What Do Congolese Child Soldiers and Jon Stewart Have in Common? (Answer, Allegedly, Is "Whistles.")

You know what we hate? Wearing jewelry that doesn’t remind us of the brutal slaughter of innocent children. It’s a real problem too, because there are only so many blood-drenched conflict diamonds we impoverished bloggers can afford.

Luckily for us, Falling Whistles has arrived to fill that chilly void. Their whistle necklaces ($30-$200) were apparently designed to raise awareness of “whistle blower” children in Nkunda’s rebel army in the DRC:

“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.”

So, obviously, that’s one awesome necklace. I bet all you people whose necklaces aren’t emblematic of kinder-cide are super jealous of Jon Stewart now.

We’re a little bit confused, though, about the “whistle-child” concept.

Perhaps we missed the memo, but are the FDLR known to be afraid of whistles? We’re just having trouble imagining how unarmed children with whistles could scare gun-toting militia members into much of anything. And just how small are these children, anyway, that they’re too small to hold a gun? Because guns come pretty tiny these days. Are these toddlers, perhaps, who lack sufficient hand-eye coordination to pull a trigger? If so, we’re not sure we’d trust them to be able to figure out a whistle.

And if they’re really that small, how effective could they possibly be as human shields? You’d need like, 5 or 6 of them to shield a single full-grown soldier.

Look, we understand that in any armed group, the least skilled / least powerful members are going to be out on the front lines, taking most of the risks. But something about this whole story (and its convenient tie-in to a trendy accessory) strikes us as a little urban legend-y.

Can anyone enlighten us as to whether these whistle-children are a thing? We tried the internets, but all we got were cites leading back to Falling Whistles. Anyone got independent confirmation?

(Hat tip: Tanja)

Amanda and Kate

29 Comments

  1. Okay, so I got invited to a Falling Whistles event in Austin last year but didn't go. If the invite had mentioned that there were ACTUAL WHISTLES involved, there's no way I would've missed out. Sweet land.

    No, the whistles aren't a thing. Nkunda prefers to recruit his child soldiers the old-fashioned way: with propaganda in the schools.

  2. My kid will be four in February, and he could totally shoot an M16 – they only weigh six pounds. Of course, the recoil would probably knock him over…

  3. Uh, I'm going to hell for that comment, aren't I?

    For the record, I don't even let my son have toy guns. (Not that it stops him from shooting us all with paper towel rolls and wooden spoons.)

  4. I've always been confused about the whistle thing too.

    The original falling whistles was a blog post by Sean Carasso based on a conversation he had with three child soldiers who were being mistreated by the army.

    It might be helpful to contact
    Lindsay Branham. She spent time with Sean in DRC (working for Food For the Hungry) and contributed to a CNN piece.

    I'm interested to see what you find.

  5. I wonder if Falling Whistles and Invisible Children use the same graphic designer….

  6. two things:

    a) this movie rips off the 'girl effect' video a wee tad

    b) google image "child soldier congo" there are some pretty tiny kids, all with guns. Big guns.

  7. That looks like a nice whistle. Too bad it has been co-opted.

    Rape, lions & whistles!

  8. That is a Rape Whistle… is it not?

    And yes… Invisible Children and Falling Whistles use the same graphic designers…

    …But then again Sean Carraso thinks he worked for Invisible Children, but is now not allowed near their offices or their volunteers.

  9. I was with a group talking to former Mai Mai child soldiers last summer in South Kivu. Some kids did talk about being sent to make noise to scare whomever they were fighting, often because they were too small to hold guns. I never heard anything about whistles or being on the front lines, though. In terms of being too small to hold a gun – in the area I was, kids reported that there weren't enough guns anymore for everyone to have one, not even close. So maybe they were just given to the people who could manipulate them the easiest and were the most valuable as soldiers, the others being 'too small'?

  10. Giving whistles to children is NOT something that happens enough to call it something that really happens. I worked and lived in the area for several years, focusing attention on child soldiers.

    It is a good idea that has a conveniently marketable product.

    Has anyone really checked out where the money is really going? Because THAT is the question, and THAT is the mystery.

  11. No one knows where the money goes.

    They are not an official 501C3.

    They have no accounting.

    It's a sad world where anyone who is anyone can start an advocacy non-non-non-profit for profit.

    Flash in the pan.

  12. I've lived and worked in Eastern Congo for the past two years, dealing directly, daily with the CNDP, Congolese army, Mai-Mai groups, FDLR and pretty much anyone else who wields a gun. I've never heard of whistles being used on the front lines. Sure, children are – to carry ammo and other supplies, and to fight. I do, however, remember the Falling Whistles guys. They came through Goma for a couple of days before making idiots of themselves by trying to get to an army-controlled mining area without having first obtained the appropriate political cover, or even the necessary travel permits etc: they got deported and, as far as I'm aware, aren't allowed back in the DRC.

  13. The whistle is a marketing gimmick, yes. Just like rubber bracelets, $20 water bottles, and red t-shirts. But should we begrudge their ability to exploit hipster consumer sensibilities to fund humanitarian work?

    The booklet that gets shipped with the whistle makes clear that the concept is based on a story that one of the founders heard from a group of child soldiers. The group calls it "a small window into a big war," and doesn't pretend to know all the answers or to have invented a silver bullet that will "end the war." The group does not assert to know exactly where or how children are (or are not) used as human shields … it simply uses this story to catalyze investment in 270 Congolese kids.

    As for the accounting issue, the organization is exactly one year old and has not yet received 501(c)(3) status because the IRS has not finished processing its paperwork. Anyone who has founded a non-profit can empathize, and all of this is disclosed in non-bullshit terms on the website.

