Students lobby Congress to get involved.
By Guthrie Gray-Lobe
Thursday October 12, 2006
Activists dressed in bright yellow T-shirts dotted Capitol Hill on Oct. 10 as they met with legislators and congressional staffers in an attempt to encourage the United States to take a proactive role in resolving the humanitarian crisis in Northern Uganda, where a 20-year conflict has driven 1.3 million people into refugee camps.
Students from around the country comprised the bulk of the 700 activists at Uganda Lobby Day, pushing legislators from their home states to appropriate more resources for humanitarian and development assistance in the region, and to make the United States a more outspoken advocate at ongoing peace talks in Juba, Sudan. The day before, the activists attended an informational event at George Washington University to prepare.
The Juba talks are a major landmark in the 20-year conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that employs mostly child soldiers that formed in 1989 as a fight for members of the Acholi ethnic group against the Ugandan government that took power in 1986. Still, many people who are working in the region are afraid that the talks lack the international support to keep the participants at the table.
“This is a part of the world where the U.S. government is still well respected,” Brian Grzelkowski, senior policy advisor for Mercy Corps, told Campus Progress. “But I think there’s also a sense that U.S. support would add credibility to the talks, and help keep both parties at the table.”
International attention on the Ugandan crisis has not always facilitated the peace talks. President Yoweri Museveni’s offer of amnesty to Josephy Kony, the leader of the LRA, caused considerable controversy. Kony and other leaders of the LRA are currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and Kony has refused to come out of hiding so long as he is wanted by the court. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Museveni would prefer a traditional reconciliation ceremony in which Kony would drink sheep’s blood mixed with a bitter root with the victims of his crimes. On Wednesday, a LRA spokesman announced they would sign a peace deal if all criminal indictments were dropped. ” We are not going to negotiate with ropes around our necks,” the spokesman said.
In September, however, United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said, “The notion that indictment will stop the peace process is wrong. Justice must be served, and in a way that will not block peace or reconciliation.”
The two-day event began with speakers from a variety of international NGOs, Ugandan government officials and tribal leaders, and Grace Akallo, a World Vision spokesperson who was kidnapped by the LRA along with 139 classmates when she was 14.
Many of the students who were lobbying complained that the Ugandan crisis has not received attention in the United States. Katie Burmeister, a student at Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Mich., said, “Uganda seems to be extremely ignored by our country, and by the world, even though it is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world right now.”
Amber Dixon, a student at Gilford Tech in Greensboro, N.C., agreed. “The word is not getting out,” she said. “The media is not getting behind it.”
Many of the students cited a recent film, Invisible Children, as their first source of information and inspiration on the crisis in Northern Uganda. The film, made in 2003, documents the horrors of the LRA’s use of child soldiers, and the extraordinary lengths to which refugee children must go to avoid kidnapping and recruitment. These children are called the “night commuters” because they trek nightly to towns to sleep on the streets rather than risk kidnapping by the LRA.
The film has expanded into an entire organization which provides an education and mentor program for 450 refugee children. In April, Invisible Children organized the Global Night Commuters in which 70,000 people around the world walked for miles and slept outside in solidarity with Uganda’s night commuters. Another Global Night Commuters event is planned for April 2007.
“Once you see that movie it’s like a chain reaction. You want to tell everyone that you care for,” said Ashley Sweet, a junior at Stetson University in Deland Florida. “It really inspired us to get up and do something.”
Lago, a student from Concordia College in Minnesota, and a former “lost boy” of neighboring Sudan, said, “When we get involved we give hope to the people in Northern Uganda. When young people get involved it gives hope to young people back home and says, ‘They are with us, they are for us.'” Lago felt that the day had been a success: “I think after this, I think at least some people will have an idea of the situation in northern Uganda.”
To find out when Invisible Children will be showing near your campus, or how your campus can join in the next Global Night Commuters event, contact [email protected].
Guthrie Gray-Lobe is a recent graduate of St. John’s College. He is currently a communications intern at the Center for American Progress.