Henda is the fourth of five sisters born in a small town in the Upper Mekong Region filled with drug trafficking, tribal feuds, and much hatred and corruption.
Because Henda’s family was prohibited from trafficking drugs due to local interests, the family had no other choice except to live in poverty.
When 11-year-old Henda graduated from the sixth grade, her teachers, representing government interests, offered a “promising” army program to study medicine and electronics. With dreams of rescuing her family from their current poverty, she signed up — and was instead forcibly recruited into a dance troupe owned by the local military base.
She spent the next four years as a slave.
When we interviewed Henda and listened to her experiences with violence and hardship, the pain her memories inflicted was clear. She worked the fields and did military drills all day, and then danced in the evenings. Food was rationed and in short supply. The cost of making one mistake was mandatory beating by all the other children with sticks and belts. Those children who didn’t participate in beating their friends were given further punishment.
Boys over 10 years old who could carry guns were given access to alcohol, drugs, and meat. Girls were not. They had to work in the fields with the younger boys, and were sometimes used as prostitutes even though many of the soldiers generally already had wives.
Henda escaped the army at the risk ofto her life when she was 16 years old. She couldn’t return to her home because the army knew where she lived and harassed her family to try to find her. By the time we connected with her, she had fled the country.
Tragically, many with a similar history of poverty and armed conflict are not as fortunate to escape. IN:FIRE exists to help children just like Henda. Through educational programs, local communities are offered opportunities to rise above poverty and training to prevent vulnerable children from being recruited into conflict.
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