A man stands quietly against a wall. His hands are bound. He indicates the chest pocket of his t-shirt with his eyes.
A man with an AK-47 pulls a photo from the pocket. Children, nephews, nieces, grandparents, uncles, aunts - all squeezed together so they can fit in the frame. A celebration of some sort.
"Please, no blood on this," says the bound man, his voice calm.
The other man nods, but does not look at the photo. Instead he puts it in his chest pocket. This is a kindness, but he knows he will destroy the photo as soon as the job is done.
"Also," says the bound man, "if you have a son, please take him a message."
A powerful slap brands the bound man's face. His cheek glows red. But he does not look down.
"You may not speak of my family," says the other man. He steps back, lifts the AK-47, takes aim.
The bound man speaks again. His voice is still calm.
"Tell him he has a choice."
The rifle fires one shot. The walls echo. Then silence.
The man with the rifle leaves the body on the ground, which is the way it is done.
Guns are nothing, really. Fear is what matters. Punishment must be advertised. It is just the way. He walks on and does not look back -- walks back to his post with the other man's photo in his pocket.
That night he goes to visit his son at his mother's house, though it is against the rules to leave his patrol. His wife and daughter are gone. Dead probably. He does not know for sure. They vanished when the fighting went badly.
He can think only of his son. 11 years-old. The boy wants to join the fight. The father has forbidden it. The boy has learned to use an assault rifle anyway. After school. With the militia. On the playground.
The man waits for his son to come home. He pulls the other man's photo from his pocket. Normally, he would have ripped it into pieces without looking at it or burnt it. To make it vanish. But now he gazes at the photo - at the smiles: in the women's eyes, in the men's mustaches and beards, in the children's dimples. It is not the first time he has looked. He has been slipping the photo in and out of his pocket all day to steal glances. To confirm what was. To change what is.
His son walks in. The man stands and says how it will be. The boy will live with relatives in the south. Out of the rebel-held lands. He will leave the next morning.
The boy's eyes are full of protest. "They will know from my accent that I come from here," the boy says quietly. He knows he will face discrimination and perhaps mistreatment in the south even though there is no open battle there. But he is not afraid. What burns inside him is that he wants to fight, not run.
"You will have a choice there," says his father.
Ironically, there is no room for argument. The father's word is final. The boy knows his place. He lowers his gaze and goes to put his things in his backpack.
At 3 AM, the man is back at his mother's house to wake his son and take him to a rendezvous point with a truck heading south. It carries 200 live chickens and at least as many guns. The father will bribe the driver so the boy can hide with the guns under the false floor. The boy knows the plan.
Then he sees his father is no longer carrying the AK-47. Instead, he holds a small, battered suitcase without a handle-- holds it under his arm like a bundle of firewood.
The boy's eyes get big. But he says nothing. The father takes his arm.
"We go together."
They hurry down the deserted road, under the stars, through the cool morning, their steps quiet and light.
This story is fiction, but it could unfold in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or Libya or the Central African Republic or Colombia or Ukraine or Gaza or the Philippines or anywhere in at least 23 countries around the world where conflicts affect children (United Nations report).
FOR AN UPDATE: See this September 8 story about the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, speaking before the UN Security Council.
This is cross-posted on Thinking Philanthropy.