How a group of American filmmakers and 100 special-operations troops are pursuing Africa’s most-wanted war criminal
The town of Obo lies on a bend of a remote river in a nameless forest in a country whose name–Central African Republic–is generic.
A few miles from Africa’s pole of inaccessibility, its farthest point from any ocean, Obo’s 15,000 residents build houses of cane and palm thatch, have neither power nor running water and come together at the town church, where the priest still summons his flock with a wooden drum, or at its rudimentary hospital, which boasts a single doctor. Outside town, in any direction, are hundreds of miles of forest, home to nomads, Pygmies and hippos. Yet Obo is on somebody’s map. On a bluff down a dead-end track on the western edge of town, past a police post to which a baby chimpanzee is tied by a string, stands a new construction: a 7-ft.-high (2 m) reed fence enclosing several grass huts. When a TIME photographer and I approach, two stern white faces pop up on the other side. “You’re not allowed in here,” says one, in American-accented English. “Speak to our public-affairs office in Entebbe [Uganda].” And the face disappears.
What are 30 U.S. special-operations troops doing in one of the most far-flung places on earth? Special ops’ code of secrecy notwithstanding, their mission is a matter of public record. In May 2010, Congress passed the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, mandating that the President “eliminate the threat to civilians and regional stability” posed by the LRA. That November, President Obama said his strategy was to back local efforts in Uganda, southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR) “to maintain pressure on the LRA, both militarily and diplomatically … specifically, the urgent challenges of apprehending or removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield.” That led, in December 2011, to the deployment of 30 special-operations troops to the CAR and 70 more to Uganda, Congo and South Sudan to help advise local forces on how to hunt down the LRA and arrest or kill its leader, Kony.
To which a reasonable response might be “Who?” Or it might have been until March 5, when a San Diego–based advocacy group called Invisible Children released a 29-minute film on the Internet called Kony 2012. Invisible Children called on activists to make Kony the most famous war criminal on earth, thus raising the political will to speed his arrest or death. It was one of many films about the LRA the group has made since 2003, but for some reason Kony 2012 became a phenomenon. Invisible Children wanted 500,000 views. According to the group, the film got a million in 24 hours. After 48 hours, it had a million every 30 minutes. Six days after its release, 85 million people had watched the film, by then translated into 50 languages.
Invisible Children found itself the sudden focus of lavish praise and scathing criticism. Effusive backing came from a host of Senators, Representatives and celebrities as well as International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who told the BBC, “They’ve mobilized the world.” But academics and bloggers, particularly Africans, criticized the group for overstating the threat–with 150 to 200 mostly barefoot fighters, the LRA has never been weaker–while Ugandan video blogger Rosebell Kagumire became a Web hit herself when she attacked Invisible Children’s staff for casting themselves as “heroes rescuing African children.” Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who has starred in a number of the group’s previous, less popular films, seems genuinely surprised by the furor. The film is “changing the world,” he told TIME as Kony 2012 approached 100 million views. At the same time, he added with equal bewilderment, “people are calling me the devil.”
Who are Invisible Children? Why are 100 American commandos helping local forces pursue a tiny guerrilla army in Central Africa that poses no threat to the U.S.? Did the phenomenal interest generated by Invisible Children help shape the President’s decision to send in the troops?
Stumbling upon a Cause
It is March 2003, a few days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and three San Diego slackers, childhood friends now wearing baseball caps and goatees, are explaining to the camera why they are going to Africa to make a film about a 47-year civil war that has cost 2 million lives. “We are naive kids that have not traveled a lot, and we are going to Sudan,” says Bobby Bailey, 21. Laren Poole, 19, rambles on about how “media is life, it defines your life. So it’s an obvious choice for three kids who want to find the truth.” In a voice-over, a 24-year-old Russell adds, somewhat superfluously, “None of us knew what we were doing.”
Russell, Poole and Bailey make it to Sudan but find no fighting. After filming themselves vomiting, setting anthills on fire and chopping a snake in half, they follow a trail of Sudanese refugees south to northern Uganda. When they approach the town of Gulu, a truck in front of them is shot at and two people are killed. Forced to stay in Gulu, they film as thousands of children show up at nightfall and sleep on street corners, in a bus park, in hospital corridors. “Needless to say,” narrates Russell, “we found our story.”
Bailey, Poole and Russell had found the fallout of the LRA’s war: tens of thousands of children who wouldn’t sleep at home for fear of being abducted by the rebels. The crisis was not new. The LRA was founded in northern Uganda in 1986 to oust Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose troops tore through the north when Museveni, a southerner, seized power that year. The LRA never seriously challenged Museveni, and the group might have remained forever obscure but for one thing: Kony is one of the cruelest and most twisted men ever to hold a gun. His MO runs to rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism, and he sustains his group by pillaging villages, stealing food and abducting children to take as soldiers and wives.
