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Viral crusaders

Uganda | Ugandans question Kony 2012 video for opening old wounds and soliciting too little help too late

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda-The documentary Kony 2012 may go down as the most viral video in history-with 100 million views on YouTube and other social websites in the first six days after its release-but popular Ugandan columnist Timothy Kalyegira refers to the film's makers as "Western backpackers."

While the 30-minute film shot by Jason Russell, cofounder of U.S.-based nonprofit Invisible Children, continued its romp in America, Africans quickly viewed with dismay its portrayal of the reclusive rebel leader Joseph Kony in Uganda-now six years after he fled the country for neighboring Congo.

Anthony Oliam, a social worker born in Eastern Uganda, captures the suspicion of some: "That documentary is simply misleading the world. Kony is no longer a threat to Uganda. I don't want to judge the makers of the film, but if they had a motive with financial ends, I regret that. Their efforts should have focused on the rehabilitation [of northern Uganda]. Instead, this documentary is actually too late."

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Joseph Kony launched the Lord's Resistance Army 25 years ago allegedly to topple the Ugandan government and install the Ten Commandments as the rule of the country. Many in the LRA's early leadership were leftover fighters from previous Ugandan wars, including those who served under notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Over the years the group became known for indiscriminate killing and raids, including the kidnapping of children and other locals. By 2004 the LRA had abducted at least 20,000 children ages 10-14 and forced them to serve in its militias. In 2005 the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four deputies for crimes against humanity-and those warrants remain outstanding.

But since the time of the indictments, most military experts say Kony retreated, first to Sudan then to Democratic Republic of Congo-and now is believed to be hiding in Central African Republic with a force U.S. officials, including Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, believe has been reduced to about 250. Sporadic raids still take place, but not the mass attacks that once threatened northern Ugandans as portrayed in the film. Oliam says that as the raids ended in the mid-2000s, an influx of NGOs came in the area. Many have provided needed assistance to recovering Ugandans, but Oliam questioned the operations of Invisible Children, which he said has produced 11 films about the same war.

As pressure and controversy over the rampantly popular video mounted, Russell succumbed: He was detained in what authorities called a "psychiatric hold" after an alleged breakdown at a San Diego intersection near his home on March 15. The 33-year-old director, only weeks before a Facebook celebrity, "was detained after indecent exposure, vandalism (pounding on cars with his fists) and alleged public intoxication," reported Reuters, noting that his antics had been caught on an also viral video.

But none of that changed reality for victims of the Kony insurgency, like Jimmy Okello, who hails from Gulu district; he lived in an internally displaced camp between 1990 and 1996, and now works in Kampala as a copy desk editor for the Daily Monitor. Okello and his wife are part of an upcoming new church planned near Gulu University, and they are preparing to move back north by next year as part of an effort to plant the church and rebuild the region.

"I feel that attention needs to be drawn to more pressing needs. Bringing Kony to an end would be a desired accomplishment but it has been long overdue," said Okello. "If it happens, people will rejoice ... something above capturing Kony needs to be done and I don't see it in the movie." Okello said more pressing needs in the region include a concerted effort to fight nodding disease, with 3,000 cases in northern Uganda reported in the last year.

Bernadette Nagita, another former war victim and resident of the northern district of Lira, worked as a communications officer for Invisible Children in 2010. Her reaction to the video is mixed: "People have not traced their [Invisible Children] history because this is the most powerful video produced. They are just reacting to the video, but don't know what is on the ground. There are other programs like [Invisible Children's] 'legacy scholarship program' and the 'schools for schools' program that are targeting people affected by the war, and the public is ignorant about these."

Invisible Children, she said, didn't realize the film would get so much global attention, and they should have accompanied it with a video of their other programs: "The 'behind the scenes' work was not presented."

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