Nighttime, Northern Uganda, 2005. Several thousand children are huddled together on the bare concrete floor of an empty schoolroom. These children are the night commuters, on the run from the notorious soldiers of rebel leader Joseph Kony and this is where they spend their nights.
Tens of thousands of children make this march each day. Leaving their parents and families behind they set out for the city, to volunteer-run sanctuaries or abandoned buildings crammed with sleeping bodies, hoping to find safety in numbers.
Everyone knows what happens to those who are caught by the rebel soldiers. Mutilations are common, body parts removed in the most vicious way possible – ears, noses, lips and tongues torn off, people set on fire, limbs hacked off with machetes. Children are regularly raped; for girls in particular this is an ever-present danger. Those who survive are forced to fight for Kony’s guerrillas, if they are boys; if they are girls, they become sex slaves for the commanders. And adults are no safer; there are many thousands in Northern Uganda who bear the scars and disfigurements of this long, bloody, and most of all needless, conflict.
But it is with these children, the night commuters, that the story of Invisible Children begins.
In 2003 three aspiring Californian documentary makers – Laren Poole, Jason Russell and Bobby Bailey – raised enough money to travel to Africa and brought their cameras with them, intent on making a record of what they saw. It was in Uganda where they were confronted with the situation that was to change their lives and lead to the founding of Invisible Children.
Driving from Gulu in the north towards Kampala, the Ugandan capital, they were passing through a deserted village when they were confronted by sudden bursts of gunfire and sirens; they rushed to the nearest town to escape from the rebel attack. Taking shelter, they witnessed the thousands of children streaming in from the surrounding villages, seeking refuge in abandoned buildings.
Shocked by what they saw, they began filming, and there they met Jacob, a young boy who was just eleven years old when he was abducted:
“They told me that you are now a soldier, do not try to escape. If you try to escape then we will get you again, then we are going to kill you. My brother tried to escape, then they killed him using panga [machetes]. They cut his neck. I tried to cry but they said that when I cry they are going to kill me.”
Jacob managed to escape, which makes him one of the lucky ones, but lives every day in fear that the rebels will re-abduct him. He knows that if they do, he will be killed.
For two months Poole, Russell and Bailey stayed in Uganda, spending time with Jacob and the other children they met there, filming and learning all they could about the conflict and the mysterious figure of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the man responsible for the continuation of Africa’s longest- running conflict.
Kony bears the dubious honour of being the first man to be indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005. He has presented himself as a messianic figure in possession of untold spiritual power. LRA soldiers believe that Kony knows when Ugandan government forces are going to attack and reports abound of Kony’s miraculous abilities – he can walk on water and he cannot be killed by bullets. Kony’s former wife Aneka claims that he has “devoted himself to God and God revels to him the future.” In countries where animistic religions mix uneasily with Christianity, such claims are seen as entirely plausible by large sections of the population.
Like so many internecine African conflicts, this one has its roots in the times of colonisation. A former British protectorate, the people of the south were granted education and jobs, while the Acholi people of the North were used primarily as labourers and soldiers. When the British granted independence in 1961 they left behind a country split along tribal lines; conflict was all but inevitable.
Under the brutal leadership of Milton Obote the country was devastated by disastrous economic policies, political repression and widespread corruption. Obote was succeeded in 1971 by notorious dictator Idi Amin, who instigated a programme of ethnic persecution against the Acholi and Langi people of the North. In 1981 the northerners rebelled under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni who took power in 1986 and has been the President of Uganda ever since.
Kony rose to prominence in the early years of Museveni’s rule; as the Acholi people lost influence under Museveni, Kony’s group was becoming a formidable fighting force as they absorbed the remnants of other groups that collapsed amidst complicated tribal and political manoeuvrings.
Kony’s struggle, however, has nothing to do with politics or ideology, being rooted more in a bitter sense of personal betrayal. The closest he has come to expressing any kind of coherent political manifesto has been his stated intention to overthrow the Ugandan government and replace it with some vague Biblical theocracy.
