Overnight Protest to Lift Cause of Exploited Children of Uganda

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) For one night, for one purpose, thousands of people intend to flood parks and streets across the country, armed with sleeping bags and pillows. Their goal: A very visible protest to highlight the plight of what they call the “Invisible Children” of Uganda.

The campout, slated for April 29, is the latest effort of the three-year-old Invisible Children campaign, a youth advocacy operation urging awareness for children’s suffering in war-torn Uganda.

The movement took its name from a movie, “Invisible Children,” by Jason Russell and his friends Bobby Bailey, 24, and Laren Poole, 22.

Russell, inspired by his Christian faith and a missionary trip to Kenya, focused his documentary on the war in Uganda between the government and rebel forces and its effect on children. Since 1986, between 20,000 and 50,000 children have been abducted by the rebels, the group said.

Now, the film-inspired charity has taken off, raising awareness and money through international programs and hundreds of film screenings for groups ranging from powerful political figures to Christian youth organizations.

“It was not our intention to start a (charity). It was not our intention to make this our careers,” said Russell, now 27. “But we’re so excited that people responded in such a massive way.”

Russell’s Christian faith fueled his desire to show others the nightmare he’d found in Uganda.

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“I really felt a responsibility and obligation just knowing God and his heart for the hurting people in the world,” Russell said. “I really felt God was saying to me, `Jason you went on this experience for a reason, and I’m showing this to you because there is a story that I desire for you to tell.”’

In Uganda, Russell _ once a sheltered suburban San Diego kid with dreams of making it big in Hollywood _ found what a United Nations official has called “the worst form of terrorism in the world.”

For 20 years, the Ugandan government has fought rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army, born out of discontent in the alienated Acholi tribe in the north. According to a report issued by aid agencies, about 146 people die every week. Col. Charles Angina, the defense attache at the Ugandan embassy in Washington, said that number may be high, but estimated that more than 1 million people have been forced to refugee camps since the fighting began.

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Ugandan children, in particular, are suffering as many boys are forced to fight for the rebels and girls are forced into sex. As a result, thousands of threatened children leave their homes at night to sleep at bus parks or in hospitals and other buildings to avoid being kidnapped by the rebels.

The filmmakers captured the childrens’ anguish on camera. They witnessed hundreds of children piled atop each other as they slept. They interviewed former child soldiers, who saw dismemberment and brutal slaughter first-hand. They filmed a young boy, Jacob, sobbing over the murder of his brother at the hands of the rebels.

At first, Russell and his friends just screened the hour-long film for family and friends. Then a church called, wanting to show the film. More calls came, more screenings were scheduled and people began making donations to help the Ugandan children. From this, Invisible Children Inc. was born in late 2004.

Margie Dillenburg, director of the April 29 event, said the charity now has a paid staff of 23 backed by dozens of volunteers, many responsible for the fleet of national screenings.

A program providing scholarships and mentors has been established in Uganda, allowing children, including Jacob, to get an education, she said.

To help raise money, Ugandan-made bracelets, representing an “invisible” child, and an accompanying short film are being marketed in the United States.

The filmmakers returned to Uganda last year with a bigger crew to flesh out the documentary in hopes of getting it into theaters in a year.

Meanwhile, youth groups, both secular and religious, have sprouted up in churches, schools and on Web sites, adding momentum to the movement.

Methodist youth pastor Mark Helsel saw the film about six months ago. Today he’s gotten about 100 kids in Lutz, Fla., to commit to participating in an April 29 campout in Tampa.

In Dallas, students from 14 public and parochial schools have formed Students Together Against a Nation Divided to raise money for Ugandan youth through a pancake supper, a cookout and other events.

Christian high school senior Deanne Jordan, co-founder of the group Student Outreach Society at her school in Mansfield, Mass., has launched an Invisible Children campaign called End Apathy, which sponsors school assemblies, bake sales, movie screenings and T-shirts.

More than 1,500 people from Franklin, Ky., _ population 8,000 _ have made online commitments to participate in the April 29 demonstration. The downtown is covered in Invisible Children stickers, and high school students plan to participate in the demonstration wearing prom dresses and suits because it falls on the same night as their prom, said Matt Vairetta, who’s been promoting the cause through the youth ministry program at The People’s Church in Franklin.

Invisible Children Inc. also has garnered political support from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who sponsored a nonbinding Senate resolution last month calling for the American government to help bring down the rebel army.

“They see something that’s an atrocity that has to be corrected, and they’re willing to devote a good part of their lives to correct this,” Inhofe said of Invisible Children. “And if they can do that, we can help them as best we can.”

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Charles Angina of the Ugandan Embassy in Washington met members of Invisible Children Inc. a few months ago when they staged a walk to the White House. “They are well-intended and want to inform the world as how the children are suffering,” Angina said.

But Russell is less impressed with praise from politicians than with the more than 29,000 people who he said have registered on the group’s Web site to participate in the campout.

“Regardless of whether celebrities or politicians or the media notices it,” Russell said, “history will have to say that there was a revolution happening with Invisible Children.”

Information about Invisible Children, including details about the Global Night Commute and the national screening schedule, is available at http://www.invisiblechildren.com

MO/KRE END RNS

Editors: To obtain a photos from the film, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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