Following the 84th Academy Awards, I was once again reminded of the power of films. Good films take the viewer into another world and make that world a reality for those precious 100 minutes. Many might agree that Blood Diamond was one such movie, bringing us into a clashing scene of African civil war, the smuggling of precious stones across borders, the covert corporate corruption in the West, and the inhumane transformation of children into soldiers. Five years have passed since Blood Diamond was released, and for most, the tale of refugee Solomon Vandy (Djimon Honsou) and diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a memorable drama which reminds us not to buy diamonds mined from conflict zones.
Still, the story of the child soldier does not end, nor is it fiction. In the movie, the Sierra Leonean civil war was depicted, a war which began in 1991, lasted nearly a decade, and witnessed the forced procurement of an estimated 20,000 children from around the country. This practice was not limited to Sierra Leone or even Africa–almost all countries in the world that have had internal conflict have used child soldiers throughout history. However, in the past few decades, African countries have done so more than anywhere else.
Uganda is one of the most famous cases of child soldier recruitment (although recruiting in this case is killing your father and raping your mother in front of you and then forcing you to join rebel forces). It is the birthplace of Joseph Kony (one of the most wanted men in the world) and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that is still being pursued 25 years after their inital atrocities. I worked in Uganda three years ago and distinctly recall visiting Gulu, a city in the north of the country which experienced the brunt of the Ugandan civil war. Gulu still felt haunted when I visited despite the violence having ended a few years prior. In the 1990s, children from villages and IDP camps used to walk to Gulu and other cities around Uganda to avoid being abducted by the LRA. They would commute by foot or on buses and were given the name “night commuters.”
A few years ago, I remember hearing about an NGO started by students from UC San Diego called Invisible Children. I took out an hour to watch their documentary of the same name which captures the American students’ experiences meeting children who used to hide in the night to avoid being kidnapped by the LRA. This same organization has been a catalyst for legislation that has recently sent a handful of US troops to train Ugandan and other East African forces for combat with Kony’s rebels (read a Yale professor’s response to what he thinks this will actually achieve- hint: the answer is not much). More famously, they are now making a global push to indict Joseph Kony in the form of a large publicity movement called Kony 2012 (watch the video above- it has over 60 million views in less than a week- as well as one disappointed Ugandan blogger’s response to it right below).
There have been several backlashes against this movement from within Uganda itself, accusing it of oversimplifying the complexities of the civil war and of approaching the issue with a “White Man’s Burden” attitude (two of my previous articles touched on both of these issues in different contexts, respectively, and can be found here (1) and here (2)). The notion of “over-simplification” is double-edged as simplicity and an entertaining presentation are needed to garner mass support, while simultaneously avoiding the risk of misinformation, paternalism, and skepticism from the academics and those already well-informed about the issue. This is echoing of the same debate I wrote about regarding Nick Kristof’s articles (presented in link “1” above)- in that situation, I argued that Nick was justified in writing with his style because it serves as a portal for students and other new comers into the complex world of development, ultimately doing more good than harm. In this case, I would also acknowledge that Invisible Children feels genuine, especially from their sensational video. However, the critiques are also legitimate. The Yale professor cited earlier, Chris Blattman (unfortunately, I didn’t know of him while I was actually there…), summarized the problem with well-intentioned approaches such as that of Invisible Children in addressing development/human rights issues as “dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone” and in dire need of “intelligent advocacy.”
I agree, like I did with Elliot Prasse-Freeman on Kristof, that journalism and media that appeals to the masses often falls into the trap of being childish, impractical, and utopian, and that the dialogue that recognizes the extreme complexity of the issue should not be quieted by a teenage trend. But, on the flip side, it still made 60 million people think about Joseph Kony and even the fact that these young people are now talking about the video, whether in a positive or negative light, means that they are thinking about it, which is what is in my opinion the first step and often the hardest one. Maybe Invisible Children should have been more politically sensitive and consulted with academics and Ugandans before putting out the video. Maybe they didn’t because they knew the response they would get. And maybe all this Kony business will generate is a few inappropriately funny memes. But, maybe it will do more. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what the results of this campaign ultimately end up being (one poll already attempted to predict this with overwhelming resonance from age group 13-17- after all, kids know best, right?).
Helping Child Soldiers
What exactly defines someone as a “child” soldier? The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2002) defined the forced recruitment of people under age 18 as the current standard for child rights violations, although this is largely based on the Western notion of adulthood. Still, most children in the African context are abducted even before their teens. A Lancet study on Ugandan child soldiers reported a mean age of 12.9 years in that sample. The same study reported that of the 301 child soldiers that were interviewed, almost 40% had to kill someone during their time and over 75% witnessed someone being killed. Several studies (1, 2) have examined the remnant mental health effects of participating in this brutality and present extreme post-traumatic stress that complicates and impedes the progress of rehabilitation and reintegration for these children.
I had the privilege of researching at the Harvard School of Public Health under Dr. Theresa Betancourt who has been working extensively with youth in Sierra Leone for the past 10 years. Her research focuses on models to re-integrate former child soldiers back to their former communities and has explored the effects that different variables have on this re-integration, most importantly the role of wartime experiences on children’s mental health. Dr. Betancourt’s team accepts summer interns and I’d recommend those who are interested in assisting in this research to apply here.