Former LRA abductees describe Kony as a messianic sociopath–amiable one minute, murderous the next. Emmanuel Dada, 33, who was abducted from Obo in March 2008 and forced to fight and kill for the LRA before escaping a year later, tells TIME that Kony, a preacher, had a unique take on the Bible: “Kony told us, ‘The Bible says if you are going to do good, do good all your life, and if you are going to do evil, do evil all your life. I chose evil, and that’s what I will always do.'”
Over the years, the LRA, fleeing intermittent attacks, spread from Uganda to Congo, then South Sudan, then the CAR. Kony raised the cost of confronting him with a series of massacres. “I killed too many to count,” says Dada. “They forced me to kill an old man. He was just doing nothing, just sitting there, and I beat him to death with a stick.” By the time Bailey, Poole and Russell stumbled across the LRA, the cumulative damage was staggering. Despite the LRA’s never having mustered more than a few thousand fighters, the U.N. estimated that the group had killed tens of thousands, abducted tens of thousands more and displaced 1.5 million.
In 2005, Kony became the first individual to be indicted by the newly established International Criminal Court in the Hague. Editing their first film, titled Invisible Children: Rough Cut, back in San Diego in 2003, Bailey, Poole and Russell told themselves they could help bring Kony to justice by showing people what the LRA was doing. “In our world,” says Russell, “abducting children, cutting people’s faces off, making children eat their friends–that just doesn’t happen. We thought, Once people know about this, it’s going to end in a year.” For greater impact, the three decided on direct distribution. In 2004 and ’05, they traveled from high schools to college campuses, screening Invisible Children for hundreds of thousands of students. To translate their swelling support into government action, they linked up with four other college kids who had recently returned from a student exchange to Uganda and had formed a Washington lobby group called the Uganda Conflict Action Network, later Resolve. John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, known for its effective use of celebrities like George Clooney and Don Cheadle, became the anti-LRA groups’ big gun.
So far, so do-good. But Invisible Children was different. Its founders were young, privileged and goofy, and its DNA was more tech start-up than humanitarian. The three broke the standard advocacy-group rules of conduct too. They horrified established campaigners with films as much about them as the war. They disregarded principles of neutrality and noninterference. They simplified and sensationalized. In particular, while military action was anathema to most humanitarians, the anti-LRA campaigners came to see it as essential. Addressing the need for food and shelter but studiously ignoring a crisis’ political cause in the interest of securing access–the traditional aid-worker stance–is merely a way of “managing pain,” not fixing it, says Ben Keesey, 29, Invisible Children’s CEO since 2006. In Invisible Children’s eyes, direct military action was a reasonable, even necessary option.
Established humanitarians find that argument outrageous. LRA specialist Ledio Cakaj, with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey–who quit Prendergast’s Enough group over his support for military intervention–says, “The idea that you have organizations that worry about things like children and rights advocating for a military solution, it’s a real paradox. They lose the moral high ground.” Russell retorts, “That’s really old school. What’s more humanitarian than stopping a war? I understand the conviction that violence begets violence. But either you just go on pulling people out of the river or you go upstream, find out who is pushing them in and stop them.”
Whatever worries some harbored over Invisible Children’s methods, there was no denying its influence. By 2008, the campaign had made the LRA and Kony the No. 1 foreign issue for American students, on a par with the antiapartheid campaign for an earlier generation. Invisible Children, Resolve and Prendergast then channeled that vociferous energy toward Washington, arguing in meetings with Senate and House leaders and White House staffers that U.S. intervention was imperative. In 2009 the campaigners helped draft a bill demanding executive action. By early 2010, a time of corrosive partisanship in Washington, they had secured cross-party, dual-chamber backing for their proposed law. When Senator Tom Coburn, known as Dr. No for his habit of blocking legislation on budgetary grounds, tried to kill it, activists slept outside his Oklahoma office for 11 nights in midwinter until he relented. After the passage of the law, a dozen members of the House of Representatives publicly praised Invisible Children for its effective campaigning in support of the bill. One of them, Representative Susan Davis, a Democrat from California, told the House, “These young members of the Invisible Children organization … have helped make the children of Uganda visible to us. And now, with this legislation, we have a chance to truly join in this cause.” Once the bill was law, at least four anti-LRA campaigners found U.S. government jobs–in the White House and the Departments of State and Defense. Resolve’s executive director, Michael Poffenberger, says, “They worked on the bill, then went over to the Administration to help it.” The level of engagement, says Prendergast, was unprecedented. “It’s a social movement of mostly young people attempting to address a moral issue halfway around the world which had little or no ramifications for them,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
Setting a Precedent?
