By Sofia Tillo
Published October 1, 2010
It is not often that documentary filmmakers decide to change the course of the stories they tell. For those trained to “observe and report,” making the transition to ‘observe and change’ presents many difficulties. With good humour, the team at Invisible Children perceives such challenges as natural growing pains.
In just six years their project to film a documentary about child soldiers has transformed into an international organisation actively reintegrating conflict-affected children in northern Uganda. They have morphed from filmmakers into community activists, political lobbyists, and development experts. Never forgetting their unique viewpoint, Adam Finck, Invisible Children Mission Director for Uganda, says, “We are still storytellers.”
Invisible Children is a story of children abducted from their homes and made to serve as soldiers or soldier “wives” for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group active since the Ugandan civil war of the 1980s. Over the past two decades, hundreds of children have grown up amidst the LRA ranks. “Some lived for nearly ten years at an unimaginable level of trauma and paranoia,” says Finck.
Part of the LRA’s strength comes from its ability to recruit new soldiers through child abductions. Most children are unable to escape, and those who do, find it very difficult to reintegrate in normal life. “Being in the LRA, there is the fear of defecting and also not knowing whether you will receive amnesty. But people do leave. We have seen it happen,” explains Finck.
Although the LRA has been driven out of northern Uganda, the group remains a threat to civilian populations in the region having been reported active in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Central African Republic. The toll of destruction and trauma left in the area over the years is incalculable.
Alec Wargo, Programme Officer in the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, laments, “We are unable to confirm the number of children abducted.”
Wargo adds that the situation in the region remains challenging as children are often abducted and taken across borders, making reintegration harder. Although several Sudanese and Congolese children have been recently handed over, Ugandan children are less regularly handed over.
“We are not as aware of when they get back home. Reintegration is not always well informed; we have reports of a few dozen over several months,” Wargo says.
Determined to turn largely unheard-of children into outspoken activists, Invisible Children continues to work locally. At their field offices in Uganda, they reintegrate former child soldiers and support children affected by conflict through scholarship and mentorship programmes. The organisation also offers a diverse range of support to local communities. Ugandan stakeholders go beyond children and include a range of people, from the local artisans that make Invisible Children’s merchandise, to the managers in their 95% locally-staffed offices.
In their US headquarters in San Diego, California, Invisible Children bring child soldiers to the attention of policy-makers and western audiences. in 2010 their “Face to Face Tour” brings top Ugandan students from their scholarship programme to the US. The purpose is to present the most recent Invisible Children documentary and also speak for themselves, their communities, and the region.
Invisible Children also lobbies in Washington,DC, having secured support for a bill that commits the US to bringing LRA leaders to justice. This bill is a crucial addition to UN action; both in disarming the LRA and rescuing abducted children.
“We partner with NGOs in the red-zone where the LRA is active but the situation is often difficult. The UN does not have an actual presence in the red-zone where the LRA is,” says Wargo.
The LRA launched attacks on the northeastern Bas Uele region of the DRC in August 2010. Reports estimate that 52 children were kidnapped but the situation is hard to assess. Protecting civilians in the region has proven extremely difficult, as the LRA is mobile and quick to adapt to new circumstances.
To better respond to such challenges Invisible Children plans to change and adapt as necessary. Once again the organisation will transform themselves into agents of civilian protection. Always with a focus on community empowerment, Invisible Children plans to work with varied partners, including local people, the Roman Catholic Church, and UN peacekeepers.
“Our newest project is reaching out to communities over the border to where the LRA is active. We are still planning, but it will involve an early warning system, to help people protect themselves and their children from new attacks. We remain committed to northern Uganda, but under the circumstances, we see the need to expand regional cooperation,” says Finck.
A MediaGlobal Article