I didn’t pay much mind to the #Kony2012 kerfuffle when it first surfaced back in March. I couldn’t be bothered to watch the film and was a bit blasé about the re-emergence (as it seemed to me) of the Lord’s Resistance Army as a topic of wide international interest. But now Invisible Children has released another film that promises the unleashing of a new wave of activism (they’re promising to take over the US capital in mid-November) and awareness-raising. The new film is an ode to martyrdom (a frivolous aside: watch Ben Keesey from 20:02 onward and compare his embattled defense to this one) but I otherwise found no reason to add to the blogosphere’s thorough deconstruction of the phenomenon. Instead I went through my notes from a 2005 research travel through Acholiland. Over one month, I talked to representatives of the Ugandan Army and other organizations in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. The conflict had been underway at that time for nearly 20 years already.

The research, which was intended to guide a planned documentary film, went in the end toward my own edification. My knowledge of the conflict, even if not necessarily my ability to make sense of it, increased. But the film that got made, “War Dance,” concentrated on an annual dance tournament held in Acholiland, and like #Kony2012 avoided delving into any political, economic and sociohistorical context.

Rather than explain why I left Northern Uganda without drawing hard conclusions on Kony, the LRA, and the popular support it enjoyed among Acholis, I’ve reproduced a small section here from the notes and photographs taken in 2005.

Kilama George (in the photo above) is slim and shy, introspective. He, like many of the young Acholis one meets in Acholiland, northern Uganda, shows no signs of trauma. Also like many young Acholis, Kilama George was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and spent time in the bush, fighting the Ugandan army and terrorizing civilians. In the bush, Kilama George was a bodyguard of Otti Vincent, the number two man in the LRA and a commander renowned for extreme viciousness, reputedly because of sexual impotence. Kilama George claims to have killed many people, merely carrying out orders, as he put it, and it was his ruthlessness on raids—torching huts, beating and maiming civilians—that brought him to the attention of Otti.

Kilama George is a particularly fascinating subject to interview for this reason: he is exceptionally thoughtful and perceptive about the LRA and its mystical leader. Unlike virtually all of my correspondents, George described Kony as having a mental problem, an assessment he made from seeing the LRA leader burst into sudden and inexplicable laughter. He also was able to explain that Kony’s frequent foretelling of government attacks was the result of maintaining regular radio contact with his commanders.

Kilama George’s story, and academic research currently being done in IDP camps increasingly affirms that simple readings of the LRA, its support among the Acholi populace and even the experience of abduction and return undergone by children are frequently wrong and with potentially harmful outcomes.

Many aid agencies have set up rehabilitation centres to provide psychosocial counseling to returnees. Much, if not all of this counseling is premised on the notion that time spent in the bush is essentially a continuous nightmare for the children, and that all children yearn to escape; only fear or death prevents some from actually doing so.

Most of the returnees I spoke to admitted that life in the bush was hard: in the dry season, water and food is particularly scarce and the lack of foliage cover means frequent attack by the Army’s helicopter gunships. Many, however, spoke of incidents that were startling, of unexpected kindnesses and actions that any casual follower or observer of the LRA would not expect.

George remembers being bound very tightly with rope by a commander at the time of his abduction, so tightly that he thought his arms might break. However, a few days later, his feet swollen to the point where he was unable to walk, the same commander carried George on his back, while other children similarly afflicted were summarily clubbed to death.

Alternatively, take the account of Anena Grace, a shy sixteen year old with a lovely smile. Grace walks with crutches as a result of being shot in the leg during her capture by the Ugandan Army. The leg is not healing properly and she has been in a rehabilitation center since February 2005 receiving medical attention and counseling. Further, Grace is seven months pregnant with the child of her “husband,” a rebel commander to whom she’d been given, and who died in the attack in which she was rescued. Grace was favoured over the commander’s five other “wives,” given the choicest foods, and never moving far from his side. In fact, when he was ordered to send his wives to Sudan for inspection by Kony, Grace alone remained with him. Grace attributes this treatment to her education, which meant that he relied on her heavily; both he and the other wives were illiterate.

