A new war on terror

Laren Poole, co-founder of Invisible Children

What do you get when you cross a rebel attack in northern Uganda with three innocent young Americans carrying a cheap video camera bought off eBay? Three dead innocent young Americans no longer carrying a cheap video camera bought off eBay? Nope. This is not a story which follows normal rhyme and reason. What this sequence of events actually gave birth to was a hugely successful charity that has taken America by storm:  Invisible Children.

Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole headed out to Africa in 2003 with the dream of making a documentary to show to friends and family back home in San Diego.  Between them they had limited miles on their travel-o-meters and absolutely no experience in making films. But they had tons of testosterone, a thirst for adventure and a sack full of naivety – all the ingredients needed for the journey of a lifetime.

Dead set on throwing themselves in at the deep end, they went searching for danger. “We picked the most random place we could find that had a civil war”, Laren told us. With the benefit of hindsight he now admits that their strategy was a little on the crazy side. “Looking back on it, it was really stupid. We could have definitely been killed.”

Sudan was their chosen destination until their heads were inadvertently pointed in a new direction. Whilst travelling through Uganda, a truck in front of them was ambushed by the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The three narrowly escaped death, those in the truck just yeards in front of them did not.  Unknowingly, they had walked into a war zone.

In 2003 the war between the LRA and the government of Uganda had already been raging for 17 years and it wasn’t until 2006 that the LRA left northern Uganda, moving the conflict to neighbouring countries instead. Unlike most wars that are often rooted in tribal difference or land dispute, this conflict was deeply warped. The LRA leader, Joseph Kony, believed  that he was possessed by spirits directing him to overthrow the government and enforce a rule of law based on the Ten Commandments. Unsurprisingly, he struggled to gain followers through conventional means and recruited an army by abducting children using brutal force.

Year after year families living in northern Uganda went to sleep at night fearing that the LRA rebels would storm their village, stealing their children for soldiers and their women for sex slaves.  To avoid this terror thousands of children started a nightly commute into local towns where they could find shelter and relative safety. After the ambush Jason, Bobby and Laren were forced to rest a night in the town of Gulu where they came face to face with this phenomenon. “The first time we saw it, it was bizarre. An exodus of young children. It was like a Hitchcock movie or something! It was crazy to see”, Laren explained.

Appalled that a crisis of this scale was going unnoticed, the boys de-prioritised Sudan and made Gulu their base. Up for anything that would make their money last a little longer, they “lived in an abandoned building, peed in water bottles and stayed up all night to film the night commuters”. But after two months they ran out of cash and were forced to bid farewell to their crowd of friends.

Struggling to turn their backs on Gulu, the boys agreed to find the funds to pay for the school fees of two brothers who had become their close allies. On the face of it, Jacob and Thomas were just local Gulu boys who loved to play football with their American mates. In fact, after being forced to watch the murder of their own brother, the two had run away from the LRA and were living in fear.. As three young college kids from affluent families, Bobby, Jason and Laren knew they could find some school fees. Little did the trio know that they were in line to achieve a lot more.

Back at home and after a year pulling together a documentary, the boys set up some screenings for their local community which, to their astonishment, attracted a crowd of 3000 people and a decent chunk of donations. Having watched the film called ‘Invisible Children: Rough Cut’, it’s obvious why it so quickly won over hearts and minds. A feat of creative genius, it’s a perfect mix of laugh and cry footage. In between moving scenes of children crammed into their refuge centres, you meet the real Jason, Bobby and Laren whose antics (including killing snakes and slaughtering chickens) are left uncut.  Not one bit try-hard, it’s 100% authentic.

Until then, the boys thought that telling the story would leave them satisfied that they’d done their bit. But their viewers all left the screening with one remaining question: What are you going to do about it? “Everyone else out there was meant to do something about it!” Laren recalled with laughter. No such luck. A dawning realisation hit the three boys and they grabbed the moment. They decided to stop being three young kids who stumbled into something. Instead they transformed into changemakers, devoted to stopping the LRA.

In 2005, Invisible Children (IC) was founded as a non-profit organisation and since inception their strategy has remained simple. They tell stories to change lives. Groups of young volunteers (a.k.a. ‘roadies’) tour the United States and screen creative and compelling documentaries about the LRA and the devastation they leave behind them.  Their plea is always the same: Give us your Talent, your Time and your Money. Through donations and merchandise sales, to date Invisible has raised nearly $50m. “That’s a freaking lot of money”, Laren said before we did, still amazed by their fundraising prowess.

