Huffpost Impact

Giving A Voice To Africa's Child Soldiers

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The standard hope for most college kids embarking on foreign backpacking adventures is to "find oneself." On one such trip, Laren Poole, alongside friends Jason Russell and Bobby Bailey, found something more: an unseen rebel conflict in which children were being adducted en masse as child soldiers.

In the spring of 2003, Laren Poole says he was looking to experience life outside the "Southern California bubble and see the rest of the world." The three friends has heard of the conflict in Darfur and with their video camera in tow, they set out for Sudan in search of a story. Shortly after arriving in Sudan, they found themselves in Uganda, where they stumbled upon the longest running conflict in African history, fueled by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and sustained by their tactic of conscripting child soldiers.

Laren, Jason, and Bobby spent weeks in Uganda, meeting former child soldiers and capturing their journey on film.

Once stateside, the trio struggled to communicate the atrocities they witnessed in Uganda but focused on creating a film to introduce Americans to young Ugandans in hopes of personalizing the issue.

"The stories themselves are powerful, we try to make them relatable and simple and character driven," Laren said of their approach.

One of the first stories they told was about a young teenage boy named Jacob, who was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army as a child soldier. He later escaped, forced to leave behind a brother who was killed and was the living the hidden life of many Uganda boys--the life of a night commuter. In order to avoid abduction from their homes in the middle of the night, thousands of teenage boys would leave their families each night and walk miles to the nearest urban center, to sleep in gyms or in crawl spaces, in search of safety from the LRA.

Their first film, "Invisible Children: Rough Cut," features the heartwrenching stories of Jacob and others, and left much of its American audience to wonder how they had not yet heard of this conflict.

The young filmmakers recruited 50 college kids to drive RVs across the country and screen Rough Cut at approximately 1,000 venues.

This kind of guerilla marketing, with a drive for social action, would soon become a signature tactic for Invisible Children.

Although these screenings were the official birth of the Invisible Children movement, Laren said the group still wondered "If I tell this story does anyone want to hear it?"

On April 28th, 2006, his question was answered by 80,000 people in 130 cities across seven countries who proved that they not only wanted to hear the stories, but they wanted to help. Tens of thousands of people participated in Invisible Children's first international call to action, The Global Night Commute, where they slept outside to mirror the experience of the night commuters in Uganda in order to raise awareness.

Soon after, the group landed on Oprah and their work on the ground in Uganda accelerated.

"There was this glimmer of hope after the Global Night Commute," Laren said. "The LRA started negotiations with the government which lasted two years and brought some relative peace."

Within Uganda, the organization has also implemented long-term development programs focused on initiatives ranging from rebuilding schools and rehabilitating child soldiers, to water and sanitation projects, to providing scholarships to secondary and university students.

Meanwhile, a large portion of the LRA has taken refuge in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, so Invisible Children has expanded their work outside of Uganda and maintain that their ultimate goal is to use the power of storytelling to end the longest running war in Africa and eradicate the LRA.

"We're in it until we see the LRA disarmed and the leadership standing trial for the crimes they've committed in these areas," Laren said. "They've committed the worst crimes known to man. And for us, this is our life now."

The Protection Plan from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.