As these stories reveal nuances in the experiences of abductees in the bush, so it must be that counseling and psychosocial care should not be automatically administered from a standpoint of  presumed trauma. In fact, much of the discourse, whether economic, social or political about the war in Northern Uganda is reductive and facile, accepting as true and established ideas and conceits that are at best, only partly true and sometimes patently false.

The findings of Ben Mergelsberg, a young German researcher I interviewed who spent time in Northern Uganda, are striking if preliminary, and point toward the need for a more tailored approach to psychosocial care for returnees. Mergelsberg posits that newly abducted children are torn between two strong urges: growing in to the LRA and escaping out. These two essentially war with one another in the mind of the child, and typically cause tremendous stress, particularly in the initial period in the bush.

However, those children that survive what is essentially an initiation into a world with new rules and expectations experience an improvement in life and greater acceptance and trust, as they receive a gun and become full members of a community. Bullying by other more senior members tends to stop after a child becomes a soldier, and there is a sense of power attendant with wielding a weapon. The extent to which the urge to escape out persists determines whether a child soldier will actually attempt to do so, but it is far from certain that all abductees wish to escape. Many of Mergelsberg’s correspondents were able to enumerate advantages of life in the bush over life in the village, or still worse, the IDP camp.

A “wife” and son of Kony

Similarly, when a child does escape, it is the crossing once more of boundaries into a world, that of the wider Acholi community, with rules that are now unfamiliar and even incomprehensible after those of the bush. Further, between escape and rescue is a period of extreme peril, in which both the LRA and the government’s soldiers are potential enemies and represent equally the possibility of death. The trajectory of successful escapees—military barracks, reception centre, rehabilitation centre, home—is a bewildering series of transitions, accompanied by the loss of power and self-belief that comes with surrender of one’s gun, and the realization that one’s actions in the bush are likely to be perceived unfavourably by the wider community.

The experience of having lived in two worlds and retaining within oneself, perhaps permanently, the knowledge of both is the source of much difficulty for many returnees from the bush. While the war continues, both are options, although few seem to choose to return to the bush. There is however banditry in the region, often attributed to the LRA, that may be the work of returnees.

What is still more interesting is the claim by many former abductees that they remain soldiers. Perhaps this is acknowledgement that there is always a potential to react to an incident or situation by reverting to violence or drastic action. Perhaps it is acknowledgement of a skill acquired; many former LRA fighters join the 105th battalion of the Ugandan Army, a unit comprised entirely of those who once fought for Kony. Olum Michael, the commander that carried Kilama George on his back, is now a member of the 105, as it is known. The creation of the battalion last year has boosted the effectiveness of the army in countering LRA attacks.

Ex child combatants make radio appeals to those still in the bush

For Kilama George, and many others, the future seems uncertain, if not bleak. He walks several kilometers into Gulu from a nearby IDP camp to volunteer for the War Affected Children’s Association, a local NGO seeking to assist returnees. There is no money for further studies, partly because many livelihoods have been destroyed by life in the IDP camps, and partly because he did not do well in his O-level examinations, a fact that might be connected with having spent years of his life in the bush. While Kilama George is at times painfully eye shy, diffident and soft spoken, I cannot help but think that the past holds part of the key to his future. He has choices, both of which he understands, and knows, and who can say what frustration or desperation might impel him to choose.

14 thoughts on “#Kony2005

  1. Great article, a very thought provoking read, and an excellent counter-point to the simplistic dichotomy IC present of ‘good/bad’ in relation to the recent civil war in N. Uganda.

    The LRA and Northern Uganda have to be one of the most studied and written about conflicts of modern times. From traditional justice, to the return process, to child soldiers, to the social and ecomomic history of the Acholi to the trauma inflicted, researchers, academics, NGOs, all seem to have written their views. Yet dispite that the micro-level decisions of those lives that were, and still are, effected are so often silenced by the ‘noise’ that knows better how to get heard.

