On April 20, two boys and two girls who were being held captive by a group of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters escaped in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As they fled, their captors shot at them, wounding one of the girls. The others managed to get away ending up in the custody of a local man who falsely claimed to be a village leader. Not long after their escape from captivity, the local man brought the three brave young people back to his home where he eventually killed the two boys and assaulted the girl. Local authorities later took custody of the girl and she is now finally safe.
This heart-wrenching story is hard to read, and our team was heartbroken to learn of suffering that each of these brave individuals and their families have experienced. But the tragedy of this story also pushes us forward to continue helping brave people like these four safely return home to their families, and protect others from being taken from their families in the first place. As this story makes clear, escaping the LRA is far from easy.
First of all, it takes great courage to make the decision to escape. For decades, the LRA has used misinformation, mysticism, and fear to prevent escape. Captives are often told that escape is impossible and that their only option to stay alive is to remain with their group and follow the orders of their commanders. Today, the LRA is made up of an estimated 150 active fighters and Joseph Kony and his commanders know that they can’t afford to lose anyone by escape or defection. In fact, this January, LRA escapees reported that Joseph Kony ordered more child abductions to help refill the LRA’s dwindling ranks.
That’s why initiatives like our “Come Home” defection messages are so important. Every day, our team works with local radio stations to broadcast messages via FM radio which encourages those held captive by the LRA to escape. We record messages from family members of people known to be in LRA captivity and from people who have recently escaped letting those in captivity know that escape is possible and that their families miss them. Over the years, hundreds of LRA escapees have cited these and other Invisible Children messages as influential in their decision to escape. They’re a big part of the reason that the LRA, today, is so much smaller than ever before.
Making the decision and finding the opportunity to escape captivity is incredibly brave, but it’s only the first step toward freedom and safety. For many, the danger is not over once they manage to escape. The same is obviously true for the three brave young escapees in our story. When someone escapes captivity, they are still often in an unfamiliar place where they don’t know the landscape or anyone in the local community. And for many of the people in these local communities, their only experience of the LRA is having been attacked or looted by fighters, so when someone from the LRA escapes nearby and comes to their community for help, members of the community can often be afraid and react by harming escapees.
That’s why, in addition to using “Come Home” messages to encourage LRA captives to escape, we also work with local communities who are impacted by LRA violence to help them understand how and why they can help LRA escapees. We do this through an innovative Mobile Cinema program, which we created along with our friends at Discover the Journey. Through the power of story, we work alongside community leaders to explain that the LRA is made up mostly of children abducted and forced to fight or to carry looted goods and that, by helping those who manage to escape, they are also reducing the threat to their own community by helping dismantle the LRA from within. Through our community outreach, we’ve helped set up dozens of local committees across central Africa who are equipped and prepared to provide support to LRA escapees and help connect them to local authorities who can help them get home to their families.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t demonstrate the many successes we’ve seen through these programs. The girl who was wounded didn’t manage to escape. The two boy didn’t make it home to their families. And the young girl who is on her way home experienced terrible tragedy and has a long road of healing ahead of her. But this story does remind us of the incredible need for programs that help LRA captives along every step of their journey toward freedom. At Invisible Children, we are 100% committed to doing all that we can to bring those held captive by the LRA home safely, to help them heal, and to end LRA violence and abduction once and for all.
Your support makes all of our programs possible. From ‘Come Home” messages that break down the barriers that prevent LRA captives from escaping to Mobile Cinema and community engagement projects that equip communities to help escapees get home, to the Trauma Healing Toolkit we provide to those who have escaped with the tools to help them heal from the lasting scars of trauma. These programs have already helped hundreds, but we won’t stop until every LRA captive is home, safe, and supported.