Friday, March 16, 2012

Kony 2012: Justice For The Victims.

Warning: Images contained in this blog post may be disturbing.

"In April 2003, two weeks before the Iraq war started, two weeks before I travelled to Sudan to document the holocaust, I sold a movie musical to Steven Spielberg. That was always my plan: to make Hollywood musicals.
I had just finished my film degree at USC and I wanted that post-graduation globe-trotting adventure. I figured instead of backpacking Europe, I'd visit an African genocide. With two friends, my camera (purchased from eBay) and a few hundred bucks in cash, I went to tell a story that mattered. And it changed my life forever. 
We had never seen anything like it. So many bodies sleeping on top of each other. They were called night commuters. These children left their homes and walked to urban areas in search of safety from abductions by a rebel group. We couldn't believe we were witnessing something so horrific, and yet unheard of by most. These children were victims of a war that was older than them.

We returned to the states with a clear objective- tell their story. We couldn't forget the faces and names of these children."
-Jason Russell- The Invisible Children (From Huffington Post)

On 21st February 2004, an army of green-fatigued combatants from Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by indicted war criminal Okot Odhiambo, descended towards the Barlonyo Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the outskirts of Lira, Northern Uganda. Numbering about 300, most of the combatants were young boys barely in their teens.

At around 2pm GMT, Odhiambo led his child soldiers into the camp, and then presided over what is arguably the darkest two hours of Uganda's History.
Speaking in 2010 during an event held to mark 6 years since the event, a child who was part of the invading force recounted the chilling episode. “Odhiambo told us, “I have received the order from the high command of the LRA. You are to kill every living thing. Kill the old people, kill the adults, kill the government soldiers, and abduct all the young children and boys."
"We had three long lines of our fighters. Odhiambo blew a whistle and we scattered. We surrounded the camp and the detach and started fighting and lighting things on fire. Out of the 340 people we had, 100 had guns, we had bombs, we had J2s, AK-47s in plenty, and the other 240 fighters left had clubs and sticks. But most of them were ululating and boosting morale, saying, “We have to capture them alive!" 

Barlonyo camp was home to about 5000 internally displaced persons, and quite a number of them died or were maimed beyond belief on that wretched, cursed day. Some were shot, many were clubbed to death and a great majority were herded into huts, locked inside and incinerated beyond recognition.

The government had put in place security measures consisting of local militia (the 'Amukas') and other Local Defence Units, but these forces had no radio communication with the Ugandan military, and it would be three hours before the Uganda People's Defence Forces responded. By then, Odhiambo and his forces had butchered over 300 people, and the camp was a grisly necropolis.

Eighteen months after the massacre at Barlonyo, the ICC issued indictments against the top leadership quartet of the LRA, Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Dominic Ong'wen and Odhiambo. Of the four, Otti has since died, while Kony, Ong'wen and Odhiambo remain at large.

The ICC indictments came during a period when the Ugandan government had applied relentless pressure on the LRA, and indications were that this pressure, coupled with internal disharmony within the LRA, (Otti was actually executed by the LRA on Kony's direct orders following a disagreement), had severely weakened the rebel outfit.

This weakening of the LRA brought about a semblance of peace to Northern Uganda, but Kony never renounced violence. Taking his band of fighters with him, he pushed West into the Democratic Republic of Congo, spreading all the way to the Central African Republic. In the meantime, his blood-lust continued and his rebels kept committing atrocities against populations they crossed, most notably the Christmas Day Massacre in the Haut-Ulele District of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 25th December 2008.

In the meantime, Jason Russell had gone back home to the United States and established Invisible Children, a non-profit organization aimed at giving compassionate individuals an effective way to respond to the situation. His goal was to challenge people's apathy and turn into action, in the hope that this action would help bring about positive change for the children who touched him so.

And in March 2012, an ingenious campaign by Invisible Children, Kony 2012, succeeded in bringing international attention to Joseph Kony and the conflict in Uganda beyond his wildest dreams. The 30-minute movie, which aims to keep international attention on Kony so that the American government can be persuaded to keep American troops on the ground searching for him, went viral a couple of days after it was posted on YouTube, and as of 17th March 2012 has already been watched over 80 million times.

But the success of the campaign has exposed it to stinging criticism, and the criticism has become almost as viral as the campaign itself. According to Wikipedia, among issues the campaign has been criticized for include:
  • Oversimplification of events in the region. While the campaign promotes global activism, it has been criticized for providing a black-and-white picture rather than encouraging the viewers to learn about the situation.
  • Giving a misleading impression of the whereabouts and magnitude of Kony's remaining LRA forces. Kony's followers are now thought to number only in the hundreds, and Kony himself is believed to be in the Central African Republic rather than Uganda--a fact that receives only a passing mention in the video.
  • In addition, the Ugandan army and the South Sudanese army, which have engaged in military campaigns against the LRA, have themselves been accused of human rights violations such as attacks against civilians, use of child soldiers and looting of civilian homes and businesses.
Admittedly, these criticisms are valid, and they do bring to light a myriad of very pertinent issues that should be addressed. However, it is my opinion that they are more harmful than beneficial like all criticisms are supposed to be, and they only serve to muddle the picture and remove focus from the campaign's intended target: The arrest and prosecution of Joseph Kony.

Jason Russell's campaign was not to right all the wrongs of the Ugandan government on the LRA conflict, or to single handedly bring Kony to book. Much as he may have wished to provide a final, comprehensive solution to the Northern conflict and its resultant effects, he does not have the means to do so and any attempt of a campaign on that scale will in all likelihood end in failure.

When Jason Russell left Uganda in 2003, he had one goal in mind: to tell the story of Uganda's invisible children and make them visible to the international community. He found a wildly effective way of doing that, and instead of getting applause, he gets criticized?

He has been accused of mis-representing the conflict the magnitude of the conflict. For Allah's sake, How? The fact that Kony is now weak and his forces number 'in their hundreds' doesn't take away the fact that a huge percentage of those 'hundreds' are child combatants abducted and forced to fight against their will, children whose very stories Jason Russell set out to tell when he established Invisible Children.

Questions about the plausibility of Ugandan army intervention and logistical and operational support by the American military, which the video advocates, have also been raised by critics. This only serves to highlight the hypocrisy of the critics, because the sole reason why Kony is such a weak, almost spent force, is due to the relentless attacks of the Uganda People's Defence Forces, together with the support of Congolese and South Sudanese forces.

Joseph Kony has been a thorn on the flesh of children for the past twenty-six years, and his victims deserve justice. It doesn't matter whether the children are ten or thirty million, in Northern Uganda, the DRC or Central African Republic, these children need to be protected from him. and so long as he remains at large, they will remain under threat. Jason Russell and his army of invisible children have come up with a campaign that just might work. Instead of pulling him down, let us help him achieve it. Let us take Kony, Odhiambo, Ong'wen and their ilk to the Hague.

That is the only way that this person and other victims of the Barlonyo massacre will find justice.

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