The trip in was tense. You could see it in the faces of our guides, especially while approaching military checkpoints. The national army was preparing to fight in the area where we were going, so we had to stay over in a border town full of casinos and brothels. At night, prostitutes would scatter their calling cards under our hotel doors…the kind of establishment you choose for its by-the-hour option, not its good housekeeping. As we were walking through the red light district one evening, all the young tribal girls (many of whom likely had been trafficked against their will) ran up to us and lined the street, feigning enthusiasm, so we would select some of them. Feelings of deep sadness, compassion and anger over their abuse all mixed together as we kindly told them “No.”
As we journeyed the following morning toward our destination, we ran into an unexpected detour: an influential drug lord flagged us down because he had heard through intelligence that there was a foreigner in our group who spoke his dialect. But this was not a confrontational encounter: rather, not only did he invite us into his massive estate, but he also showed us his child soldiers and their barracks. Most of the older kids had been sent onto the battlefront, but about 40 of the very young ones were still present. Many of the children had open scrapes and runny noses, which they wiped on filthy and tattered hand-me-downs that were too large for them. The living conditions of the children were truly difficult: long stretches of bamboo barracks with scraps of trash and rags strewn about inside. We are strategizing possible ways to intervene for these children, since it kills us to leave them there.
Pressure was on because of the looming war and we had to keep moving on quickly. We were extremely grateful to be able to reach our destination and see some of the projects we currently have underway, such as a reforestation project and tea plantation, which are doing very well. We were able to document the progress of other projects on film, but most importantly, we were able to see our rescued child soldiers. Being with them for the short amount of time we had made all of the risks worthwhile. We saw how much they had grown physically and emotionally in the past couple of years, as well as capture on film new glimpses of their personalities. However, due to the valid concern that someone was watching our every move (and at the urging of our children’s home staff), we had to cut our time dramatically short and make a mad dash back out of our project areas as though we had an army on our tail (the national army was, in fact, dangerously close at that moment). It was a wild ride: imagine racing through mountain passes on the bumpiest, dustiest and narrowest roads you’ve ever seen, and you’ll get close to what it was like.
All in all, it was more than a successful trip. Some amazing organizations that we have been in talks with about potential partnerships came with us. They left even more convinced that doing so is the right move, so we are very exited about this!
There is much more to tell, since I've had to omit key details for the web (for security reasons). If you'd like more info, please email me at jeremy@projectAK47.com .
Jeremy and the Project: AK-47 team