Charles London ’02 Gives Voice to Children of War
By Katherine Reedy ’09
Charles London ’02 was sitting in Shapiro Hall “watching bad television” during his junior year, he recalls, when he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“I just got so fed up by the images of children we were seeing” on television, he explains, “that I decided there had to be more to it than this.”
So London, who goes by “Sandy,” decided he would seek out and tell the stories of those who could not speak for themselves. He partnered with Refugees International, a well-known aid agency, for support and funding, and during summer 2001 traveled to refugee camps in Tanzania, on the border of Congo and Burundi. Then, during winter break of his senior year, he visited areas in eastern Congo. He was hooked.
London, now 28, spent the next five years recording the stories of refugees and child soldiers in Africa, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
The fruit of his labors, One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War, published in 2007 by HarperCollins, is an account of his time spent in some of the world’s most dangerous locations, an outsider’s view of the bloody conflicts in the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Kosovo and Burma that have left millions dead or nationless. Of the book, United States Ambassador Richard Holbrooke wrote: “By taking us into the world of innocent children torn apart by war, Charles London brings an uncomfortable truth to life. This book is difficult reading, but attention must be paid.”
From the start of his project, London found himself in dangerous — even life-threatening — situations. During his senior year sojourn to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had been torn apart by war since 1996, he spent his 22nd birthday with the personnel of Refugees International “in a hotel in a rebel-controlled city eating chocolate cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ ” The next day, Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano, erupted, and his group fled with hundreds of thousands of Congolese villagers to Rwanda, a country wracked by ethnic violence. He recalls the terror of the situation, and especially the fear and suffering of the people around him. “Between 300,000–500,000 people were displaced in a 24-hour period,” he says. “We got a tiny sense of what it was like, to experience that rush to get out.”
And in September 2007, London visited Burma, having previously met with Burmese refugees in Thailand for his research. While there he witnessed the monk-led uprising against the military junta, an experience that he described in an October 21, 2007, essay in the “Lives” department of The New York Times Magazine. “I had seen the country shown in the guidebooks, not the one in which people suffer forced labor, torture and rape,” he wrote.
One Day the Soldiers Came contains the words of children affected by the fighting. For London, who had no prior experience with war or refugees, the project was a tremendous challenge. During his five years of research, he says, he “would go to a place and hear these stories and then leave ... I had to come back and figure out what it all meant. I had to give myself an education in child psychology, and international conflict, and irregular warfare.” He stops and then adds with characteristic humor, “I was really cheery to be around at a party.”
London, who lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, with his partner, Tim, and his dog, says that more than anything, he loves to write and tell stories. In One Day the Soldiers Came, he says he tried to “take people on a journey. I’m not trying to traumatize anyone, but to give people a chance to know these children, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience.”
London says his experiences at Columbia helped him figure out how he wanted to spend his years after college.
As a first-year, he won the Rolling Stone College Journalism Award for an article he wrote for The Blue and White magazine about campus activism — which, in the late ’90s, was at a low point on Columbia’s campus. The prize led to an internship at Rolling Stone during his sophomore year and the following summer, during which he worked nearly full-time at the magazine.
“I was out following what Britney [Spears] was up to, which may be related to my feeling I needed to do something more meaningful,” he says.
London majored in philosophy and also took courses in the creative writing program. As publisher of The Blue and White and a leader of the King’s Crown Theater Company, he was active in the artistic side of campus life. He credits Leslie Woodard, a professor in the writing program who now teaches at Yale, with pushing him to improve his prose and storytelling, and says that a course taught by Joseph Slaughter on human rights in short stories put his experiences into perspective.
“Just days before [class] I had been in the eastern Congo,” he says. “I got a little arrogant about it. It took me a while to be humbled again in that academic setting.”
Since his inspirational moment in Shapiro Hall, there has hardly been a pause in the frenetic pace of London’s life. He supported his New York “home base” by working as an assistant at a theater company, as an after-school program coordinator and as a B-movie script reader and editor for Focus Films in between research trips for the book. A stint working at the New York Public Libraries led London to consider a career as a librarian, for which he has nearly completed a master’s in library and information science at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
With the success of his first book, London has put library studies aside for the time being to live his dream of being a professional writer. His next book will explore the dynamics of Jewish communities that thrive in unusual and unlikely places. So far, that project has led him to rural Berkley, Va., where he says he “went bowling with an Orthodox rabbi,” and by the end of 2008 he expects it will take him to Uganda and Iran.