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A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
The UPDF’s crimes, however, were not limited to sins of omission: It is now widely acknowledged that the army engaged in widespread acts of rape, torture and murder within the camps, and a number of sources even allege the use of rape as a tool for the willful spread of HIV/AIDS among the Acholi community. Many Acholis will tell you that it was often a tossup whom they feared more at any given moment during the war. The LRA and the UPDF could strike equal measures of terror in the hearts of civilians.
Although the UPDF’s crimes against Acholis are, for the most part, now a thing of the past, the army’s brutality toward noncombatants continues in other regions. The Ugandan troops deployed today to hunt Kony throughout Central Africa are routinely accused of looting, torture and rape against civilian populations.
While it’s comfortable and appealing to divide the world into bad guys and good guys, the sad truth is that not every conflict cleaves easily along lines of good and evil. Though the crimes of the LRA outweigh those of the UPDF, we should still think twice before throwing in our lot with Uganda’s national army.
If you’re looking for heroes in this story, you need to come away from the battlefields and front lines. The true good guys in all this are the local activists and peace workers in LRA-affected communities, civilians who have experienced this conflict firsthand and who are working to rehabilitate the region and keep avenues open for a peaceful resolution.
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Last Sunday evening as I struggled to wrap this email up in some reasonable fashion, I was visited by a friend of mine—let’s call him Isaiah. It was good timing, actually, because I’d meant to talk to this friend about #StopKony for a couple of days now. Isaiah, you see, is in a particularly strong position to comment on matters pertaining to the LRA: He spent nearly a decade as an officer in its ranks, and he used to know Kony personally.
By now, #KONY2012 has been making the rounds for nearly a week. It has made the news in Uganda and, yes, a fair number of people are talking about it, even here. So when I dropped the phrase to Isaiah, he immediately started to laugh. “Ah,” he told me, “that thing is all for money.”
“What do you think the impact will be?” I asked him.
“Well for now,” he said, “a lot of fear.”
“Yes, fear! You know,” he began to elaborate, “this thing is now in newspapers and showing on [Kenyan broadcast station] NTV, but not everyone speaks such good English. Some people see Kony2012 and they think it is meaning Kony will be back in Uganda in 2012.”
I must have given him a rather dubious look because he suddenly became very animated.
“No, Sara,” he insisted, “You come to my house right now. You first talk to my neighbors. It is what they are saying! For me I can laugh it off, but some people are truly scared. This is how rumors start, and people still live in fear even though it’s been many years now since the rebels were in Gulu.”
“What do you think Kony’s reaction would be if he heard about it?” I asked.
“If he heard about it? For certain, he already knows.”
“He has his ways. He always has.”
I asked whether Kony might take the campaign as a taunt, whether it might inadvertently spur him to more violence.
“Absolutely,” Isaiah answered. “Sara, do you know why the LRA did the Barlonyo killings?” he asked, referring to one of the most brutal massacres in LRA history. “It was revenge. Some few days before, we were attacked by UPDF gunships. Kony was furious. He wasn’t there, but he sent the order to retaliate—by killing those in Barlonyo IDP camp.”
“So like the response to Lightning Thunder, more or less,” I suggested.
“Ah, no,” said Isaiah, “For Lightning Thunder, I was not with them. I cannot tell you about that one. But for Barlonyo, I was there when the decision came. That is my experience. That is what I can speak from. When Kony feels challenged, Kony takes revenge. You tell those you are writing to that that’s what I know.”
“Do you think a negotiated peace is still an option?” I asked.
“It is the only way. He is now in CAR, now in DRC, now South Sudan. They’ll never catch him. He is ever moving; he knows how to keep running. This can only end if they try to talk. But you know, with Kony it is a process. You must first win his trust. It takes long and you must wait. And that patience ... I think it is now not there.”
“So then do you think anything good can come from this?”
Isaiah paused to mull the question over in his head. “Ah, no,” he said at last. “For me, I do not think so.”
Oddly enough, a week into this media storm, I’m feeling more hopeful than Isaiah. As Yale political science professor Christopher Blattman pointed out in a post on his website, “The big story has shifted from viral video to the oversimplification of complicated issues, the accuracy of advocacy and the white savior complex in aid. Really. Newspapers are taking a nuanced view of aid and advocacy. This is big.” I think he’s on to something there. While thousands initially rushed to offer #StopKony their gushing and unquestioning support, many are now taking a step back and trying to grasp the complexities of this situation. People who have never before looked into the history of northern Uganda or the LRA conflict are suddenly doing research. They are looking for constructive ways to offer their support to the region, and learning that local groups on the ground have been doing remarkable work for years with astonishingly little in the way of resources.
Almost in spite of itself, IC may actually have brought about a genuine degree of awareness and understanding. If the attention can be maintained, it is possible that the international community may yet involve itself in constructive ways.
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