How three friends rescued hundreds of Uganda’s child soldiers.
Marco Visscher | July/August 2010 issue
Lauren Grace had never read a piece of Congressional legislation. “It’s pretty dry reading,” she says. But one January night this year, the 25-year-old University of Oklahoma student buckled down. She pored over every word of a bill that would give the U.S. President the authority to end one of Africa’s most protracted conflicts. When she was done, she couldn’t understand why her state senator, Tom Coburn, had blocked the measure.
The next day Grace was there when supporters stationed themselves in front of Coburn’s office. She planned to stay for the day, and spend the night outside in her tent if that would help the cause. But she had classes to go to and weekend plans, so that was probably all she could do. She didn’t know any of the other demonstrators. But when Coburn refused to talk to the group, she stayed a little longer.
Despite freezing temperatures, she and a growing group of supporters continued to plead for an audience with Coburn. Meanwhile, they patiently explained their objectives to interested passersby. They wanted a mandate to apprehend Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has abducted and enslaved an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 children since 1987. And they wanted America to offer help to the families in northern Uganda affected by the conflict.
Looking back, Grace says she felt pretty discouraged at times by “all those strangers who told us that it was never going to work and that it was ridiculous to keep believing.” But she kept the faith, thanks in part to the swell in support. Not only was the senator bombarded with pleas via email and telephone, but the group on the street kept growing.
It was both crazy and fantastic, Grace remembers: “One of the few moments in my life that I was actually happy to wake up at 6 a.m.” To her surprise, Grace was still there 11 days later when Coburn finally agreed to a meeting, during which he consented to release his hold on the bill.
How is it that Lauren Grace—who admits she has little experience campaigning for causes or social justice—and other young people like her, exhibit such determination when it comes to locking up a relatively obscure African rebel leader? It’s all due to Invisible Children. Since 2004, this organization has been proving that you can get young people involved in combating suffering in the world—despite their reputation for apathy. An impressive 80 percent of the $30 million Invisible Children has collected over the past five years comes from small donations (up to $100) from high school kids.
After years of minor successes, Senator Coburn’s cooperation finally led to a historic breakthrough. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the law nearly unanimously. President Barack Obama has since signed it. In his statement, Obama congratulated the advocacy organizations that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans. “You have made the plight of the children visible to all,” he said. Obama has only several months left to come up with a concrete action plan to stop the LRA’s atrocities.
For the founders of Invisible Children, this long road to peace began with a hunger for adventure. In the spring of 2003, three school friends from San Diego wanted to go to Africa to make a movie. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole—aged 24, 21 and 19 at the time—figured they’d come up with a topic once they got there. If not, they planned to film themselves on safari. Armed with a used camera bought on eBay, the three boarded their flight to the Ugandan capital of Kampala. They traveled around, got bored, had fun, were sick, traveled on—and still hadn’t come up with a topic for their film.
That changed when they suddenly realized they were in the heart of a war zone. In the city of Gulu, they watched as hordes of children made their way to the hospital before dusk. There, they would be safe from the rebels hiding in the north of Uganda. At night, the rebels trawled the villages, abducting children. Most were teenagers, but some of the kids they snatched from their huts to use as soldiers were as young as six. In the Gulu hospital, thousands of children from nearby villages slept on the floor side by side or even half on top of each other. Some of these “night commuters” had been doing this every night for five years.
Weren’t the three aspiring filmmakers a bit naïve not to know what was happening in Uganda? “Naïve is an understatement!” Poole exclaims. “We had no idea there was a conflict going on.”
They can hardly be blamed for being taken off guard. The conflict is complex, and has never attracted a lot of media attention. While most rebel groups fight for a specific objective, the LRA seems to lack an agenda. At their rare public appearances, the henchmen of LRA leader Kony say they want to introduce a law based on the Ten Commandments.
They also call for an end to human rights violations and demand respect for the Acholi people, the ethnic group in northern Uganda to which Kony belongs. This is rather ludicrous given that the LRA is notorious for atrocities against its people. Some of the kidnapped children have been raped, mutilated and brutally murdered. Others have been forced to execute their own parents.