Unlike many broad-reaching NGOs, their funds are hyper focused on one mission. IC wants to stop the LRA, see the leaders brought to justice and help their victims to get a fresh start. Thanks to the strength of their public support (an estimated ten million people have now seen IC’s movies), they have become an influential mouthpiece. They worked closely on peace talks held with the LRA in 2008 and although the talks were unsuccessful, they’ve kept the pressure high on the American government. Thanks to the advocacy efforts of hundreds of thousands of young people and the leadership of a few key members of congress, in 2010 President Obama signed a bill into law that required the US to design a strategy to apprehend Joseph Kony.

The IC founders have even managed to bend the ear of President Obama directly in a face-to-face meeting at the White House.  They decided to spend their precious ten minutes with Obama retelling Jacob and Thomas’ story. In response, Obama sent back a typically presidential message. “Tell those boys that the President of the United States knows about this and he’s going to do something”, he said. Since then, the US have sent troops to Uganda to advice forces within the region on how best to manage the ongoing struggle against the LRA.

The LRA has now retreated from northern Uganda so IC focuses its work there on supporting victims and investing in the next generation.  Educational support is central to their services and, as of December 2011, includes the provision of scholarships and mentoring to over 840 secondary and university students, infrastructural and capacity building support to 11 carefully selected secondary schools, and a Teacher Exchange Programme between Uganda and the US. Their work with in rural communities is equally impressive and includes the establishment of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) groups, which support families returning from displacements camps, an adult literacy programme and a tailoring project known as Mend which supports females formerly abducted by the LRA.

When we visited IC’s work in Gulu, we were struck firstly by how polished it was and secondly by how thoughtful it was. IC has always advocated the approach of ‘Ugandans helping Ugandans’ and their dedicated team of locals is sensitive to the every need of their community. Sister Susan, Head Mistress at Sacred Heart Secondary School for Girls, was the first to point this out: “What I found impressive is the rounded support they give. They look at the entire needs of the students.” Over 130 girls were abducted from the Sacred Heart Secondary School during the peak of insurgencies and many of their students are nursing the wounds of war. So too are the women working at the Mend centre. But with 24/7 support from a local social worker based in their office and a steady income from the beautiful bags they produce, they are beginning to rebuild their lives.

However, as many begin to put their lives back together in northern Uganda, just over the borders in Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, the LRA continues to tear lives apart. Conflict is an ongoing challenge in Africa and it continues to rank as the world region least at peace.[1]. More than one fifth of the continent’s population remains directly affected by conflicts.[2] But wherever Kony goes, IC will follow.  They have expanded their operations to Congo and CAR and introduced a raft of new initiatives to support those being affected. Dedicated to LRA disarmament, they are also treading potentially dangerous ground by encouraging rebels to defect. By using innovative radio messaging they’re showcasing the stories of ex-soldiers who’ve escaped and been given amnesty, in the hope it will encourage others to do the same. Remarkably, it’s working and from the bottom up, IC is chipping away at the might of Mr Kony.

“We’re not leaving until Joseph Kony goes away”, Laren told us emphatically. Perhaps somewhat harshly, he added that until this happens, IC is technically a failure: “We’ve had some great wins along the way, but we’re a failure overall – we haven’t yet accomplished our big goal.” When your cause is so focused on one long term goal, it can be hard to justify your progress on a monthly or annual basis.  However, we felt IC’s niche focus is exactly what makes it so compelling. Those who give their time, talent and money in support of IC’s work are totally clear about where their donations are going and to what end, however distant it might appear at times. All too often you just don’t get this kind of transparency.

We left Gulu with a resounding respect for Invisible Children and its founders.  Though IC has attracted a lot of attention (they have even featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show), Jason, Bobby and Laren’s efforts are ego-less. Despite all the recognition for their work there was no hint of arrogance. The clearest demonstration of this is their decision not to cling on to CEO status; all three have handed over the responsibility of global operations to others they deem more qualified.

“I’m not CEO because the CEO has to do things that I’m not trained to do”, Laren told us. Though Laren no longer plays a role in the day to day operations of the charity, both Laren and Jason still spend their time making movies.  In actual fact, these roles are by far the most fundamental because it’s their fresh, eclectic  style which has made IC such a success. Check out their films and you’ll see exactly what we mean and, even better, you’ll get a free copy to pass on to a friend. Never an opportunity missed, we swear that IC has thought of it all!

For more info visit:

Invisible Children: www.invisiblechildren.com

[1] Institute for Economics & Peace (2010) and The Global Peace Index (2010)

[2] World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development (2011)

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011