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Fighting for invisible children

“I fear to sleep at home,” a Ugandan boy tells filmmakers.

The boy is one of thousands of children who commute nightly to find shelter from the rebel army in Northern Uganda.

In Northwest Ohio and around the world, more than 58,000 people joined the nightly migration of the Ugandan children on Saturday to raise awareness for what some call the worst humanitarian crisis facing the world today.

About 137 University students and Northwest Ohio residents participated in the Global Night Commute, held locally at St. Aloysius parish in Bowling Green.

Beginning at a little after 7:30 p.m. Saturday, participants walked silently around campus from the Union oval to the church on South Enterprise Street. There, participants wrote letters to senators and President Bush, made art projects and slept outside in the chuch’s parking lot.

“Americans are closing their eyes to this war,” Ben Pushka, senior, told participants at the beginning of the event. “By lying down, we are joining the Invisible Children in Uganda.”

Not safe at home

The Global Night Commute was originally sparked by the documentary film, “Invisible Children,” that was shown during the event Saturday night. The film, which was created by three recent University of California graduates, documented the condition of children in Northern Uganda who are in danger of being abducted by the rebel army each night.

An estimated 30,000 children in Northern Uganda have been leaving their homes each night for three years to find shelter in urban areas and at the center of government camps to avoid abduction by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, according to Amnesty International’s Web site.

Since 1986, an estimated 25,000 children have been abducted by the LRA led by Joseph Kony. These children are then forced to become soldiers or sex slaves for the rebel army.

According to those interviewed in the film, from the Ugandan children to a historian and an advocate for the children at Parliament, the abducted children are brainwashed by the LRA ? forced to either kill or be killed.

“Children from five to 12 are his primary victims because they’re big enough to carry guns and small enough to sneak into schools to abduct more children,” one of the filmmakers said in a voice-over.

A U.S. aid worker in Uganda said on the film that this age group is targeted by the army also because they are easiest to brainwash.

Jacob, a Ugandan boy, was interviewed at a bus stop where he was staying the night.

“I have nothing. I don’t even have a blanket,” he said, adding that he only eats about once a day.

He and his brothers had been abducted by the LRA. He and one brother Thomas, had escaped, but a third brother was killed.

Jacob said if the children in the LRA cried, they were killed for thinking of home.

Another child who was abducted said she had been forced to become a soldier’s second wife.

While she was with the army, she also saw first-hand how the LRA treated its child soldiers.

“Some children who are too weak to walk were just chopped up and left to die in the bush,” she said.

The civil war has taken a toll on the mental health of the children as well.

“I still get bad dreams, and I wake up screaming. Even when I am not sleeping, I have bad dreams,” a Ugandan child said on the video.

For Derek Smith, a junior at St. John’s Jesuit high school, the film made the children’s situation a reality for him.

“You can be told how bad it is 100 times, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’ve actually seen it,” Smith said. Smith recently organized a screening of the film at St. John’s high school in Toledo.

Pavement for a pillow

For many Global Night Commute participants, seeing the film inspired them to want to take action to help the children.

Emily Davis, BGSU alumna and h2o staff member, said she decided to participate in Saturday night’s event after seeing the film.

“My heart breaks for the children that don’t have people to protect them,” she said. “It’s not just people walking around America in the middle of the night. It’s going to affect change.”

The non-profit organization, Invisible Children, Inc., which was founded by the filmmakers, organized the Global Night Commute because people wanted a way to make a difference.

The event in Bowling Green began with participants walking from the Union Oval along Ridge Street to Mercer and then to St. Aloysius.

Kefa Otiso, an associate professor of geography at the University, gave a speech at 9 p.m. in St. Aloysius school’s gym about the history of the humanitarian crisis.

After the speech, Amy Wittmer, a University junior, took advantage of the opportunity to write a letter to lawmakers.

Wittmer said she wrote to Ohio Senator Mike Dewine asking him to not ignore the situation in Uganda.

“U.S. is in a position of great power and needs to use that for good,” she said of her letter.

Participants also had the opportunity to create artwork expressing how they feel about the situation. The artwork will be put into a book to represent the voices of those who are against what Ugandan children are experiencing every day, according to Carolyn Sams, public relations assistant for Invisible Children, Inc.

Haley Garnder, a Southview High School junior, drew a picture of herself and a Ugandan person connected by a cross to symbolize that they are still connected despite the distance between continents.

Stephanie Benore, h2o member, hopes the Global Night Commute will cause each participant to realize on a deeper level what the children experience and feel connected to the children.

Her own feeling of connection with the children inspired her to make the phone calls necessary to bring the first screening of the film to the University this past March.

“You can’t have something so heavy on you and just leave it there. You have to do something about it.”

Political change

Many participants, like Pavan Purswan, junior, said an important step to protecting the children is creating awareness among the average American citizens and lawmakers.

“There’s a horrible atrocity that’s being committed and we are totally ignorant of the situation,” he said.

Erin Battistoni, campus minister at St. Thomas More University Parish, said the empowering the Ugandan people will be important to helping end the humanitarian crisis.

“I would much rather put my money and effort into helping the average Ugandan people – not just coming in and telling the government what to do,” she said, adding that she believes education and listening to their needs both play an important role in doing this.

Invisible Children, Inc. is one organization working at the grassroots level.

The organization employs Ugandan women to make bracelets for sale in the U.S., which has a two-fold benefit according to Sams.

The women receive a living wage from the organization, and all of the profits for bracelets help fund scholarships for Ugandan children.

Battistoni said she also thinks using money currently spent on Iraq for humanitarian aid in Uganda instead could also help solve the problem.

Some participants want to see U.S. lawmakers take a leading role in creating change.

Benore would like to see the U.S. use its power to pressure the Ugandan government to take the situation more seriously and seek negotiations with the LRA.

“I realize I don’t know everything, but I do know it is a problem,” she said.

Davis thinks possible solutions could be getting more troops to the region, trying to capture the leader of the LRA, setting up orphanages, improving education and increasing the number of medical doctors.

Whether or not the Global Night Commute will be repeated, depends on how effective Saturday night’s event is, Sams said.

“Hopefully the war will end, and we won’t have to,” she said.

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