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(Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 24, 2011)

KAMPALA, UGANDA — It’s late at night at the Ugandan-Kenyan border and a little Ugandan boy is about to disappear forever.

Moses Kaloulou, all of seven years old, is crying hysterically. Not that he knows what’s going to happen, that he’ll likely soon die at the hands, and knife blade, of a witch doctor. All he knows is that it’s late — about midnight now — and very dark, and that some hours ago he was taken by strange men.

A border patrol officer looks. Something is wrong. That boy on the back of that motorcycle-taxi is crying wildly. The boy looks Ugandan but the driver, Kenyan. The driver sees he’s being watched. He’s nervous. In a panic, he lets the boy go and takes off into the night. Moses’ life is miraculously saved.

This is the feel-good story of the year for me. I’ll never forget hearing that voice on the phone: “We think we’ve found the boy.” Now it’s Christmas, that celebration for children, a time that’s as good as any, maybe the best, to think of it all.

Remember when three-year-old Kienan Hebert was abducted from his British Columbia home in September? Remember the countrywide anguish? The prayers from coast-to-coast? The amazement when he was returned by, of all people, his abductor? It was one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments.

Not long after, on this side of the ocean, Moses was abducted from his village. His father, Richard, is a Ugandan friend. I had just written about him for The Spectator, how my family pays school fees for Richard’s children. Then his heartsick phone call to me: “Mister Thom! Moses is gone!”

In Uganda, this often means one horrible thing: sacrificial murder. The ritual, known as juju, is performed by witch doctors and supported by paying customers who believe the blood of a child has all kinds of power to bring fantastic success.

Despite a national campaign against this terror, in recent years ritual sacrifice in Uganda has run unabated. Uganda’s Anti Human Sacrifice Task Force has been limited, especially in this culture of corruption.

In fact, if Jesus was a boy in today’s Uganda, we might not celebrate Christmas as we know it at all. A few shillings or pounds or dollars in certain hands, a blind eye and a turned back, and an innocent young life is easily snuffed out. God — if you believe this part of the Christmas story — would need another plan to save humanity.

It’s unknown how many Ugandan children are being murdered. Some estimate that thousands have disappeared in the past four years. The BBC reports that 400 African kids have been trafficked to the United Kingdom alone, apparently for rituals there, before rescue by British police.

There are also good people in Uganda. When Moses vanished, we initiated our own Amber Alert. I gave Richard money for local radio ads. As with Kienan, people prayed. I contacted hundreds of Canadian friends, many in Hamilton, to join the Ugandans.

It was a municipal politician who eventually heard those ads and phoned to tell me Moses had been found, traumatized and now in hospital, but safe. I wish this kind of story was just a dark chapter in Africa’s past. But it’s as true as Christmas. And if the story of that first Christmas indeed is true, then, really, it has less to do with the quaint postcard images we routinely see, than danger and fear and hardships we can’t imagine.

It tells us that the Christ Child was supposed to be brutally slain, and that while his family escaped to the safety of this continent, to North Africa, many other children died in a murderous rage of a fallen king.

And isn’t this closer to our own personal experience? I believe it is. Life can be full of joy. And pain. That’s why Christmas is never just for the world’s children. It’s for the disappointed and lonely, the hurting and confused, those of us who, in a way, need to become like children again.

Then, even in a broken world, we can see beyond it and be held close, and told that, no matter what, nothing, but nothing, can ever get us.