Cities unite for ‘invisible children’

Supporters slept at the plaza to imitate the Ugandan children who go to bus stations.

Vadim Lavrusik

Despite the drizzle, people commuted to the Government Center Plaza in Minneapolis to call attention to the plight of what they call “invisible children” in hopes to make them visible to all.

More than 100 people filled the plaza Saturday for the all-night event. Some slept under blue tarps while others danced to a beat created by a group of students drumming on city garbage cans.

The crowd, consisting mostly of what appeared to be college students, gathered at the plaza as part of Global Night Commute, organized to increase awareness for the “invisible children” of Uganda who commute to their cities at night in fear of being abducted by a rebel army.

The event, which was held in 137 cities nationwide and more than 55,000 people registered for, was organized by Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego.

The movement

It all started with a film.

Sophomore communications student Nick Hooge said Invisible Children was created after three California college students went to Sudan in 2003 to film the war conflict, but could not find a story that would portray it because most of the residents had fled the country.

Hooge said the three college students traveled to Uganda after they heard many of the Sudanese fled there.

The filmmakers found a different story, he said. They saw thousands of children commuting during the night to sleep at bus parks in the cities.

Hooge said the filmmakers learned the children were commuting in fear of being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony.

“Kony has been leading the rebel army for 20 years, in hope to overthrow the government; some say he is demon possessed,” he said.

Hooge said the war is a spiritually twisted one because the rebel army has certain beliefs, such as if they throw a rock God will turn it into a grenade and it will explode, or if they cover themselves with a certain oil bullets will not penetrate their bodies.

One of the most troubling things, he said, is that the rebel army has been abducting 5- to 12-year-old children from their homes at night. He said that once abducted, the children are brainwashed to kill through brutal training and they become part of the army.

Most of the rebel army now consists of children who were abducted at a young age but are unable to escape because of fear for their lives, he said.

After arriving home the three filmmakers wanted to present the conflict to the people in the United States and “show these invisible children who live in fear,” Hooge said.

The three students showed the film to colleges and churches across the United States, he said.

“They knew once people saw this they would want to help; just like me, I saw it and wanted to help in some way,” he said.

Hooge traveled to Uganda last summer and stayed in Gulu, where he started an education sponsorship program for Invisible Children. He is transferring to California next semester to work at the Invisible Children office in San Diego.

Night commute

At the event people commuted to the Government Center Plaza to represent what the children of Uganda do each night, Hooge said.

Matthew Crane, an Invisible Children volunteer in San Diego, said the Night Commute was the organization’s first large-scale event.

Crane said 55,117 people registered on the organization’s Web site for the event, but suspected many more were involved.

“There have been over 30,000 children abducted in the last 30 years, children that have been transformed into killers by vicious brutality,” he said.

Harper O’Connell, political science and English literature senior, said she became involved after seeing the film and its “powerful message.”

O’Connell said the U.S. government should become involved in the conflict, but not in a violent way. Instead it should put pressure on the Ugandan government to put more effort in ending the conflict.

“The goal is not just to say, Look at these poor children who are in Africa, because honestly, who is for child soldiers?” she said. “The goal is to raise educated awareness and put pressure on the government.”

Alyssa VanderGaling, a first-year elementary education student at Bethel University in St. Paul, said it breaks her heart to see that there are children in the world who have to endure such suffering.

VanderGaling, who attended the event and stayed the night, said she heard about the event after she saw a screening of the film and it brought her to tears.

She said the U.S. government could do more and she doesn’t understand why the issue is not getting more international attention.

“There are kids who are being turned into kid soldiers and no one seems to care to do anything,” she said.

Although the group appeared to be dominated by college students, families and high school students also attended the event.

Hooge said people were able to write letters to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and President George W. Bush. Donations for the organization were raised by those who paid $1 for a Polaroid picture, which would become part of a book about why they were there that night.

The organization will compile the book to commemorate the event and will send it to influential leaders.

Hooge said the event was inspiring and had a good turnout despite the weather.

“This is something I want to do for life Ö that I can lead people and touch their hearts, all for the children,” he said. “This is going to get so much bigger.”