You won't find many references to it in the media in the West, but over the past 23 years, the government of Uganda and a rebel group called the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony and based in the north of the country, have been engaged in a civil war in which the LRA has abducted children as young as nine years old and then forced them to fight as front-line troops. These children - perhaps as many as 30,000 in number - have been kidnapped and then trained to be soldiers involved in actions which include torching villages, killing villagers and abducting other children. The stories of LRA atrocities are hard to stomach. The knock-on effects are enormous. Every day, literally thousands of children in Uganda leave their homes and walk (often many kilometres) to the nearest town to find sanctuary in the hope that they will avoid the fate of their LRA contemporaries. They sleep in the corridors of hospitals or schools, hidden away to avoid being kidnapped. They are the invisible children.
This weekend (25-26 April), The Invisible Children campaign organized a protest action in over 100 cities throughout the world. The idea was simple. For just one day, people involved in the protest would pretend to be 'abducted'. Then they would be 'rescued' by a mogul and, having spent a single night in discomfort would go back to their homes, hopefully having achieved a degree of media exposure and sufficient motivation to spread the word that the kidnapping of children with the aim of training them to be soldiers is a moral outrage which the authorities should place at the top of their political agendas.
Yes, we may have problems in our own back yard. But surely not on this scale. In Uganda (and other neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo), thousands, if not millions of young lives are being blighted. This protest was an attempt to cast light on this.
In Australia, 'The Rescue' (as the campaign was called) was held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Since those of us living in Adelaide did not have a Rescue of our own, we chose to travel to Melbourne and join theirs. Two buses were chartered and over 70 of us gathered at 5 am in preparation for the 10-hour trip to Federation Square in Melbourne. As we drove, the storm clouds gathered and though there was no rain en route, sure enough, it started to pelt down the moment we arrived. Fair enough, we thought. It's nothing compared to being kidnapped and your family murdered. And it was only for one night, after all.
We walked to Royal Park, attached to a rope, in single file. There were no armed guards, just a biting wind - which reminded you that there's a significant difference between plain discomfort and discomfort contorted with fear. On arrival, we pitched our tents or covered our bags with tarpaulins and made our way to the meeting place. We were asked to write letters to Kevin Rudd and Steven Smith and heard inspiring speeches from, amongst others, a Congolese father whose son had been abducted and then forced to fight against his will. People banged drums and danced in solidarity with the invisible children. There was a festival atmosphere.
Just a few hours later, we found out that Brisbane had been 'rescued' and then us (Melborne/Adelaide). First, someone from the UN, then a Federal MP. They said the right things. They said they would use all their influence to bring the issue to the attention of those who had the power. People cheered and whooped at what they said. Soon afterwards, we found out that Perth and finally Sydney had also been 'rescued' by their moguls.
So, all was good. But was it?
The media didn't turn up until the next morning. In Melbourne, Saturday night was bitterly cold and windy. Perhaps the journos (as they call them here) didn't fancy a gale-swept Royal Park after dark. By the time they turned up the next morning (well after the main event was over), many supporters had left, so the impression wasn't so great.
Also, although the same kind of protest happened in over 100 cities throughout the world on the same day, there wasn't blanket media coverage by any means. There was no mention of the event in the Brisbane Times or the Melbourne Age, for example, both cities which played host to Rescues. And no mention either in the UK's Guardian newspaper which prides itself on following the fortunes of a Ugandan village - Katine - on a daily basis. You would have thought that if the newspaper sees development in Uganda important enough to give daily coverage that it might have found space somewhere to talk about the atrocities taking place in the same country.
Furthermore, whilst it was great to see such strong support in Adelaide and Melbourne (and all the other cities) for people in a country far away and thus an abstract problem rather than a human one to many (if not most) people, I felt it was significant that, of the 70 or so people who made the effort to travel to Melbourne the only children under 16 were my two daughters and my friend's two daughters. And there were only four people (myself included) over the age of 40. The vast majority were people in their late teens and twenties. And good on them for turning up. But given that the issue is about children being abducted and then used as front-line soldiers, I would have expected more parents to be concerned and involved. Perhaps that's the fault of the organization. Or perhaps it reflects the apathy of those in the 30-50 age group.Whatever your age, I urge to take a look at the Invisible Children website and to see for yourself just what damage is being done to a whole generation of children in Uganda and neighbouring countries. The Invisible Children campaign may not be as great or as successful as it purports to be, but the issues it raises are worthy of your serious consideration. The link is: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/home.php