Author: Laurel Lundstrom
Location: Washington, D.C.
Laurel Lundstrom is a graduate of the University of Maryland's graduate school of journalism, and is now an editor for a national association in Washington, D.C. In her free time she's an outreach coordinator for Amman Imman, a grassroots project trying to bring water wells to a large area in Niger that currently has none. In addition to Amman Imman, she remains dedicated to activism on the part of several other African issues, including ending the war in Uganda.
Laurel recently attended an all-night demonstration hosted by the organization Invisible Children. The nonfiction essay below is her reaction to the demonstration and, more generally, commentary about the state of apathy among many young people today.
Disengage Me, Replace Me
At the age of eight, Sarah was abducted from her bed at midnight by rebel fighters. She was handed a gun and made to join their fight. She was also raped by her captors and, at age 14, gave birth to a rebel's child. "What I can remember is killing, putting people in a hut and burning them to death. I myself killed 30 people." – Testimony of a child soldier from Uganda to The Newshour
While struggling with three oversized cardboard boxes that were to serve as my home for the night, I headed for a mile down Virginia Avenue toward my final destination: the Washington, D.C. Mall. I, along with 60,000 other people, were to gather in 15 cities nationwide that evening, building and staying in temporary cardboard huts to simulate the living conditions of the internally displaced in northern Uganda, now victims of a war that has raged for 21 years and destroyed the lives of millions.
Long before seeing the tip of the Washington Monument interrupt the sky, I heard a call to my left. "Are you going to the Darfur event?" a young woman screamed from the window of her new, white sport utility vehicle.
"What? No, I am going to the Uganda demonstration."
The driver looked puzzled. "Is that the one where you have to bring the cardboard boxes?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
Well, I thought to myself, she had the right continent and the right region of the right continent; perhaps her friends had invited her to something she knew nothing about in hopes of raising her awareness. Demonstrations are about giving situations visibility. They are also about bringing much-needed attention to people who suffer, and raising awareness among those who may know nothing of their suffering at all. This one tonight, called "Displace Me," was about giving the invisible child soldiers of Uganda a voice. It was hosted by the organization Invisible Children.
What I didn't realize at that moment was that the demonstration I was headed to would embody, wholly, the attitude of the woman who brazenly leaned her head out the window, who grouped one conflict with another and drove off. What I witnessed that Saturday wasn't people internalizing a rebellion led by militants who trap children and turn them into ruthless murderers and rapists, forcibly placing people in camps with little food, little water and no hope for the future, and killing thousands every month. What I saw was an affair wrought with laughter, dancing, and a mockery of one of the most pressing humanitarian disasters of this century.
As I duct taped my tent together, fretting over whether I should have been allowed to bring duct tape at all, the people to my left drank sodas and played cards amongst their friends. To my right, a young woman sat writing a letter about the crisis to President Bush, listening to her iPod. Although the organizers asked that people only bring a box of saltines and a bottle of water to be rationed out later that night—plus sleeping bags and modest art supplies to write slogans on the cardboard—I noticed that people had luxuries that included books, food, Frisbees, pillows, digital cameras, beach balls, and iPods.
After erecting my sleeping quarters, I was asked to join the organizers by the luminous movie screen at the front of the mall. There, Invisible Children's large camera took an hour-long film of the crowd jumping up and down, screaming "yeah!," waving the two-finger peace sign, and generally acting excited about a conflict that has raged for decades. The people around me laughed at the awkward intonations of the film's director and casually socialized, acting as if they were at a college fraternity party. Told that this video would go to politicians to tell them that youth are serious about ending the war, I wondered how, indeed, these young people could ever be taken seriously.
Following a moving and eloquent, albeit abbreviated speech by a Ugandan man, organizers invited us to watch an hour-long video featuring some of those living in Uganda's displacement camps. I expected to be both saddened and shocked by the video. After all, of the people who have died as a result of the war, 97 percent of them have died in camps because of malaria and AIDS, or simply because they didn't have enough food to eat or clean water to drink. Instead, I watched what could have been a GAP commercial. As African music played in the background, the film's opener showed young Ugandans dancing on a white cloth imitating a projector screen. The testimonies included people telling us about how they had lost their land, lost hope of job opportunities, and, amid cheers from a plethora of young women in the audience, how women have to bare the brunt of the work in camps, often walking two miles many times each day to get water for the men in their huts. I didn't see death or disease or a sense of urgency.
After pretending to fetch water by standing in a five-minute-long line behind three young women taking pictures of themselves with their digital cameras, and asking a fellow male to get my crackers, since only males could stand in the five-minute cracker line, I didn't feel any more in touch with the conflict in Uganda or the daily regimen of the internally displaced person.
Before giving up hope on the event, a moment of silence rang throughout the camp. I felt relieved. Perhaps, finally, people had put away their iPods and Frisbees and were reflecting. Maybe the girl from Virginia Avenue finally realized that Uganda is far different from the Sudan. By reading Invisible Children's brochures she might even surmise that being a Northern Ugandan is far different—and far more horrifying—than being a Southern Ugandan today.
"Click, clock, click clock ..." It was the clock on the movie screen and then the drum beat again and then laughter and dancing—and the silence had ended. For the 1.5 million people who have lost their lives to Uganda's war, there was a 20-minute-long moment of silence. It was then that I felt horrified. I witnessed no discussions about the conflict that evening, and I didn't see anger in one face. As I tried to reflect, to sleep, all I could hear were the voices of those around me clamoring about music, cell phones, books they had read. I guess the suffering and the people of Uganda are just too distant, too different.
At 12 a.m. I packed up my things. I went home. I could be solemn there. I could better reflect on something I would fortunately never have to experience under the covers and in the dark, away from the city lights. After all, in the camps there are no lights, and when another child passes away from malaria with no chance of ever getting the drugs so desperately needed, I doubt there is laughter.