    The website also makes clear that all proceeds from whistle sales go directly into a restricted bank account and that two staff members of the organization receive $500 per month from donors specifically cultivated to fund overhead expenses. Most everything else (web design, party supplies, research, legal services, etc) is donated.

    Add that up. In one year, Falling Whistles has spent only $12,000 on salaries, has sold 20,000+ whistles, and is funding the education of 270 Congolese kids. And that's just the beginning.

    So yes, it's a gimmick. But it's not the end of the story.

  14. 20,000 X $40 (avg) = $800,000

    All to 270 Congolese kids?

    where are these 270 kids?

    Conveniently anonymous for their protection?

    Hmmmm. It just doesn't add up.

  15. Well they are officially a 501(c)(3) non profit now…not that it really matters…non-profit status with the IRS doesn't mean you're fulfilling your stated objectives…it's just paperwork.

    The most important thing about Falling Whistles is that they're attempting to bring light to the terrible conditions found in the DRC – the nation is in pieces and needs foreign help badly. It does look like the 'whistles on the frontline' thing is a gimmick – at the best a sole child's anecdote blown way out of proportion – still though – it's a means to draw attention to the region's woes.

    If you're interested in helping I suggest checking out Jatukik Providence Foundation – it's a DC-based nonprofit aimed at getting Congolese orphans aid, rehabilitation from war, and education, among other things.

    Also – Alanna – I miss your blogging!

  16. Just for the record, future commentators, if like 9 of you are writing anonymously, it's really hard to keep track of the arguments you're making. On the other hand, the schizophrenic chamber choir effect is kind of fun.

    I have a question, though: Who are these kids fighting for now? I haven't been back to DRC since Nkunda was arrested, but presumably these kids got incorporated into somebody's militia. My point is, this is not a static conflict, and this version of it feels stale to me. Which also raises a question about how a group of well-intentioned people (who allegedly got kicked out of DRC for being none to savvy to the situation on the ground, per one of several Anonymous identities…) are going to "advocate for the freedom" (per their website) of kids whose situation they apparently don't understand all that well.

    And the website doesn't do them any favors: There's no info there that indicates there are human beings behind it (seriously, most of the content is about return policies?), let alone thinking human beings who understand what they're wading into and have come up with a plan…

  17. The Falling Whistles website pissed me off so much. There are blanket statements with absolutely nothing to back them up, such as:

    "All the soldiers rape. All the soldiers pillage."

    Stuff that sounds really overblown:

    Nkunda's rebels "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."

    And quotes that make the former child soldiers sound primitive and animal-like:

    "They fell on the gifts like wolves, smiling, laughing and thanking God. The bones of their ribs showed through their rags as they ate."

    There's so much trash on there it makes me sick, and I think it basically negates any good they're trying to do. I mean they actually have the audacity to try to educate the public with this website!

  18. I noticed falling whistles latest blog post consists of art inspired by a NY times columnist. No points for guessing which one.

  19. There is no such thing as a child carrying a whistle to alert CNDP rebels or any other kind of anything. It was probably made up by some public information officer on a slow day and these dudes made a whole NGO based off misinformation.

  20. From what I understand, whistles were given to children to make noise and draw enemy attention and fire so the adult soldiers could move tactically with less attention from the distracted enemy soldiers.

    Whistles are cool. I’d get one if I didn’t already have enough survival gear which includes whistles to call for help or draw attention to myself.

  21. Wow…bet you’re eating your words right now. Then again, so should most of the people who have commented here. The naiveness (given everyone’s sheltered American lifestyle) and the blatant insensitivity is just…wow. #1 I’m sorry if you feel the Congo soldiers “battle strategies” are inefficient, but they’re still doing it and I doubt they care what you think about it’s efficiency any more than they care about sending a 3yr old to slaughter as a distraction. #2 though I realize that, yes, guns DO “come pretty tiny these days” I feel quite certain that the availability of some local ‘costco’ of gun stores in which one finds a variety of guns to choose from is not as likely in the CONGO as in the U.S. Perhaps you should recommend one and give all those toddlers “who lack sufficient hand-eye coordination” a fighting chance. #3 regarding their “trendy accessory,” it seems to be working so far as both a symbol for peace and recognition of the atrocities that occur in a world which people like yourself know nothing about (which is what it was meant to be, very UNLIKE a “blood-drenched diamond”) and as a method for raising funds to help rescue and rehabilitate those children…unless of course you have a more genius idea…don’t bother thinking about it, I doubt you do as you’ve made your inability to think about anything past your front door quite clear. Dumbass.

    • Well, actually there are tons of ideas to “raising funds to help rescue and rehabilitate those children”. And there are tons of organizations that are actually working towards that goal. Organizations ran by educated and seasoned individuals, who have already raised large portions of money for grassroots organizations in Africa and elsewhere. You just have to do a little more research, and not rely on trendy fashion blogs and magazines to get your humanitarian aid info.

      There is a really disturbing trend of “hipster charity” which actually does very little to help said cause, while making all people involved in the particular charity look really cool and feel really good. The danger here, is:
      A) amateurs with heavy hearts fighting for really complex issues they know little about can possibly do more harm than good.
      B) Taking the spotlight away from the really good, educated, and relevant (but not so hip) fund raising organizations who already exist.
      C) Lastly, this “west needs to save Africa” and “white man’s burden” approach to charity which is disturbing and borderline racist.

      It should also be noted that this organization have been in existence for 5 years now and have done relatively NOTHING. According to there financial reports, they spend more money “on spreading the word” than on anything else.

      Bravo to the author for starting the conversation! I want to see an end to pull-your-heart-strings faux charities!

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