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Flight of the Child Soldiers

Don Cheadle stars in a new documentary chronicling the lives of kids forced to fight -- and sometimes kill their own families -- in a fundamentalist militia in Uganda.
 
 
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Every night in northern Uganda, thousands of children trek from their bush villages to cities in search of refuge. If they stay at home, they risk being kidnapped, abused and forced to fight in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group led by Joseph Kony that has abducted more than 30,000 children and displaced 1.6 million people in the past 20 years.

Most of the world has failed to notice this harrowing situation. Now it's the subject of a powerful new documentary called "Journey Into Sunset", which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Rick Wilkinson and starring Don Cheadle, the film chronicles the plight of these brave children, also known as "night commuters."

Since 1987, the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized the Acholi people of northern Uganda in an attempt to create an "ethnically pure" state, based on Kony's distorted interpretation of the Old Testament. Despite the Ugandan military's best counter-efforts -- and an investigation by the International Criminal Court -- the LRA's brutality has recently spread into eastern Congo and southern Sudan, where Kony moved his training camps.

"Journey Into Sunset" follows actor Don Cheadle, his wife and their two daughters through overcrowded urban shelters like Noah's Ark, where between 3,000 and 4,000 children sleep every night to avoid the LRA. The film is filled with haunting images of night commuters, ages 5-16, crammed into congested tents in cities plagued by AIDS and malaria. Cheadle conducts chilling interviews with children fortunate enough to have escaped the LRA's clutches. Clearly affected by post-traumatic shock, these kids recount -- in lurid detail -- how the LRA brainwashed them, then trained them to murder their own family members and friends.

Cheadle became closely acquainted with the region last year as a correspondent for "Nightline," reporting from the Sudan. It was there, during his visits to Internally Displaced Persons camps, that he decided his family needed to see what was happening around him. "Journey Into Sunset" is all the more poignant because it's told through the eyes of a contemporary American family, witnessing the horrors of life in northern Uganda.

The day after the premiere of "Journey Into Sunset," I discussed the film with director Rick Wilkinson in Manhattan.

Zack Pelta-Heller: How did you become aware of the "night commuters?"

Rick Wilkinson: I had never heard of them, actually. Don and his family had been invited to Kampala, Uganda, for a fundraiser screening of "Hotel Rwanda" to raise money for the night commuters. One of the guys from an NGO called the International Crisis Group asked if I wanted to do another story. But when Nightline couldn't come up with the money, we had to find someone on the outside to finance the travel and the shoot.

I ended up doing a Nightline piece out of that material anyway, but I really wanted to create a longer version. This is an important story, one people need to know about.

ZPH: The shocking predicament of night commuters has been going on for nearly 20 years. Why hasn't more attention been brought to this issue before now?

RW: We haven't heard about it because it's not something where you're looking at a starving baby; it's not something where you're watching a dead body; it's not dramatic enough to grab our attention. There's so much stuff going on that we don't even hear about.

ZPH: The United Nations called this crisis one of the worst to afflict children around the world.

RW: Yeah, but who listens to the U.N.? I'm not going to say they're powerless, but when the U.N. releases a press release, what do you think will get covered, the press release or some lacrosse guys accused of rape?

ZPH: Now that "Journey into Sunset" is done and more awareness has been brought to night commuters, do you think it will compel the U.S. or the U.N. to intervene?

RW: Well, that's interesting, because last night after the premiere, a whole lot of people -- more than I ever would have expected -- came up to me and said, "I've never heard of this. From a political standpoint, what can I do?"

And I said, "You know what? Forget the politics. Send your money to World Vision or Noah's Ark, a place that supports these kids." Because the political intervention might never happen. It's been 20 years so far. What you want to do is send your $20 or $30 to some place that can do some immediate good.

The world pays attention to things when it wants to. I mean, the secretary of state called what's going on in the Sudan genocide, and how much has the U.S. done? How much has anybody done? Here is a country that can make things happen, and yet things have gotten worse there in the past couple of months.

ZPH: Because this violence has spread

RW: Yeah, Sudan is exporting this revolution into Chad, which was one of the few stable places in the region. I mean, Chad was where people go when they get run out of Sudan. And Chad is not as strong as Sudan, militarily.

ZPH: For a little while, though, the International Criminal Court came in to investigate in Uganda, and the Ugandan government stepped up its military efforts to squash the LRA. Though that didn't last long.

