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Become a Whistle Blower for a Great Cause

January 31, 2011

There are times in your life when words on a page cause such a vast impact on you that the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up, tears well in your eyes, and you heart sinks into your stomach; reading the story for non-profit, Falling Whistles, was one of those times…

As I’m writing you, the sun is setting just over the central lake in Goma. My computer screen blurs. I cannot help the weeping that hinders my vision and falls on the keys even as I type these words. We originally planned to spend the day tracking down the rebel leader Nkunda. We had arranged an armed escort to take us into his territory. However after speaking with a Congolese military journalist who had just returned from that area, we decided to postpone the trip.

He said the upcoming Peace Conference had infuriated Nkunda’s rebels and they had gone mad with drugs. He told us it didn’t matter who guarded us, the sight of our white skin would enrage them and they would fire. “Another day, but not this day” was his advice.

We thought it prudent to take note.  Instead, we caught back up with the 5 boys that had just escaped two of the rebel armies – Busco, Bahati, Serungendo, Claude, Sadiki.

We found them in a filthy cell at a military encampment called Titu. Imprisoned.  The boys had been forced to spend the entire night standing up straight. None of them were over 15 years old. None had ever chosen to fight. Still, they were being treated as Enemies of the State. Yesterday each of them were giving praise to God for their rescue from the rebels. Now they’re wondering if the National Army is any different.
It’s a common problem here in Congo. There is more sexual violence here than anywhere in the world, but no signs that any one of the armies are any better or worse than another. All the soldiers rape. All the soldiers pillage. All the people suffer. There is no refuge. Not on the victim-side-of-a-gun anyway.
As we dug further, we discovered that the boys hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and had been beaten all night long. The soldiers forced them to blow up their cheeks and then punch them in. These boys, who have already been hrough a deep kind of hell, were trembling with fear. 

Lindsay convinced me and we went to buy them food, clothes, shoes, soap and a toothbrush. Bare materials that grant us small dignity. They fell on the gifts like wolves, smiling, laughing and thanking God. The bones of their ribs showed through their rags as they ate.  The bananas in their hands were the first non-rotten food they had eaten since they had last seen their families.

While we waited for the UN, who had promised to rescue them, we spoke with the boys individually. Each had been abducted. Plucked from their homes, schools or farms. Each had been tied up and beaten. Each had been forced to kill.

Sadiki had been dropped in a hole, deep in the ground. Nearly 300 boys were forced into the ditch for 20 hours of the day. They sat and slept in their own excrement. Slowly, they awaited the other 4 hours of the day when they found themselves tortured and trained to fire a gun. Only to be dropped again into their own filth.

Many of us have heard the stories of child-soldiers. Invisible Children and stories such as A Long Way Gone have been groundbreaking in granting us glimpses into their tortured lives. I had heard, known, cared. I had even reacted and raged. But when these boys told me of the whistle blowers, the horror grew feet and walked within me.

Captured by Nkunda’s rebel army, the boys not big enough to hold a gun are given merely a whistle and put on the front lines of battle. Their sole duty is to make enough noise to scare the enemy and then to receive – with their bodies – the first round of bullets.

Lines of boys fall as nothing more than a temporary barricade. Those who try to flee are shot at from behind. The soldiers call it “encouragement” to be brave. Without a gun to protect themselves, the smallest boys are placed between the crossfire of two armies – forces fighting for reasons far beyond their ability to understand.

WITH FALLING WHISTLES, THEIR ONLY CHOICE IS TO FEIGN DEATH OR FACE IT.

Busco’s the oldest of 8 children. Many times he watched that number dwindle to some soldiers’ petty fire. His only wish is to go back to his farm, because he’s sure his parents need his help to raise the family. For quite some time, they have believed him dead.

As with us all, the boys gained freedom from sharing their stories. Tears turned to smiles and smiles to laughter. Little in our respective lives was similar, but storytelling is strange and powerful. Surrounded by angry and onlooking guards, we found some small comfort in one another.

The only Rwandan of the group was sure that he had fought against Nkunda’s army – the very same rebels that had abducted these Congolese boys. I asked if that made them enemies. He looked at me, laughed, and kissed Sadiki. “We are only boys. How can we be enemies?”

As the day turned to dusk, we all grew worried the UN wouldn’t come to pick them up. Their hands and eyes betrayed their dread at staying yet another night, standing among these merciless guards.

We started making some calls only to discover that the UN had passed responsibility of the children to UNICEF, who had then been turned away at the camp 4 times.  The soldiers wanted the children to stay for another night of entertainment and weren’t prepared to have them released.

Lindsay hit the phone book for some frantic politicking with our newfound connections.  Finally both UNICEF and the UN trucks were admitting inside the Titu compound.  I’m not sure what changed their decision, but I suppose I don’t care.
We quickly loaded the boys into the trucks as the soldiers prepared to block our exit.  JUST BECAUSE THE TRUCKS HAD GAINED ENTRANCE DIDN’T MEAN THEY’D ALLOW THEM TO LEAVE.

Halfway through the camp they demanded the truck stop and empty out.  Again, politicking and protesting with all the Americana authoritarian aristocratic animated attitude we could muster, the boys were finally allowed back in the truck and set free.

Weeks ago they had each planned out their escape.  Praying they’d be rescued from their mad dash out of Nkunda’s camp.  When the Congolese army picked them up, they thought their dreams achieved – only to be corrected by dark fists in the night.  As we watched them leave T2, we knew we were seeing their escape finally fulfilled.
The burden of their lives weighs heavy on me tonight.  I close my eyes and see only whistles falling from palm sized hands.  And I haven’t the damndest idea what to do about it.   I have to share their story.  But haven’t a clue how to pull it off.  I know simply that this cannot, cannot go on.
And I know we’re gonna need a lot of help.  From a lot of you.  There is a Peace Conference starting tomorrow, regarding decades of war and millions slaughtered.  Yet I’ve seen no other westerners.  No American media.  No Muzungus.  Nothin.
We are the land of the free and the brave and seem not to notice that the brave here have never been free.
But today was a start.  Five are safe at least.  It’s a beginning.
Love and miss you all,
Sean
I hope that this story has touched each of you like it has touched me.
This is the time to help.  This is the time to save lives.  Buy a whistle, spread the word and save a child.
To purchase: Falling Whistles; Cost: $34.
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