Students advocate for Ugandan children

The United Nations estimates 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.

by Kathryn Nelson

Thousands of miles away, in a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, is a deadly secret that has stolen the childhoods of thousands of youths, according to the United Nations.

Some call them the “invisible children.”

Physicians for Human Rights, a student group, will screen a movie by that name Thursday that has created a movement around the issue of child soldiers.

In 2003, three aspiring filmmakers traveled to Africa to document the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, but instead they sidetracked to Northern Uganda and found an almost unbelievable story.

There they saw thousands of children, called “night commuters,” traveling to nearby cities every night to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group. The group was kidnapping boys and girls from their homes and using them to fuel the conflict.

The documentary “Invisible Children” was born.

First-year medical student Rachael Blackman is coordinating Thursday’s screening.

“How could this be going on?” Blackman said when she first viewed it.

The conflict, led by the LRA, has been raging for about 20 years in Northern Uganda and has displaced more than 1.6 million people since its beginning, according to the United Nations.

Children make up nine out of every 10 soldiers in the army, many of them under the age of 14.

The United Nations estimates 250,000 child soldiers worldwide, a 20-percent decrease from recent years.

Youth have tried to inform people on the abuses internationally through organizations and awareness events.

On April 29, 2006, Blackman and 80,000 others slept outside to bring awareness to the night commuters in Uganda. The organization Invisible Children sponsored the event.

Last year, more than 100 University students also participated despite rain.

Sarah Shreves, a manager at the Invisible Children office in San Diego, became involved with the organization through Bobby Bailey, one of the filmmakers.

Shreves said she felt powerless after seeing the film, because there was no established organization to help the children.

“I was kind of at a loss for what to do,” she said.

Still, Shreves stayed connected with the cause and traveled to the country for four months to screen the film.

She has now taken time off school to work for the organization full time and said she has “Invisible Children” memorized.

Shreves said the organization empowers students to make a difference in the world, contributing to its uniqueness.

“We have tapped into the resource of using the youth and their talents,” she said.

Even at the Invisible Children office, the oldest employee is 33-years-old.

The United Nations also focuses on child exploitation, including child soldiers, night commuters and child “wives” in Uganda.

U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said the LRA often targets young people to use in conflicts because they are malleable, loyal and easier to control.

Bunker said the United Nations estimates there are between 20,000 and 66,000 child soldiers in Uganda, but the figures are “highly variable.”

Reintegration into society is particularly difficult for children who have been involved in conflict. They have often been extremely traumatized and have committed crimes against their own communities.

Bunker said the only true way to solve this problem is for the LRA to commit to a peace agreement and stop the fighting.

“That is the single most important action that needs to be taken that will ultimately benefit these children,” she said.

Until then, Shreves will continue to advocate for the rights of children.

“It’s my life now. It’s completely my life,” she said.