horror, he would help to end it.

The best example may be the last chapter, in which he is bound for Afghanistan to find the 14-year-old Afghan boy who was supposed to have killed the first uniformed US soldier to die in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Briggs writes, "With only a map and a vague idea of how to get there, I set my mind to find Nathan Ross Chapman's killer." As he relates his journey, the pieces fall into place, and a mullah with great perspective seems able to arrange a meeting with the boy's father.

Briggs doesn't press. His experiences have given him a new perspective. "It would have defeated the purpose of going there if some action I took caused problems for the people helping me, or worse, a blood feud," he writes. "Chapman and the boy lost everything they were and everything they could have been. Chapman had gone to Afghanistan to avenge 9/11 and to protect America. The boy who killed him had done so to avenge decades of family loss and death, to protect Islam, and ultimately to achieve a place greater than the one in which he existed.

"I hadn't gotten everything I wanted," Briggs concludes, "but I got more than I needed."

He did indeed. The dust jacket on "Innocents Lost" says there are more than 250,000 children fighting in three dozen conflicts around the world. You will remember these stories longer than you will those statistics.

Carol des Lauriers Cieri is a writer and editor in coastal Maine.

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