    Maybe just to add one point, I would suggest that while maybe some returnees willingly joined the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Force) once they’d left the bush many others were forcibly co-opted to join against their wishes.

    The story so often painted of the conflict in Northern Uganda is LRA against all. The UPDF and the NRM are as much to blame for the atrocities as the LRA themselves. That should never be forgotten.

  2. Overall, a very interesting. informative, and moving article.

    However, the first paragraph is baffling to me. It seems out of place. Is it required to make petty and childish comments about Kony2012 and/or Invisible Children for something to be published on Africa is a Country?

    It’s also interesting that the author goes in depth to tell Anena Grace’s story after bashing Invisible Children, but then fails to mention that Anena Grace has been a beneficiary of IC’s MEND program for years? Grace has earned a life for herself and her children in post-LRA Uganda through that program, yet the author conveniently chooses to ignore the incredibly important fact in Grace’s life. (http://www.mend.co/seamstress/anena-grace/)

    Ignorance or bias, Olufemi?

    • Ignorance, and freely conceded. Grace’s involvement with MEND is an interesting twist certainly but has no bearing on the main thrust of the essay: IC’s refusal to publicize the nuances and complexity of the conflict are at best self serving and are quite possibly perilous to the situation.

      • Credit where credit is due. Far too many academics are quick to criticize IC’s media, while turning a blind eye to IC’s remarkable programs. If you want your criticism to be taken seriously, then be fair in how you dish it out. Objectivity and integrity are important.

        Also, there is absolutely no evidence that IC’s media is “quite possibly perilous to the situation” while there is vast amounts of evidence that IC’s various efforts (more through programs, than media) are having a positive impact on stopping the LRA in the Congo and CAR and on those in the post-conflict Acholi sub-region.

  3. Actually John, there is plenty of evidence that Ic’s media is “quite possibly perilous to the situation”. For one, its a story that has played right into the hands of Museveni and his corrupt quest for money and power. He tells the same story as Invisible CHildren ( I just need more money, more military and I will be able to catch kony!!!!!). IC has done him an invaluable service and garnered public support for his claims and his dictatorial control over Uganda for over 26 years. And lets not mention how IC has commercialized an entire population….

    Articles dont need to bash kony2012 in order to get published online. The reason you are seeing so many articles online bashing kony2012 is because, to put it simply, there is far too many negative effects and aspects of IC for you NOT to bash. When people are critical of IC without speaking of their programs on the ground, its because they are critical of the media and advocacy which combined is where the majority of money donated to IC goes. if you want more attention to programs, send more money to programs and expand the program. Have you been to Uganda and seen the programs first hand? Trust me, you would confuse them with any other NGO on the ground (minus the fact that the other NGOS arent making millions in donations).

    • Sara,

      Question: Do the civilians in Congo, CAR, and the Sudans who are asking for an end to the LRA play into Museveni’s hands, too? Stopping the LRA will require a holistic approach: “come home” message, sensitization of local communities to accept defectees, defection fliers, and yes, military pressure. I understand your argument about M7 using the LRA conflict for monetary gain, and personally I agree with you to a degree. But does that mean we, as a human race, shouldn’t pursue ways to stop the LRA? What’s another way to stop the LRA? Peace talks have been tried and failed. Some would blame the ICC for the failure of the Juba Peace Talks, but that does not change the fact that the LRA continued to abduct, kill, and build up supplies during the cease fire.

      IC did not commercialize an entire population. That’s hyperbole.

      The majority of IC’s money is not spent on media. Check their finances. You could argue a plurality, but there’s a solid breakdown for their finances on their website. Either way, 80% is spent on programs and 16% on overhead. Human Rights Watch spends all the majority of their money on advocacy, awareness, and studies, and nobody crucifies them, and nor should they. HRW does great work, too.

