I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically.
It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewelery, I think it's an essential component in this case.
Every time the bracelet makes me aware of its presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crisis facing the world today — the mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.
Up until a short while ago, cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding countryside every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them; some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.
Over the last few years a grassroots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.
In the spring of 2003 three young filmmakers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan. Instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.
One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.
After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck traveling along the same road had been attacked by members of the Lord's Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.
It's another sign of the honesty of their filmmaking that they show their naivete on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.
Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments — although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news – as of this month – shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
I'm getting ahead of the movie here; it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart-rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young filmmakers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.
They show us footage of children lying stacked together like cords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning to potential escapees.
The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly: an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.
What makes the movie effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary — everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible, as shown by the six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.
There are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen-year-old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help then probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these three young filmmakers.
The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy; they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can spread the word — hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public — and they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.
There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Then there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.
Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy, a fourteen-year-old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.
For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children, Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.
At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out: your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it… that there are no more Invisible Children.
You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site.