This is another graphic novel for tweens and older, but unlike Marzi, a memoir, War Brothers is a fictionalized account of real events that have occurred in contemporary Uganda. War Brothers is about the fates of four friends as they fall under the domination of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA fills its ranks with kidnapped children who are tortured and traumatized until they either die or become child soldiers for Kony, who thinks of himself as some sort of anointed representative for God on earth. War Brothers is dark and violent, as it must be to tell such a story, but the violence is not gratuitous and the ultimate message is one of hope — that if the story is told, if people know, then we can stop Kony and the LRA and perhaps save those who have been taken.
The novel opens in 2002 in Gulu, Uganda, at the home of 14-year-old Kitino Jacob. Jacob is the only child of a prosperous business man; he is a math wiz and enjoys playing soccer with his pal Tony. Tony and Jacob attend George Jones Seminary for Boys along with friend Paul and a new boy named Norman. The boys’ parents are aware of the danger that Kony and the LRA present, and the gated school with extra security guards seems a safe environment. But a nighttime LRA raid leads to the capture and kidnapping of the student body, who are force-marched into the jungle. What happens to them there is horrifying and harrowing. They are beaten and encouraged to harm each other; the weak are killed, often by other students at the command of LRA soldiers, many of whom are still children themselves. Only soldiers get to eat. Females are segregated and treated as slaves/wives. To speak to them means death for the girl and a beating for the boy. And those who try to run away, like the girl Hannah, are subject to a hideous punishment. Jacob tries to hold onto his faith and his hope that his father will help effect a rescue, but as time passes, it becomes clear that rescue will only come if Jacob can do it for himself. He and a few others work out a very risky plan. Since we know from the first pages that Jacob is telling this story in retrospect, we know that he has made it out safely, but we don’t know about his friends or how life changes after captivity.
As with Marzi, the art work in War Brothers reflects the changing mood of the novel. The dark and violent passages are visually obvious when you pick up the book as they are marked by black borders. Artist Daniel Lafrance shows the natural beauty of Uganda both in the jungle and in the state park that attracts foreign tourists and seems to act as a no-man’s land in the battle between government forces and the LRA.
At the end of the novel, Jacob writes out some pertinent and provocative questions for the reader, which would be wonderful for a classroom discussion. Who is the victim and who is the criminal here? What kind of punishment should be meted out for child soldiers of the LRA? Who is responsible? And this: “What happens when the child becomes an adult and continues on his or her path of destruction?” Ultimately Jacob and the other survivors believe that telling this story will lead to change. But does it? Kony and the LRA are still on the loose. Those child soldiers who returned from captivity were sometimes rejected by their families and communities. And if you think about it, how do we in the US treat those who have been incarcerated and return to our community? War Brothers challenges the reader to consider the circumstances that lead to violence and brutality, as well as society’s reaction to criminals and victims.
This book is also available as a traditional novel (194 pages) by Sharon McKay.