      And yes, I have been to Uganda and seen their programs. They are wonderful, locally lead and run programs. Ugandans helping Ugandans. IC may be making millions in donations, but that’s millions going to various programs. No one at IC is getting rich off this. Their financials statements show as much.

      Lastly, my comment about the author’s mocking Kony 2012 to get posted on Africa is a Country was my way of pointing out that the author took a very intelligent article and marred it by adding that bizarre and out of place introductory paragraph. After reading, AiaC’s tweets on the recent Kony 2012 panel, I’ve learned that they cannot be trusted to objectively discuss the LRA, IC, or Kony 2012, which is a shame considering they are generally a source of enlightenment. In case you did not read their tweets, it basically took a panel I heard described as “the most constructive discussion on Kony 2012 to date” and reduced to a series of snarky, dumbed-down tweets. They took an opportunity that could’ve been used to educate their followers and used it instead to make petty, farcical, and frankly, inaccurate, jokes.

      One might even say that it was a “busted flush” for Africa is a Country.

      • “I understand your argument about M7 using the LRA conflict for monetary gain, and personally I agree with you to a degree. But does that mean we, as a human race, shouldn’t pursue ways to stop the LRA” – Sorry John, but clearly you do not understand. If you understood that Museveni has been getting rich off of this conflict, gaining tremendous power, and actually had vested interests in keeping this conflict going for quite a while you would agree that the human race should stop Museveni and Kony. Go after Kony the way you do, just call it a witch hunt not the pursuit of justice.

        I didnt say the majority of money was spent on media, i said the majority of money is spent on media and advocacy— not programs in the region. that is a fact. Nobody is crucifying HRW because they dont garner all of their donations by sharing the story and showing images of suffering children, then only give a small portion to anything on the ground in the region. HRW is a completely different type of organization, that was a bad comparison.

        “I’ve learned that they cannot be trusted to objectively discuss the LRA” – this is the problem with every response I have seen from Invisible Children supporters. If anyone disagrees with them, they claim bias or lack of objectivity. its scary. open your eyes man.

      • Sara,

        I do understand, but we’ll leave it at that as far as Museveni is concerned.

        Fair enough that I misread your comment, but the comparison with HRW is valid. IC is 3 kinds of NGO rolled into one. Considering that, spending 1/3 on programs on the ground, 1/3 on advocacy, and 1/3 on activism is completely legitimate. In the end, IC spends 80% on overall programs and 16% on overhead which is FAR better than most NGO’s. IC is an HRW-style NGO, Democracy Now-style, and Heifer International-style NGO rolled into a single NGO.

        “Open your eyes”? Please do not use that phrase. It’s offensive. No one here is blind nor am I stupid, as you are implying. I am not writing off all criticisms of IC, but if you really think that Africa is a Country’s tweet series on the Congo in Harlem Kony 2012 panel was legitimate and objective, then you are the one who is blinded. If you’re interested in reading a fair portrayal of the actual panel, you can find that here: http://backslashscott.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/kony-2012-panel-a-recap/

        See? That’s objective. When it comes to discussing Invisible Children, AiaC is a joke. They are more interested in making jokes like children in a schoolyard then giving constructive (keyword) feedback like adults. Kony could come out of the bush tomorrow waving an Invisible Children defection flier and AiaC would not give IC credit.

      • John,

        As someone who has been involved with this issue before IC was even a thought, i can say the claims IC, ICC, and Musevini are making have an agenda and research will provide you with the information.

        Right now a conflict is happening in Congo that has ties to Musevini and the rebels in Rwanda. Research the last seven years and you will see Musevini’s involvement with Rwanda rebels in Congo. He wants their minerals. The LRA is not the main threat in Congo yet his plan was to get military into Congo to catch Kony. Why? Easy access for him to get his army in there for minerals. The current fighting is a pinch of what would have happened had IC’s campaign come to fruition.