Poole’s eyes are full of rage when he speaks about Kony. “He is one of the most demented people who ever came to power. He’s a roaming criminal, a monster. He just wants to wage war and have sex slaves.”
When they arrived back in San Diego, Russell, Bailey and Poole were literally and figuratively sick to death—not only from the dramatic stories they had heard from the children—including ex-soldiers fortunate enough to have escaped from the LRA—but from malaria. Poole lost over 20 pounds and was unconscious for two days in the hospital. “I had so much time to think in the hospital,” he remembers. “And I kept thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to help these kids.’”
The three friends decided to make a documentary and give it to a charity organization, which would use the resulting donations to help people in Uganda. Eight months later, they finished the 52-minute documentary, fast paced and full of grainy images. No organization was interested. The consensus: “This is not a serious documentary but a long MTV clip” and “No one is interested in Africa.” Most groups were certain that “kids don’t donate money to good causes; their parents do.”
But the filmmakers remained convinced that young Americans would be able to put themselves in the position of their Ugandan peers. “We looked around trying to find people to do what needed to be done, until we realized we were the ones we were looking for,” Poole says. And thus was born Invisible Children, which became both the title of the documentary and the name of the organization.
The film’s premiere was a gathering of friends and family. Among the guests was Ben Keesey, one of Poole’s former classmates, who described the documentary as “a profound moment in my life.” Keesey was 21 and had just signed a contract to work at the consulting firm Deloitte. But during the brief reunion, Keesey was infected by his classmates’ enthusiasm. He turned down the job, moved back to San Diego with his girlfriend (now his wife) and became the organization’s CFO (now CEO). “My parents were very much against it, but I simply caught the vision and spirit,” he says.
Many who saw the film had similar reactions. And this trend continues. Nearly all of the 30 full-time staff, 20 interns and 80 volunteers became involved because of the film. The same goes for the roughly 1,000 young people expected to apply this year to become interns, or “roadies,” kids who ride around in buses showing the documentary at high schools. So far, hundreds of roadies have visited some 5,000 schools across America.
Zach Barrows was a 26-year-old high school teacher in Auburn, Massachusetts, when he showed the documentary to his students. Affecting a whiny voice for effect, he remembers their first reaction when he switched on the television. “We can’t take it anymore. We’ve already seen so many depressing documentaries.” But an hour later, everyone was moved to tears and anxious to do something. Over the course of two months, his class raised $17,000 through everything from bake sales to benefit concerts.
Barrows’ own enthusiasm grew; he now works at Invisible Children. As head of the program that helps support 11 schools in Uganda, he helps get scholarships for 800 students (mainly girls), 200 of them for college. Thousands of children in northern Uganda are now getting good educations.
“You have to have aid in a war zone, but it’s not enough,” Russell emphasizes. “You also need economic development, because that’s what’s empowering.” That is why nearly 4,000 farmers in the region are supplying fair trade organic cotton to Western brands like Edun and Guess, and Ugandan women are making products like T-shirts and bags that are sold in America on the Invisible Children website as well as in the popular retail chain Target.
Since their first trip, Russell, Bailey and Poole have returned to Uganda dozens of times. In 2008, they attended the peace talks, meandering among the scores of delegations with a camera and an LRA badge. It was somewhat ironic, perhaps, that they would represent the LRA but, as Poole explains, “We sympathize with the Acholi people, so in a way we sympathize with the LRA. Most of the fighters are kids abducted against their will and forced to terrorize. We care for them.” The talks failed; Kony refused to sign the treaty, even after the Ugandan government agreed to all of his terms.
The young Americans were more successful in the campaigns they organized back home. In 2006, they urged supporters across the country to literally lie down and sleep in the streets, calling attention to the nightly trek of so many Ugandan children. Some 80,000 young people in 126 cities heeded the call.
