Displaced for a day

Cardboard boxes transformed into an overnight shelter; saltine crackers and one bottle of water were rationed for food. More than 4,000 people said “Displace Me” on the National Mall on Saturday. For 24 hours, their life mimicked the Internally Displaced Camps in Northern Uganda.

Displace Me is just one aspect of a youth movement to bring peace talks to a war-torn region, a movement that Invisible Children at GW has embraced.

More than 40 GW students worked registration and helped coordinate Displace Me. They wore T-shirts marked with red X’s, the symbol of a displaced person.

“No situation in the world is isolated,” said Susana Siman, a sophomore and creative director of Invisible Children at GW. “No one should live in these situations, and us being here for one night can have an impact on future decisions.”

Some 2 million people have fled their homes and thousands of children have been abducted in Northern Uganda since a two-decade war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government began. To re-enact how the displaced live everyday, almost 100,000 people, most of them under 25, in 15 cities across the United States lived in make-shift displacement camps with little shelter and little food.

“In the IDP camps, people die by the hundreds every week. Disease spreads so quickly that people are dying at alarming rates,” said Jason Manion, 22, a roadie for Invisible Children, the group that organized the event.

GW participants built a shack out of thirty boxes of cardboard, a white flag poking out at the top. It read: “Every War has an End” as it whipped around in the afternoon wind. Asked if he feared the possible rain, Nick Marino, a sophomore said, “It rains in Uganda too.”

Invisible Children at GW is one of the first college chapters outside California, said Sara Ahmed, a sophomore and founder of the student organization. It started after Ahmed showed her friends “Invisible Children Rough Cut,” a film about the people behind the war. The student organization’s primary purpose has been to raise awareness.

“I don’t think we can begin to imagine what life is like in the camps, but this is a start,” said Marino, who helped build GW’s shack.

Invisible Children started after three young filmmakers from San Diego traveled to Sudan in 2003. They went in search of a story for their documentary and came home in search of change. “Invisible Children Rough Cut” shows how children leave their homes to sleep in bus stations and hospitals in the city center, the only place safe from the LRA. The film shows how fear is an understatement in Northern Uganda, where the LRA abducts children and trains them to kill. While in Uganda, the three filmmakers unearthed the story of the displaced. Instead of forgetting, they decided to do more.

“Anyone under 21 in Northern Uganda only knows war,” Manion said. “Invisible Children is making an effort to not just placard wave, but to get people to experience this, to flood the Senate, House of Representatives and White House with letters. If we can get the U.S. to say we support peace talks, then that has clout.”

No one who works for Invisible Children is over the age of 34, Manion said, and the average age of the roadies who travel across the United States showing the documentary to college and high school students is 23. Everything Invisible Children produces, be it movies, Web sites, or posters, has an aftertaste of pop culture. They have an interactive Web site with real time footage. They produced “A Musical to Believe In” to support the Global Night Commute, an event similar to Displace Me that took place in 130 cities with 80,000 participants. They have “roadies” instead of volunteers.

“It’s a movement based entirely on images. It attracts young people and gets the message across visually. It puts a face to the war,” Siman said.

For Ahmed, the film “hit a spot.” It made her want to learn more about Africa and to work with Invisible Children. Even during finals week, Ahmed said she finds it hard when she has to choose between studying and planning for Displace Me.

“I think to myself what’s more important, do school work or help children in Uganda?” Ahmed said.

Some high school students traveled more than three hours to go to “Displace Me” in Washington. Polaski School of Rochester, N.Y,. organized buses to transport students the 403 miles to the District. They raised money by selling a strip of duct tape for $1, which students then used to tape a teacher onto the wall, a few feet off the ground.

“At first administrators of inner city schools said that students won’t care about kids halfway around the world,” Manion said, “but they surprised us all.”

Invisible Children recently launched Schools for Schools, an interactive Web community based on MySpace that enables students across the county to raise funds for schools in Northern Uganda. As of Saturday, 531 schools raised $505,186. Ninety percent of the money that supports Invisible Children and Schools for Schools comes from what students make at bake sales, dodgeball tournaments and dance-a-thons. Instead of big checks, Invisible Children survives on students’ leftover change and crumpled bills.

“This is a story dependent on people from our generation to help make a change. We are the face of change,” Ahmed said.

Soon after Invisible Children’s Global Night Commute last year, peace talks started in Uganda, and two weeks ago, the Ugandan government reported that the LRA agreed to resume stalled peace talks.

The sequel to the documentary that sparked a movement was released Saturday night. It brought back familiar faces from the first documentary and showed what progress had been made. Throughout the evening cameras buzzed around the “displacement camp,” and in a few weeks a documentary made about Displace Me will be shown in Gulu, where the first film took place.

“One night is such a small sacrifice. To spend one night out of our dorm rooms is not the end of the world,” said Mariel Gold, a sophomore. “It’s the least we can do to aid the process along.”

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