Hey there. My name is Sean. There is something special about a name don't you think? Something personal. It's the way we offer our friendship: "Hello, my name is." A greeting with only a greeting is odd. Awkward. When someone says hello, but fails to tell you their name, it's almost like, "Wait. What? What am I supposed to call you? How can I talk to you?" But if I know you're name, it means you were special enough to be among the rare information that sticks in my memory. You stood out. There is something about a name.
In 2008 I went on an adventure. Now, I don't get to go on adventures very often, so I was determined to make the best of every single day. Just before I left, I sat down over a late night drink with a friend who was passionate about Congo. He told me it was our world's deadliest war. What the hell does that mean? I asked. My ignorance was staggering. Two years, dozens of books, hundreds of articles, a thousand meetings, and countless questions later, I swear it still is.
First, I went to meet a friend in Bukavu. Bukavu is in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is a city of tragic beauty. Massive homes and graceful compounds litter streets built by the hands of Congolese slaves under Belgian rule. Now much of it lays in rubble. A visual testimony that the legacy of colonialism is far from dead.
After a few days in Bukavu we then went into Rwanda for Christmas and eventually landed in Goma.
Have you ever seen photos of Congo? It's gorgeous. Jungles as far as the eye can see, filled with people wearing clothing of the most miraculous colors. Women whose bright headwraps require very nearly as much fabric as their dresses and men in dashing suits, each more meticulous than the next. Their tie-knots are nearly always a double windsor between a short but wide collar, and the shirt is pressed with a fire heated iron. In most places there is no electricity, but the shirts are crisp nonetheless. Always crisp.
Their ties are often short. Like really short. Above their belly. It's such an interesting look. I came home to skinny ties and in comparison it somehow felt... weak. I don't know. There is something strong about a short fat tie. It holds gravitas.
And their shoes. Oh man, let me tell you. Their shoes are as varied as the rainbow. Numerous shoes in as many styles as any shoe store in the U.S., but these shoes are no sneakers. Oh no. These are decadent, detailed, polished and cared for. Some are pointed; sharp at the tip so as to be hazardous when in crowds. Some are squared; the line pronounced with such definition that rare is the passerby who fails to notice them. Some are rounded; the more conservative, restrained version of the wingtip. Shoes with tassels and clips. Laces and slip-ons. Shoes with embroidery and zippers. You can say a lot of things about the Congolese, but one thing is certain - you can't help but love their style.
It's been two years since I first met the Congolese - and it's obvious I still understand very little - and the thing that is most surprising is their presence. They carry themselves with great pride. I Am A Child of the Congo, a friend pronounces on his facebook. Another, The Voice of The Congo. Their activism often makes our attempts at protest seem feeble and weak willed. For over a hundred years they have been beat down, but still they hold their heads high.
But of course, when I entered Congo I knew none of this. I knew none of anything really. I was just fascinated by the beauty and mystery of it all.
After a few days in Goma, we became friendly with the regional Colonel. One day while we were in the bank dealing with finances, the Colonel called us and told us five boys had been found by the national army, the FARDC. We dropped our bank statements, ran outside and hailed a moto. Less than 10 minutes later we were there. At the time the boys looked bad, but not terrible.
They lined the boys up against the wall facing the Colonel, like inmates. He sat comfortably behind his desk in the back of an office no more than 10 feet deep, and spoke directly to his Sergeant. Now this was one mean looking fellow. A big dude with a pistol to his right side, and eyeballs that popped too far out of their sockets.
We watched as they interrogated the boys. It was tough and we were unhappy with the way they were treated, but these boys already had the eyes of men, and we knew they had seen much harder moments. An hour or so later they were sent away, so we left as well. And that was that. One more difficult but interesting experience in a new country filled with intrigue.
The next day we woke up for a meeting with a military journalist. This guy gets paid to go into the jungle and videotape the military's activities for record keeping and promotional purposes. Each tape is meticulously labeled and stored. We sat with him and watched footage of brutality and death. Real footage of a real war. Uncut, unfiltered, handheld footage taken just a few days before and that was when I began to ask - what the hell is happening here? What is really going on?
We left there feeling defeated and more than a little overwhelmed. With nothing else to do we thought we'd check back in on the boys and see what their status was. That's when we found them in Titu. Or, as we have since learned, T2. And well, if you've read the falling whistles journal then you've read about the rest of that day.
Overnight the boys had been badly beaten. Left with no food they were punched in the face to keep them from sleeping. The guards knew they had fought for opposing forces and they weren't going to let them get away without some punishment.
That night we went home and I don't remember much. I grabbed my laptop and went outside. My friend was jumping in the beautiful Lake Kivu, and as I watched the sun set behind the water, I began to just break down. I'm not sure I've ever cried so hard. I remember looking across the courtyard at my partner and wondering - does she feel right now what I feel? Anger. Confusion. Sadness. So much sadness. The kind of sadness that never leaves your bones. But all these emotions were sideshows though to the one I could not escape. Rage.
How is this allowed to happen? I'm sleeping in a luxurious guest house and last night they were kept awake with fists. Tonight I will sit down to eat a feast but those boys hadn't eaten in days. I spent $3,000 traveling throughout this continent on little more than a whim and a small fraction of that could have bought them all an education.
We had spent so many hours trying to get someone, anyone, to come and help them. With over $1 billion going into the region every year from the UN, one has to wonder where that money is going when it's so hard to save a single kid.
Something in me had changed. Yesterday they were just five boys who looked half scared to death but who I forgot after dinner. But tonight I couldn't eat much less sleep. What was different? And then it dawned on me. Tonight I knew their names.