The organization’s marshaling of forces was impressive, but Invisible Children was, to an extent, pushing at an open door. In 2008, President Bush had sent 20 special-operations advisers to assist an assault by the Ugandan and Congolese armies on Kony’s base in Congo’s Garamba National Park. Prendergast says the anti-LRA campaigners never asked Obama to send in troops. “He went further than anything we were advocating for,” he says. A senior Administration official says the President’s action reflected “a common wisdom” shared with the campaigners “that this needs to be addressed.” Addressing an Invisible Children rally in Washington at the time, Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said, “The fact is, nothing good happens and nothing bad ends unless like-minded people come together and demand change.”
For Obama, as for Bush before him, the combination of a low-risk military mission and bipartisan support, created in part by Invisible Children, appears to have made the decision to send the special-operations advisers relatively easy. “When I decide to stand up for foreign aid or prevent atrocities in places like Uganda,” said Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 3, “it’s not just about strengthening alliances or promoting democratic values or projecting American leadership around the world, although it does all those things, and it will make us safer and more secure. It’s also about the biblical call to care for the least of these–for the poor; for those at the margins of our society.”
Opinions are divided on whether the LRA operation sets a precedent. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor insists that it does not: “We look at these things on a case-by-case basis based on the facts on the ground and U.S. interests. It would be wrong to interpret this as meaning there will be additional missions in the future.” Prendergast says the operation gives new military might to the Responsibility to Protect, a U.N. initiative, but adds, “I don’t think the Administration roams around the world looking for places to do the same.” Invisible Children, on the other hand, is determined to see that the LRA mission establishes a new benchmark for world justice. Says Russell: “We want to take this campaign from a one-off to a world-changing moment. Was the U.N. created just for picking up dead bodies? We need a new proactive machine to protect those being slaughtered. Then we can have a world where genocide and child soldiering do not exist.”
Beyond proclaiming such lofty ambitions, Invisible Children is short on specifics. That helps feed the criticism the group is now attracting. Kony 2012 “simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda,” says blogger Kagumire. “This war is not just about Joseph Kony [or about] one bad guy against good guys and against ‘we, the mighty West.'” In response, Invisible Children said that while it sought to “explain the conflict in an easily understandable format … in a 30-minute film, however, many nuances … are admittedly lost or overlooked.” It also rejected outright the accusations of a “savior complex.” “Over 95% of [Invisible Children’s] leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans on the forefront of program design and implementation,” it said.
But ultimately the legacy of the LRA operation hangs on how the special ops perform. There are several worries on that score too. Manhunts take time and money–it took 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. to find and kill Osama bin Laden–and the LRA operation has little of either. The senior Administration official cautions that the deployment is not open-ended–maybe a year, three at the outside. And it is an open question whether 100 U.S. troops, whatever their skills, are enough to succeed where the Ugandan army has failed for a quarter-century. The Americans are meant to limit themselves to coordinating the various armies, gathering and sharing intelligence and providing logistical support. The operation is run on a relatively shoestring budget of $35 million, which means the LRA’s pursuers have no attack helicopters, and U.S. aerial surveillance of a thickly wooded area the size of France is limited to one airplane flown by a contractor whose thermal detectors do not work at night. In addition, the 2008 assault ordered by Bush backfired. Kony carried out a series of reprisal massacres and split the LRA into groups as small as five, scattering them as far as Darfur. The next few months are critical. “We don’t want them to come back empty-handed,” says Prendergast.
In Obo, the heart of LRA territory, expectations are high that Kony will soon face a Hollywood kind of justice. Claude Longbango, 38, fled to Obo from Passi in northern Congo in June 2009 when the LRA killed his uncle, brother and cousin and abducted his 18-year-old sister, her 2-month-old baby and a 6-year-old cousin. “They killed Osama,” he says. “They must kill Kony like they killed Saddam Hussein.” Guinikpara Germaine, 19, who was abducted from Obo in March 2008 and forced to become one of Kony’s wives for three years, says the LRA leader himself also expects the worst. “He recognizes he is weak. He used to laugh and enjoy himself, but now, when he thinks about what he wants and his ambitions, he’s like a man on drugs. He stays in his room and watches DVDs.”
At night, the villagers of Obo express their new hope in dances around giant xylophones and congas. “The Americans are here/ Our saviors are here/ Our hope is here/ Let’s dance,” goes one composition. During the day, at a school in a Congolese refugee camp, a drummer calls the children to their own celebration dance wearing something familiar: a 2008 Obama campaign shirt. CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN, reads the slogan. The LRA may yet return. But for now, however improbably, change has come to Obo, and the people are allowing themselves to believe.