Initially, the brutality of Museveni’s own National Resistance Army ensured at least passive support from the Acholi people, but Kony’s lack of any sort of political cohesion combined with his attacks on the populace and the abduction of children meant that he lost the support of his own people. Incensed by what he saw as an act of unforgivable treachery, Kony turned against the Acholi and began his bloody campaign of guerilla warfare.
Fighting spreading from its source in Uganda into Sudan, the Congo and the Central African Republic. In that time 30,000 children have been abducted and forced to fight as soldiers for Kony, and one and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes and settle in the squalor of temporary displacement camps where conditions are so terrible that one thousand people die every week from starvation or disease.
Kony’s methods for inducing the abducted children to fight for him are chilling. Children are often forced to kill their own family members, babies and other children if they want to be allowed to live, before being marched for days through thick jungles. Stragglers are summarily executed.
At the LRA bases, the children are plied with drugs and alcohol, then systematically brainwashed. The knowledge of the swift and merciless repercussions they face if they are caught attempting to escape are usually sufficient to prevent any attempts.
If Kony knows how to instil fear in his followers, he also knows how to convince them that he has a divine mission, thus ensuring their obedience and loyalty. Children are easier to indoctrinate, and hence easier to convince to commit atrocities. Conversely, it also means that military attacks on the LRA are seen as an attack on those who are themselves victims.
The scale of the situation in Uganda is of such a magnitude that it is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world today, and yet it so under-reported in the western media that most people know little about the conflict. Poole, Russell and Bailey felt duty bound to use their skills and talents to address this and to try to bring governmental and media attention to focus on the tragedy.
Upon their return they founded Invisible Children and with the help of friends and volunteers word slowly got out, and their first film ‘Invisible Children: Rough Cut’ garnered considerable attention. And this is what is remarkable about the organisation – driven by the vision of the three founders, it started off and remains a primarily grassroots movement. However, despite attracting the attention of celebrities and securing the support of US Senators and Congressmen, they remain dependent on a network of part time volunteers and ‘roadies’ who dedicate five months of their time to volunteer for the organisation and to organise events and film screenings.
Invisible Children split their time and funding equally between activism and campaigning, and on the ground programmes in Northern Uganda. Currently, Invisible Children has 690 secondary school and 11 partner schools with 8,400 kids regularly attending. Each school receives support in areas of water and sanitation, books and equipment, refurbishment and expansion, teacher training and support. Invisible Children run mentoring and counselling programmes for the students, as well as setting up small business initiatives such as the Bracelet Campaign, whereby people living in the displacement camps are trained in how to make woven bracelets.
These are sold through the organisation to provide an independent income which frees inhabitants from reliance on the insufficient camp rations Invisible Children also provide training in how to save, and invest earnings in their communities and business ventures.
Invisible Children have proved skilled at harnessing the power of the media, whether it be facebook, viral campaigns or engaging with more traditional media outlets.
In April they organised their biggest event yet. Called ‘The Rescue’, the event took place in one hundred cities in ten different countries, including London and Leeds. Participants ‘abducted’ themselves, and were lead from one part of the city, symbolically linked together, to where they would sleep rough for the night. No ‘rescue’ was complete until letters had been written to elected officials, a political or cultural figure had released a statement to the media expressing support for and solidarity with the child soldiers and a media outlet had covered the protest.
The US have since introduced the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act 2009, but despite such successes Joseph Kony remains at large and the breakdown of talks in 2008 means that the possibility of peace remains more remote than ever. Time after time Kony has backed out of peace talks, and the attacks have continued or even intensified. His only aim seems to be to continue the fighting and bloodshed.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, head prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has characterised the conflict as one of the most disruptive and destructive in the world.
He stresses the need for international cooperation if Kony is ever to stand trial for the millions of lives he has destroyed.
“It’s not just an Acholi problem, it’s a humanity problem. The lesson learned is they [the LRA] commit the crimes again… We need to plan how to arrest Kony.” But without increased international awareness and resolve, Kony and his soldiers will remain free to attack, abduct and terrorise for years to come. Invisible Children may not hold the answer, but they can play a role in the solution to a problem that is only going to get worse if the world stands by and does nothing.
To learn more, visit: therescue.invisiblechildren.com