Natalie Warne, a 19-year-old student, led the campaign to get the U.S. bill through Congress in her native Chicago, Oprah Winfrey’s hometown. Initially, the talk show queen showed no interest in discussing child soldiers in Uganda. Part of the campaign involved getting on Oprah’s show. For two days, hundreds of people demonstrated outside Winfrey’s television studio. “Nobody came out, not even security,” Warne says, recalling her disappointment. “We were so discouraged. Meanwhile, we had to find food and a place to sleep. People were getting frustrated.”
Warne refused to give up and ultimately succeeded. At three in the morning, “totally exhausted,” the group lined up outside Winfrey’s studio waiting for her to come. She did. The group had eight minutes on air to talk about the conflict in Uganda and the fact that more than 80,000 young people in hundreds of cities in 10 countries had joined the effort. Fifteen million television viewers watched that Oprah show, which was an important factor in getting the bill signed into law.
The founders of Invisible Children are not so surprised at their ability to get young Americans involved in a battle for social justice in Africa. “I think everyone wants to be swept up by an adventure, a story that gives life a meaning or purpose,” says Russell. Surprising or not, it is miraculous. After all, so many things compete for young people’s time and attention that good causes seldom win out.
But success has clearly been theirs. Since the three young filmmakers’ first trip, a lot has changed in northern Uganda. In 2006, the UN sent specially trained soldiers to kill Kony. They were murdered by the LRA. Thanks to support from America, the Ugandan army is now stronger—so strong, in fact, that Kony has not risked returning to his own country in two years. He moved his troops to the area bordering Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to the Central African Republic. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has thoroughly documented Kony’s violent transgressions and issued a warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity. He is one of the world’s most wanted men.
But Russell and Poole are honest. They attribute the success of Invisible Children—which works closely with organizations like Resolve Uganda and The Enough Project—to a healthy dose of naïveté. If the friends had known that Congress had passed only 3 percent of all the bills presented over the last six years, they probably would have given up before they started. “We don’t want to be ignorant,” Poole says, his eyes shining, “but there’s definitely bliss in it.”
The Invisible Children offices are buzzing with activity, an atmosphere more reminiscent of a highly creative school newspaper than a non-governmental organization dedicated to Africa. Sixteen young Ugandans are visiting. Some are former child soldiers; others slept at the hospital in Gulu for years. They just returned from a three-month tour of the U.S. During their travels, they visited high schools, where they showed the documentary, told their stories and collected donations.
Lillian Ojok, 20, is beaming. After three months of traveling through Texas, she has added 700 friends to her Facebook page. She also collected the most money: $110,000. “Some of them came to the screening because they had to but clearly didn’t want to,” says Ojok. “Afterwards, I could see they were changed. They all wanted to help.”
Boni Akena, 19, sits nearby. “We’ve touched their hearts,” he states calmly.Akena was one of the first night commuters Russell, Bailey and Poole met. It was he who showed them where the children slept. He remembers it well, especially the Americans’ sudden departure. They didn’t even leave a telephone number; nothing. “They left without saying goodbye,” says Akena, who was 13 at the time. He had been extremely disappointed. “I thought we were friends. I gave up on them.”
But the young men returned. It took them a lot of effort to find Akena again. Once they did, they told him they were sending him to a better school. “If they were coming all the way back for me, I knew they really cared for me and wanted to help me,” Akena says. The filmmakers told him the film was being shown all over America and that Akena had become a movie star. He didn’t believe them.
Now, years later, Akena was approached in one of the schools at the start of the tour. “One of the students said, ‘Hey, you must be Boni. I saw you in the film!’” He is radiant, thinking back to the encounter.
Akena has a wonderful expression for what has happened to him since his American friends sought him out on their return to Uganda. “My life started jamming,” he says. Looking at the many passionate supporters of Invisible Children, it seems Akena is not alone.
And Lauren Grace from Oklahoma? She recently signed up to come and work as a roadie.
Marco Visscher, Ode’s managing editor, happily made a small donation himself.
Watch the Invisible Children documentary here.