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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Invisible children

Uganda, the LRA, night commuters and child soldiers

I stumbled across a 55 minute documentary about the ongoing civil war in Uganda called Invisible Children recently.  While the documentary has quite a few problems as a film – it's obviously shot and edited by (well-intentioned) amateurs, unevenly paced, odd (and occasionally distracting) musical scoring choices etc – its message is both shocking and haunting.  What’s more remarkable is that the filmmakers now devote themselves full time to a very successful aid organization that they created because of their experience making this documentary.

Here’s the basic situation in Uganda as I've been able to glean (from this film and other sources, see the end of this note):  A rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, has been trying to overthrow the government for over 23 years.  The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, who believes that God has chosen him to create a theocratic government based on the ten commandments.  What is more remarkable, and utterly horrifying, is that the LRA has abducted approximately 30,000 children since 1987, forcing most of them to become child soldiers.  These children are trained to kill, maim, rape, and torture.  The girls who are abducted are forced to become child ‘brides’ to officers.  Joseph Kony himself is believed to have dozens of child ‘brides’.

Death is the sentence for children who try to escape, who refuse to kill, sometimes even for those who cry.

Every night, even now, thousands of child leave their villages and walk to the nearest urban area to sleep in parking garages, basements of hospitals, etc to avoid being abducted by the LRA, who routinely take children from their huts under cover of darkness.  The children who make these trips to relative safety are referred to as ‘night commuters’.

Invisible Children is a very good starting point (despite the problems listed above) if like me, you are ignorant of the Ugandan crisis.  And from what I can see, the non-profit organization ( that sprang from the film is an excellent one.  There has been significant pull back of the LRA in the much of Northern Uganda.

But the more I read up on this situation, the more I saw how complicated it is.  The LRA has started to spread into bordering countries.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Joseph Kony and many of his ‘generals’ for multiple crimes against humanity.  This has been, understandably, seen as a triumph, and helps bring international attention to the LRA’s atrocities.   And there has been increased talk of international military action to wipe out the LRA.  As recently as December, after another LRA. massacre of civilians, armed military from several countries attempted to raid LRA. strongholds.

Here’s a problem:  now that Kony has been indicted by the ICC, he is no longer willing to show up for any peace talks for fear of being arrested.  And Ugandans desperately want peace.  They have gone so far as to extend amnesty to LRA members, even those who have committed horrible crimes.   But many Ugandans, both governmental and civilian, see the ICC’s indictments as throwing a wrench in the peace negotiations, and potentially harming the amnesty program.

And as for military action against the LRA:  as in most guerilla warfare, the foot soldiers on the front lines are the first to be killed.  And most of the LRA’s foot soldiers are children under the age of 16 (some as young as 5).   I simply cannot, in this case, accept that the ends (getting Kony and his generals) justify the means (killing children, even if they are “trained soldiers”). 

In any case, military action has been largely ineffective against the LRA. In one case, a US-backed military offensive backfired horribly, resulting in fleeing groups of LRA soldiers massacring almost a thousand Congolese.

And what if there were some way to end this war permanently and peacefully?  What happens then to the children who have been the dehumanizing process of LRA indoctrination?  These children, who have been desensitized to violence as part of that process, have killed and maimed so many.  Some children escape the LRA, and upon returning to their villages they are often ostracized and feared.  There is no real mental health infrastructure in place to deal with the massive psychological damage done to all the parties – the parents and siblings of these children, and of course the children themselves.   This is practically an entire country of people with PTSD.

Invisible Children doesn’t delve too deeply into these complexities.  What it does do is pull you in and make you pay attention.  The most heartbreaking and affecting moment of the entire film comes from the last interview of Jacob, a former child soldier who has lost almost everything and is now hunted, along with one of his brothers, by the LRA.  Interviews with Jacob and his surviving brother Thomas are sprinkled throughout the film.  They are in turns angry, funny, lost, and hardened, even suicidal – and like the other children in the film, they hide their pain and talk about the atrocities done to them and their friends with anger as the only displayable emotion.  But when Jacob lets a little of his sadness out when talking about his murdered older brother, his crying becomes a raw, wrenching keen that undid me completely.

You can see the movie Invisible Children here:  The website for the nonprofit organization is

Some of the articles I read after seeing Invisible Children:"'s%20resistance%20army&st=cse

5:23 pm edt 

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