Children of the Night
International Effort To Help Children Victimized By War In Uganda Finds Supporters In Baltimore
It takes a lot to make Jacob cry. Not long ago, emotional vulnerability was a luxury he could ill afford. At age 14, Jacob was stolen from his home and conscripted into a rebel army that for two decades has plagued northern Uganda. His captors lacked no proficiency in handing out cruelty. Jacob, like the tens of thousands of other “children soldiers” forced to serve in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel paramilitary group contributing to the nation’s civil war, entered a boot camp aimed more toward dehumanizing the children than toward any political goal. Murder. Rape. Steal. Such were the commands that made up the tools of Jacob’s new trade, and any child attempting escape, or who even broke down in tears, quickly learned another lesson in savagery.
But Jacob did escape, and with him he carried memories powerful enough to spur an international movement, one that will make itself visible in the region this weekend.
Driven more by fear than hope, Jacob joined the sea of child “night commuters” who flee nightly from northern Uganda’s rural communities in Acholiland to the relative safety of the city. Once there, they cloistered in conditions that evoke images of African slave ships bound for the Americas: legions of Acholi children, physically drained from miles of walking, lying under hospital verandas in such close proximity that only their movement allows one to discern where one child ends and the other begins.
It was at one such shelter that filmmakers Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole encountered Jacob. The three college-aged men had left for Sudan in search of a story to film. Instead, they found themselves in Uganda, witnesses to a holocaust. Their video camera eventually turned to Jacob, drawing from him a description of the tragedy that is an Acholi childhood.
“I have nothing,” Jacob says with a desperate clarity captured in the film. “I don’t even have a blanket. We don’t have anything to do with food. Maybe we eat once a day.”
Only later, as he unveiled the details surrounding his missing brother, feared dead after his own abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army, did Jacob, the hardened youth, finally break and release tears that transformed him into “the boy who cried.”
Jacob’s tears proved contagious. The filmmakers’ sobbing can be heard echoing his own on Invisible Children: Rough Cut, a documentary that wasted little time in becoming an international cause, particularly among American youth.
“At the time, we had no idea the film would be a movement,” Russell says in a recent e-mail to City Paper. “I thought we would be showing it to my mom and friends.”
But family, friends, and strangers were equally moved by Jacob’s tears and the Acholi children’s plight. After viewing the film in 2004, California high school student Emily Sernaker recruited friends into selling cookies and “Africa hats” to raise money to help the “invisible children.” A year later, Sernaker’s crew had managed to raise over $25,000 for the cause, and the filmmakers had a movement on their hands. In 2004, they formed a nonprofit organization called Invisible Children Inc., which is dedicated to ending the war in Uganda and drawing international attention to the more than 30,000 children who have been abducted and forced into war.
Armed only with a film and ingenuity, the self-described “ghetto” effort, affectionately known as IC has captured what every corporate marketing department longs for: iconic status among America’s youth. More than simply noble, Invisible Children has managed to pass itself off as hip and cool—and Baltimore’s youth have taken notice.
“Yeah, I’m there!” is Towson University student Katie Dean’s spirited response to an invitation to take part in a Global Night Commute, an event organized by Invisible Children Inc. that encourages individuals around the world to take part in a nighttime march on April 29 to draw attention to the cause. The event is designed to mimic the “night commutes” of thousands of Ugandan children. Participants in the Global Night Commute will trek to a local destination in their areas where they will spend the night.
Dean’s enthusiastic reaction to the event is characteristic of the energy that young people in Baltimore are bringing to the Invisible Children cause. Dean, a photography major, says she will join at least a couple of hundred other locals in a trek to John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C. as part of the Global Night Commute. The Baltimore delegation’s efforts will be reflected by tens of thousands of others in 130 cities in the United States and abroad.
“I’m excited,” Dean says. “I’m actually doing something, not just donating money. The fact of us being on the streets for everybody out there to see—there’s just a lot of creativity involved in this cause.”
The Global Night Commute is Invisible Children Inc.’s most recent—and most media-savvy—effort thus far. By walking to urban centers and spending the night in the open air, the commuters hope to focus the world’s eye on northern Uganda, described by Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs official, as “the world’s terrorism epicenter.”
“Life is as valuable in northern Uganda as it is in Europe, in America, and elsewhere,” Egeland told the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks News in an April 4 interview. “Nowhere is there such a concentrated area where many people are being terrorized for such a long period of time.”
The statistics bear out Egeland’s concerns. According to the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that seeks to resolve global conflicts through analysis and political advocacy, nearly 2 million Ugandans have been displaced from their homes during the 20-year insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Of those, about 50 percent are children under 15 years old—ideal targets for seizure into the army’s ranks.
“I think of the injustice of it all,” says Shani Carter, a 26-year-old barista at Donna’s Café in Charles Village, who describes seeing the Invisible Children film as “a punch in the gut.” She is still haunted by the film, and she hopes the Global Night Commute will urge more people to watch it.
The documentary, which is being screened at colleges, churches, and house parties across the country, can’t help but awaken, says Yvonne Hardy-Phillips, director of Towson University’s African American Cultural Center.
“Only the heartless could remain unaffected by the story of children that travel every night to makeshift shelters to avoid being kidnapped and conscripted into rebel armies,” she says.
Towson senior Lindsey Clements concurs. Having viewed the film during a “semester at sea” while studying abroad, she says she returned home with a burden on her heart.
“Knowing that they [the filmmakers] were so young and seeing how far the movement’s gone, it’s just inspiring,” says Clements, a sports study major who says she’d now like to use her field of study to help some of the kids impacted by the violence in Uganda. “Sports can be a huge way to connect to kids and help them through traumatic times in their life. I would love to be able to do something along those lines.”
Clements embodies the goal of the Invisible Children movement: People stirred to action.
“Whatever people want to do when they hear about Invisible Children—whether through CNN or from their next-door neighbor—is great,” Russell says of the movement. “Donate talent, time, money, but do something, anything. It is an emergency there. We need to act.”
Tonight, Jacob won’t flee for the verandas on Uganda’s city streets. He’s too busy pursuing an education, the means for which were provided by Invisible Children Inc., which today employs more than 150 people in northern Uganda and has placed about 300 formerly displaced children in schools. And it all started with a video camera and a boy who cried.
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