        The LRA are not the main threat in any of the countries you mentioned. There are others who are a larger threat and bringing in western intervention, espeically two with an agenda and one that is uninformed, will only cause more havoc and loss of life. Also, history shows this has not gone well in Africa, esp when the truth isn’t readily available. Research Operation LIghtning in Uganda and watch Black Hawk Down.

        Research will show Musevini terrorizes his people and this campaign only supports his atrocities. He wants to be a friend to the west and the west wants to be a friend with him for a number of reasons (minerals in Congo, militiary bases, platforms).

        You are correct, ICC severely damaged the peace talks….peace talks the Ugandans wanted. If ICC was truly pursuing justice, they would be confronting Musevini and then the LRA. ICC is very controversial in Africa and are using IC as a puppet. IC is a media campaign. If ICC really wanted justice, they would be working with reputable organizations in Uganda, but those organizations are well informed and educated on the heart of the matter and are not keen to work with ICC. So ICC uses young lads with no formal training and manipulates them into thinking it is right to not include Musevini’s atrocities because it will gain them access into the country. Take a step back and really analyze what is happening. Moreno Ocampo is not a saint. He is paid well and has an agenda. That is why many countries are not jumping on board with ICC, but ICC would love to have the US on its side so it is going to pump up easy young vessels to fill up with false information. Why are the young always the prey?

        When critics arise and you see they have years of experience, it is best to listen. This is where IC supporters failed. They claimed their two years plus experience was vastly more insightful than those with 20 years on the ground. It is well known American arrogance is our fall and this has been one example. Fortunately, the truth came out and IC supporters will not see the horrible repurcussions of the good intentions that would have done more harm than good.

        At this point, it would be best for IC supporters to research organizations to support that are knowledgeable, have experienced and trained staff, nationally motivated, and credible with finances. If IC wants to continue, they need to really step back and listen to those organizations they shunned when good advice was attempted to share. Jason once stated that these organizations (organzations who have given so much to people) were the old model and that his model was the right way to go. That arrogance and dillusional thinking of IC needs to stop. Also, they need to get more mature staff members who will not joke about stealilng campaign funds.

        It all boils down to IC is a puppet and it is a shame because in a way they are a victim to manipulative people with agendas.

      • Lyla,

        I will keep this brief.

        1) Please do not patronize me. I understand M23 and am knowledgeable of the other rebel groups and factions operating in the DRC, CAR, and S. Sudan. I also know about Black Hawk Down and OLT. If you would like counter-examples of where intervention worked or needed to happen I would advise research NATO’s intervention in Benghazi and the absolutely atrocious lack of intervention in Rwanda in 1994.

        2) IC’s campaign did not involve asking for UPDF specific access to the Congo.

        3) The world is not made of puppets and the shadowy figures that control them.

        4) Your criticism of IC is short-sighted. Please research the programs that Invisible Children implements before you assume. The media side and the programs side of IC are two very different things. IC is unlike any other NGO, but just because their style is “cool” does not mean they do not know what they are doing on the ground. Let me give you a few links to get rolling – http://invisiblechildren.com/program and http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2012/11/14/centre-elikya-in-final-phase-of-construction/

        Don’t underestimate IC simply because they joke around and have fun. They also get shit done in a locally lead, sustainable, and sensitive manner to the region they are working in.

    • Lyla, it is safe to assume that john is either employeed by IC or for some other reason eternally loyal to the organization. You brought up some really great points, but your input will have no effect on him or his colleagues as they have, at this point, heard your sentiments from all kinds of people and organizations.

      I’m not sure how, but somehow invisible children always finds a way to ignore their role in the violence of this conflict. They will not understand how the witch-hunt for one man-kony- takes away attention and resources from what is truly needed in the region, and works as the perfect excuse for US imperialist interests and is a tool for president Museveni to continue his oppressive and deadly regime. History will not be kind to them, then again…that history will make no difference to them.

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