Whether or not the movie, Kony 2012, accurately portrays what happened during the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) insurgency in northern Uganda is not the issue. Apart from a handful of books published in the West, mostly after 2006, when LRA hostilities in Uganda ceased, the film is about the only source of information on this war available anywhere. It is bringing to world attention for the first time something that the world media sat on for years, or just didn’t know about.
The fact that the film was not well received in the northern town of Lira needs some explanation. The ethnic group in and around Lira are Lango. Kony himself is not; he is Acholi. And Kony’s purpose in starting the LRA war was to eventually march from the northern town of Gulu, on the capital, Kampala, and install an Acholi government with its own “ten commandments”, and for this he needed the support of the Acholi people. Hence he abducted boys to train as his soldiers and girls as their wives, to produce still more soldiers and wives, particularly when he saw that the Acholi people were not giving him their support.
The Lango people were not happy that Kony was dragging them into his war too, especially after he abducted 130 girls from a convent mission school near Lira, and killed 300 people in the massacre of Barlonyo, also near Lira. The Lira people, thousands of whom turned up for the film’s screening, must have had mixed feelings: bad memories, resentment, a feeling of being exploited, bewilderment (is Kony still alive? Is he still in Uganda?).
No film can reflect the hurt, the injustice, the brutality, the affront to one’s dignity and the sense of being forgotten by the world as well as by one’s own government, that any Acholi or Lango who has survived the war has experienced.
Northern Uganda is separated from the southern part of the country by the White Nile. In the south is Kampala, the capital and centre of everything –prosperity, government, culture and entertainment and the best national schools. During colonial times the north was somewhat of an outpost, much in the same way as southern Sudan was in relation to Khartoum. The north is still something of an outpost, psychologically, as if crossing the river means crossing into another country.
Most Ugandans had little idea of what was going on during the Kony insurgency. Travel in the north was only by military convoy escort; and the whole rural population of the north was confined to huge internal displacement camps, totalling almost two million people. These camps were well intended, perhaps, to protect the people from the LRA, but the squalor was appalling: I remember one totally naked little boy whose mother pushed him towards me to touch. His whole head was patches of ringworm, and his belly distended.
I have been to the north several times. I have interviewed former child soldiers, four of them: three men and a young woman. All four thought I was from the International Criminal Court and was there to arrest them! The interviews were delicate and difficult, as the four relived their experiences, though when I told them I wanted their stories to get to the world outside they were more at ease.
The first one was a casual worker, a builder. The second was a casual worker too; he died shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances, probably suicide. Both spoke good English, and, were it not for the war, would have had better jobs. The third was a catechist who was in captivity for two years and he had a truly providential escape; the longest talk was with him. The last was the mother of a war child; she had been a LRA officer’s “wife”, and he had promised to really marry her. Every cloud has a silver lining. This interview was in a home for such girls admirably run by an American NGO; she was the most serene. Most of the girls arrive there screaming hysterically.
I also spoke with two counselors: a nun and a laywoman. They are among the very few in the area professionally trained. Their stories were horrifying. They cannot reach all the hundreds of thousands who need their help. That is the problem, not the merits or otherwise of Invisible Children and Kony 2012. The Acholi and Lango peoples are hurting. Not only have they lost property and seen their children miss school and a promising future; they have seen relatives, friends and neighbours murdered, their homes burnt down; they have seen mutilations (lips “padlocked” for speaking out of turn; noses and ears cut off).
They have had to start life afresh after the gradual closure of the camps, which destroyed their culture, by forcing parents and children of any age, even 20-year olds, to all sleep in one and the same space on a dust floor. The Acholi and the Lango are tough, no-nonsense, very resilient people, immensely hospitable; they are scarred, and have terrible memories to live with for the rest of their lives. It is difficult for any film to capture that.
Life is back to normal in Gulu and Lira, but an occasional mad man or mad woman shouting in the street is a reminder that it hasn’t always been like that.
Spero columnist Martyn Drakard is a veteran observer of African affairs based in Kenya.
Info: Invisible Children