Co-authored by John Prendergast, Co-founder, The Enough Project
It's midnight. We are in a studio in North Bergen, New Jersey, filming take after take of a scene for an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We're tired. It's the fourteenth hour of what will be a sixteen-hour day. We're tired, but we're ambitious. When the episode airs on March 31st, 2009. at 10PM on NBC, we need it to reach not only into households across this country, but all the way into the dense forests of one of the most troubled places on earth. The episode is called "Hell," and it is based on the experiences of child soldiers and sexual slaves in Central Africa.
The history of the region is harrowing.
For over two decades, the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, has brought untold suffering to the people of central Africa--for many years in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, more recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This small but ruthless militia specializes in abducting children and enlisting them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Boys are brainwashed and given guns; sometimes they're forced to kill their own family members. Girls serve as "wives" for the militia commanders, often bearing their children.
Over the last decade, nearly two million people in northern Uganda have been forced from their homes and into refugee camps. At the height of the conflict, the camps' squalid conditions were claiming nearly 1,000 lives per day. The children--tens of thousands of them - who would walk for miles every night to seek shelter and safety from the LRA -coined a term for their endless journeys: "night commuting".
The LRA has since moved out of northern Uganda, and peace is slowly returning to the region. But the LRA's atrocities are now underway in neighboring Congo and southern Sudan. Their latest spree of brutality has already killed more than 1,000 people.
The Lord's Resistance Army would not exist without Joseph Kony, its messianic, megalomaniacal leader. For years, Kony has promised to emerge from the bush and engage in peace talks. Time and again, he has proven that he is not serious about peace, and that he will resist any attempts to negotiate an end to his reign of terror.
Last December, with U.S. backing, the armies of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and southern Sudan launched a joint military operation against the LRA to apprehend Joseph Kony and his key commanders and thus end the conflict. Thus far, the mission has failed. As the LRA moves to evade capture, they are looting, pillaging and killing, targeting innocent and unprotected civilians in their path.
But the situation is not hopeless. A solution is actually possible.
Thus far, this immense suffering has occurred largely off the radar of the Western capitals. If the suffering is to end, that radar must begin to register this crisis. If the show on Tuesday night moves you--or if this information has moved you--take a minute to write to your Senators and to President Obama and urge him to make this crisis a priority. Swift and decisive action by the administration to protect civilians from further violence can be part of a broader strategy to end the conflict. As a start, ask the president to name a Special Envoy for Central Africa to deal with the LRA and with the ongoing war in the Congo. Learn more at www.enoughproject.org.
Can a TV show raise awareness, educate millions of Americans, and inspire them to demand government action that will bring an end to the scourge of child soldiers and sex slaves half a world away?
It's midnight, we're filming--and we are ambitious.
Join us in our ambition.
Mariska Hargitay is an actress who appears in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. John Prendergast is Co-founder of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress.
Follow Mariska Hargitay on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Mariska