May 19, 2013
A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
By Sara Weschler
Oversimplification of the Present-Day Context
The morning after the launch of #KONY2012, I canvassed my local acquaintances for their impressions of the campaign. I spoke to the farmers who live next door, to a policeman taking his lunch break near my office, to a lecturer from Gulu University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program, to women in the market, to members of local peace-building NGOs and to friends at the cafe where I often hang out after work. Exactly two of the Acholis I talked to had even heard of the “movement.” These also happened to be the two people I know here with a computer in their home. And they had heard about #StopKony on Facebook. From American friends.
I live in Gulu, a town a mere 60 kilometers away from the village where Kony was born, a town that became famous for the night commuters so prominently featured in Invisible Children’s films. Fifteen years ago this was a besieged and isolated little corner of the map. Fifteen years ago, this town had been abandoned and forgotten by most of the outside world. But the same cannot be said today. Today, Gulu town is by far the most prosperous, developed and rehabilitated spot in the Acholi subregion. Many communities here have yet to recover from the crippling effects of the LRA conflict; you don’t bounce back overnight from two decades of war. But Gulu town is full of Internet cafes and its bus park is teeming with buses that travel from here to every major city in the country. Gulu is connected (albeit imperfectly) to the rest of the world. It is also the headquarters of Invisible Children’s Uganda operation.
If people here in Gulu haven’t heard of this campaign, I can assure you that no one in Kitgum or Pader, Amuru or Lamwo, is talking about it. Nor could the thousands of civilians living in displacement across South Sudan, DRC and CAR be particularly clued into the details of this program. It is strange that a group that claims to advocate for the needs and desires of the victims of this conflict has seen fit to develop a strategy without consulting the very people for whom it claims to speak.
I first visited Gulu at a moment of great hope. During my initial stay in this area, the Juba Peace Talks turned 1 year old. A cease-fire had been in place for more than 14 months, and there was a palpable sense that true peace was just around the corner. When I came back in 2009, the talks had fallen through, and though the region was secure, I couldn’t help but think of the old line from Tacitus that tells us, “They made a desert and called it ‘peace.’ ” Infrastructure and public institutions throughout the Acholi districts had been devastated, tensions between returned combatants and local communities ran high, and after more than a decade in internment camps, families (or, in many cases, what was left of them) were trapped in a desperate struggle to resume the lives they had once known in their village homes.
A year and a half later, when I moved here in January 2011, I found a community that had in some ways stabilized. In many places, the future looked much brighter and more promising than what I’d remembered. “Slowly by slowly,” as they say here, Acholiland is recovering. Conditions, however, remain extremely precarious. Northern Uganda is no longer a “sexy” humanitarian crisis. Transition and peace building are harder to market than bringing aid to a war zone. They simply do not tug at donors’ heart (or purse) strings in quite the same way.
But all is not well here in northern Uganda. Stigma against LRA returnees continues to tear communities apart, driving many ex-combatants into isolation and destitution (the Gulu parish of Kasubi, for example, is home to more than 200 female LRA escapees who, having been rejected in their home villages, now scrape together a living by offering sexual services to soldiers stationed in nearby government barracks). Land disputes among returning internally displaced persons routinely spiral into violence, arson and even murder. Alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness are at a national high in this part of the country. And during the past few years, in remote parts of the Acholi subregion, nodding disease, a previously unheard of illness, has attacked the brains of more than 3,000 children, leaving them physically and mentally debilitated, and thus far, on the road to certain death.
I could go on, but my point is this: “Getting” Kony is not at the top of most people’s to-do lists around here. In fact, as evidenced by debates surrounding the trial of former LRA Col. Thomas Kwoyelo, many Acholis are less interested in going after the rebels and far more concerned with the government extending the Amnesty Act (scheduled to lapse in May of this year) so that those abductees still out in the bush can feel safe defecting from the army’s ranks. Parents of abducted children, for instance, don’t want to see the rebels destroyed; they want to see them come home.
The Illusion of Military Intervention as Panacea
I may, however, be getting a bit sidetracked. A number of bloggers have in recent days made the case that the greatest flaw in the #KONY2012 video is that the narration leads viewers to believe the war is ongoing in Uganda itself. To be honest, I find this film less misleading on that particular point than many of IC’s earlier productions. And regardless of whether or not the movie distorts the realities of the LRA’s current location, the fact remains that the rebel group does continue to subject civilians in South Sudan, DRC and CAR to horrific dangers and brutality. My problem with the campaign lies much more with the “solution” it advocates, with its claim that all we need to end these atrocities is a military intervention under the guidance of U.S. forces.
The video seems to suggest that no action of this sort has ever before been taken. It quietly sidesteps the fact that prior to the deployment of the 100 U.S. special forces last autumn, the American government has had an unspecified number of troops from U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) stationed in Uganda for years. More significantly, a military strike of the sort that Invisible Children is advocating has already taken place.
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