Because no one would come to pick them up, we were put in a situation where all we could do was ask questions and listen. For the first time in who knows how long I had been quiet enough to hear someone else's story in full. Out loud. It had taken nearly 3 months without a cell phone, adventures untold, sites unseen and a military encampment holding children to get me to sit still enough to actually listen. My Western brain is often clouded in distraction. That day my brain stood in sharp focus.
And that same brain heard 5 names. Spoken from five mouths. Of five boys. And everything changed. Forever.
I always loved the sound of the last one. Claude. It's such a funny name. He seemed like he would have been a funny kid.
As we sat and heard their stories they described horrors of the imagination. Torture, rape, death and slaughter. They told us of boys abducted and girls captured. They told us that they had seen boys too small to carry a gun sent to the frontlines, armed with only a whistle. They told us of a war with no end in sight and death on an unprecedented scale.
Very nearly nothing in our lives was similar. And yet, I couldn't help but see in them the same desires I feel everyday. They experienced hunger the same way I do. Thirst. They spoke of their families with the same longing I do. They seemed to wish for love as I do. They laughed as I do. Despite the enormous differences, what I found most striking were the commonalities.
After sending the Falling Whistles journal entry to friends and family, I drank myself to sleep. That night my dreams were filled with the unforgettable image of whistles, falling from palm sized hands. I woke up the next day with hundreds of emails in my inbox asking - what can we do? Why is this happening? As a newcomer to the region I obviously had very little to offer in response. In many ways we have been trying to answer their questions ever since.
We saw the whistle used by officers to command their troops, but never learned anything more about them being given to children. But the image drove me on. I sat with anyone who would answer my questions and learned all I could. What I found was a country ravaged by decades of warfare and a people hungry for peace. Among the Congolese I met young visionaries who showed me what it meant to fight for a freer world. Their depth of passion and breadth of intellect challenged all I had been taught of the so-called Third World.
Coming home I didn't know what to do. A war raged a continent away and the lives of my Congolese friends were perpetually in danger. More often than not however, I found my friends here in the States uninterested.
I yelled erratically at everyone I met. Do you realize kids are dying? Even now! Soon enough, people didn't want to hang out with me. It turns out, these sorts of conversations can be very damaging to ones social status.
My buddy came to me one night with a vintage whistle he had bought from ebay and gave it to me as a gift. "Keep those boys alive in your heart," he said. I'll never forget what happened next. All of a sudden I didn't have to yell at people anymore because everywhere I went people asked - what's the whistle? We had found our secret weapon. We had found a way to elevate common conversation. And it worked. For the first time I could speak about peace in a way that made sense to my friends.
That was when we began thinking about what it means to be a whistleblower. We devoured old films, old magazines and old activist printouts. What we found was centuries of men and women who had spoken up for what they knew was right, long before they knew how to stop what was wrong. That was the key. They embraced the inevitability of failure. Always the underdog, whistleblowers must default toward action.
We began to realize that things do not have to remain as they are. We learned of small groups of individuals who had come together to very literally change our world as we know it. And we wondered if we could do the same.
We started saying "make their weapon your voice and be a whistleblower for peace." As we sold whistles we also shared the falling whistles story to give people some insight into why we begun to fight. The journal served as a small window into the human cost of our largest war.
From there my buddy Dav hitchhiked from Texas to New York. He stopped in over 40 cities and sat down with anyone who would listen. Over and over again he delivered the same message: "Look, we don't have many answers, but we know we won't be silent. We're going to speak for peace and we won't shut up until we get it. Join us in figuring out how."
Another friend sold his company in Houston and came to run our finances for free. Another slept in an attic for four months to do design work for free. Interns came from all over north America to sleep in bunk beds and work in our crappy little garage. Three students rode their bicycles from Florida to San Diego stopping in city after city and asking the same thing - join us in speaking for peace.
Since then people far smarter than me have come together to demand peace. And what we've learned since then has changed us forever. We all begin in ignorance. It is where we go from there that determines our destiny.
The minerals mined from Congo fund the constant rebellions. Then, through a wildly complicated process few fully understand, those minerals end up in our electronic products. And every person along the supply chain gains from the original low price.
The most important element of this scandal is that all the groups profiting have a vested interest in continuing the violence. Or at the very least, the chaos. With chaos there are no taxes, no regulations, no rules decreasing profit ratios. Just an endless supply of human beings looking for work. Bring them to the brink of death and then replace them. Now repeat.
The Falling Whistles journal was written with as much ignorance as urgency. I had heard there was a problem, but it took tortured children to shake me into paying attention. And the same was true for my friends. Despite their concern they never had really recognized the gravity of the situation. The journal shook us and made us open our eyes. We continue to share it in hopes that it will do the same for others.
The conflict in Congo is extremely complex and the lack of knowledge in the west are staggering. We are not taught about this region in schools and rarely does our media give it adequate explanation. The whistle is our symbol of protest as we work to change these things. We are using it in hopes of creating a coalition capable of demanding peace.
This fight will take new kinds of education and new ways of reaching people. It will also take time. But we work with constant urgency and ask that you do as well.
We as a people must be unyielding. We cannot allow our consumerism to fuel a war of Holocaust proportions. Just as a grassroots abolition movement at the turn of the 20th century ended Leopoldʼs exploitative regime, and a popular uprising threw off colonial rule in the 1960s, so can another coalition today push forward to finally see the liberation of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is that task laid out for us. To pursue freedom in the face of opposition. To speak up when others are silent and few will listen. To protest.
And even those acts of courage will be only the beginning. A moment of outrage is very necessary - reacting is part of what makes us human. But reaction only creates the potential for change. It is what we do with every day after that paves our path. This fight is called advocacy.
Five names. Five boys among millions.
It's a beginning.
Join us and be a whistleblower for peace.
Follow Sean Carasso on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@seancarasso