RW: The only thing that's really going to settle this is when the government and the LRA decide to get serious. I think the Ugandan government is going to have to give up a lot to the LRA, and they don't want to lose face.

ZPH: Haven't they already offered Kony a window to leave?

RW: Yes, there have been at least two amnesties offered for the LRA fighters, but that hasn't done much. It becomes an issue of saving face and then money and other factors come into play. But as far as the U.S. or the U.N., I don't have a clue.

ZPH: You went to Uganda in May of 2005 to shoot this film. Did you travel up to northern Uganda with Don Cheadle and his family?

RW: John Prendergast and I traveled, and a crew from Nairobi met us. We drove up-country about five hours from Kampala, and then Don and his family flew in the next day.

ZPH: How were you greeted in northern Uganda?

RW: Because John Prendergast is very tied in to the NGOs, everyone knew we were coming, and knew this was an opportunity for them to present their case to someone with no agenda. I'm the most agenda-less person you've ever met [laughs]. And it was up to them to show us what they thought was going on.

It's not like there's another side, because there was no chance I was going out into the bush to look for the Lord's Resistance Army, and fortunately, they didn't come looking for me. This was just a matter of the NGOs helping us by giving us access into their lives and their worlds; to go into the camps where the kids were sleeping that night; to go into World Vision, where 12- and 13-year-old children were recovering from lives of murderous violence and from being soldiers.

ZPH: How was Cheadle as a reporter?

RW: I've been a producer for a long time, and the interesting thing was turning Cheadle into a reporter. He's a very smart, sensitive guy. He got it, in theory, but a couple of times, when the interviews got particularly upsetting, he wanted to stop. Understandably so, because that's a human emotion. That's when the journalist in me said, "No, you can't stop just because you're upsetting the subject."

ZPH: What was one of those instances?

RW: He was interviewing some kids who were fighters, and they were talking about how they were forced to kill people. At one point a girl started to cry, and Don said, "Maybe we should just stop here." I was sitting right behind him, and I said, "Don't stop. Just trust me, don't stop."

These were children who'd been kidnapped and forced by the LRA to be soldiers. They had killed people as part of their duties, and now they're in a place called World Vision where they're basically recovering.

ZPH: How did they get from the LRA to World Vision?

RW: They escaped. If you try to escape, they either beat you with a cane or kill you. But lots of kids do escape. Then they go to World Vision as a halfway house between life in the bush, and hopefully, life as kids again.

ZPH: How does the recovery process work at World Vision?

RW: World Vision provides therapy, and they can only help a small number of these former child soldiers at a time. The kids draw and talk and interact with each other, basically becoming kids again. There are no guns. They're fed. Nobody's beating them or threatening them or abusing them or making them pregnant. They're not living in the bush. It's a therapeutic community to bring them back from the violent world that they've been living in, which might have been for five or six years.

ZPH: About how long do the children stay at World Vision?

RW: This is a long-term recovery process because the children have to reassimilate. I think it takes months, and then there's the issue of bringing the parents or the village people they were stolen from into the scene. World Vision has to get them to accept the children back.

ZPH: Are there cases when the parents refuse their children?

RW: It's more likely that the parents are dead, or the parents were murdered when the children were taken or their villages raided. But there are some cases where the parents don't take their kids back. Fortunately, the kids we met while filming "Journey Into Sunset" all had people alive to take them back.

ZPH: Had the children you met come far in the recovery process?

RW: I don't know how far along they were. All I know is they talked honestly and frankly about being forced to commit murder. One of the kids had almost no expression at all. Another one helped beat his best friend to death because he'd been ordered to. Another girl who's 14 had a 2-year-old son because she became a wife -- and that's deeply embedded in the culture -- though concubine's probably a better word. You just hope that they'll be OK.

ZPH: How many children did you interview?

RW: We interviewed three former soldiers, and we also met a kid from Noah's Ark. That's the place where night commuters come every night to sleep in safety. That child was 15, and he'd actually been kidnapped, but got away shortly after his abduction. He comes to Noah's Ark every night, but he knows that he's going to be OK because he's on the outer edge of being safe. If these kids can make it to the age of 15 or 16 without being abducted by the LRA, they'll be safe from them. The problem is that they're prime targets until then.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a graduate student at The New School and a regular contributor to AlterNet.