Juliane Okot Bitek

Recently, Ceasar Acellam, a major general in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, made news worldwide by surrendering, or being captured, depending on which news source one reads. In reaction, Ben Keesey from Invisible Children claimed that this was “exactly that type of thing that we're hoping would happen as a result of KONY2012; that the news worthiness of the LRA would become news; that the actions of this group, this violent rebel group, would make headlines, especially at moments like this.”

As a woman who hails from Gulu, northern Uganda, the pervasive effect of Invisible Children’s "headlines" has become an oppressive silencing, by insisting that Joseph Kony and the LRA be the most important and only issue, synonymous with northern Uganda. As it were, it seems as though those of us for whom this awareness campaign should be of benefit should be nothing but grateful and quiet. After all, if it wasn’t for Invisible Children and KONY2012, who would know about Joseph Kony and the LRA and their "newsworthiness?" 

In fact, there is a long and mixed history of engagement around the crimes of Joseph Kony - both northern Ugandan, and international - and no small degree of distortion by KONY2012 of the country's current context. In 2005, I wrote in The Tyee about the gratitude I felt for the awareness of the situation in northern Uganda brought on by the founders of Guluwalk, Adrian Bradbury and Kieran Hayward. The two Canadians were compelled to mimic the night commuter children in Gulu, a phenomenon that was born out of the insecurity during the war between the government of Uganda and the LRA. In those days, children left their homes in the villages surrounding towns like Gulu and walked several miles every night to sleep undeneath the eaves of businesses, at bus parks, anywhere, in order to reduce their chances of being abducted by the rebels. For a time, the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, had vowed to stay in Gulu until the rebels were defeated. The presidential guard and security around the president offered added protection for those who lived in Gulu – hence the walk to Gulu and the inspiration behind Guluwalk. I also expressed frustration that those of us from northern Uganda had been trying so hard to get the word out to no avail. I reported on the efforts by the Acholi Paramount Chief Rwot Achana, who had gone to the UN headquarters in New York to seek an audience with world leaders. The bureacrats there told him that the UN would only talk to national leaders, so he returned home to think about other ways to get the world to know about the tragedy that was underway in northern Uganda.  

The first time I watched Invisible Children: Rough Cuts, I was convinced that the makers of this documentary had been touched by what was happening in northern Uganda. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole had travelled to Sudan (now South Sudan) to find a story. Failing to find one, they turned south and stumbled into a war that they had never heard about. Rough Cuts shows the reality of the war in northern Uganda at the time - and the night commuting children are by far the most heart wrenching aspect of the movie. Based on the relative success of that movie, Invisible Children went on to increase its awareness campaign, getting bolder and bolder. By 2005, the same year that I was participating in Guluwalk, its Global Night Commute garnered attention in over a hundred countries, and I was grateful. I felt that the children in northern Uganda were not alone - that they didn’t walk alone; thousands of people knew about their plight and had joined us in stopping this phenomenon.  

That is not to say that nothing had been going on until Invisible Children and Guluwalk came into the fray. Clearly, the success of these organizations and others had to do with the manner in which the audience responded to their call. It was a welcome response, until it became apparent that the products – the films, music videos, bracelets – and the ensuing fame and popularity took on lives of their own, and that stories from northern Uganda had become an engine to make money through the emotional appeal they evoked (particularly in the west).

The awareness campaign that Invisible Children staged in 100 cities asked young people to "abduct themselves" and stay abducted until a local politician "saved" them from abduction. Even the British Red Cross had joined in the business of making and selling games based on people’s suffering. It had a video game, Traces of Hope, in which players could imagine that they were Joseph from northern Uganda whose family is missing and must go through all kinds of challenges to locate his relatives. “Time is running out to unite Joseph and his mother. Only you can help him by playing Traces of Hope,” said the game. I was outraged. I had no idea how much worse I’d feel years later when over a hundred million people would be advised to click, re-tweet and repost their way to empowerment, and by doing so support the capture of an international criminal. It was, and is still, unimaginable that in this day and age, organisations that should know better are engaged in making money at all costs, even as dribs and drabs of it siphon back to the muses of the games they make. For those of us from northern Uganda whose relatives were abducted, tortured and killed, it has never been a game; it has never been entertainment, an adventure, a feel-good distraction for a couple of weeks until the creative types come up with the next way to keep the awareness alive.  

In a recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni admits that KONY2012 is helpful in the "hunt" for Joseph Kony if it galvanizes support from the international community. “One hundred soldiers is not a big number. The most important thing is technology, some surveillance and mobility. That’s what is important,” he said. The imperative focus of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces has been in engaging with the guerillas, Al-Shabaab, in Somalia for years, and not that long ago, Yoweri Museveni was seeing off more troops to go fight over there. The main focus of the UPDF has not been in catching Joseph Kony and the LRA, and the effort most definitely does not require the tweets and letters and posters from young people in North America unless those tweets translate into technological support for the UPDF.        

There were peace talks once, a long time ago, between the LRA and the government of Uganda. They were slow and painful, as the second video, Beyond Famous, depicts, but they had markers of success. There had been several attempts to broker peace, to bring a permanent peace to northern Uganda. In the late eighties, the government of Uganda signed peace talks with several of the armed groups.  Betty Bigombe, also an Acholi woman, was one of the first people to talk peace with Joseph Kony and the LRA in 1994, but those peace talks failed when the president changed his mind about pursuing peaceful means and demanded that the rebels surrender their arms or face the fire power of the government army. This, of course, wasn’t helpful to the cause of peace.        

When the peace talks stalled in early 2007, people from northern Uganda and the diaspora, as well as well-wishers from Sudan, Denmark and Canada, strove to get the two sides back at the negotiating table. I was there in Juba in 2007, and I was awed by the passion and spirit of the people there: civil society, politicians, religious leaders, country representatives, local Sudanese, cultural leaders, lawyers, students, rebel representatives, Ugandan government representatives and Vice President Riek Machar, all working together. Those were the days before anyone knew that social media would and could replace such hard and complicated work. The document that came out of the week I was there was proof that both the government of Uganda and the LRA were willling to return to the negotiating table. We clapped and cheered and ululated into the night when Riek Machar read out the agreement. There was hope; there was a chance that war was never going to be fought in northern Uganda between these warring parties ever again. It was a good moment. It was a moment full promise. For what it’s worth, the government of Uganda and the LRA signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2008, and there have been no war cries and guns over the skies in northern Uganda since. The phenomenon of night commuter children is now, thankfully, a thing of the past, and most people have left the camps for internally displaced people and returned to their ancestral homes. Horrible as that was, it’s now history, though perhaps only in northern Uganda.   

But I saw them. I saw the night commuting children the last time I was home in 2003. I was there for one day and one night in Gulu, which was all the time I could afford then, to see my grandmother and introduce her to her great granchildren. My family and I were in a car, on the way to the hotel where we’d turn in for the night, when the headlights shone into a crowd of children walking silently into town. They seemed silent amidst the cries of the evening hawkers and the boda boda motorcycle taxis and general street traffic. Their faces were sombre. Some older children were holding hands of the younger ones. Some had books in their arms, probably in the hope that they could get close to a kerosene lamp to get their homework done. Others had blankets, some didn’t. Seeing these children in real life, out of the texts that I read about in the newspapers and online in Canada, was gut wrenching. Some were the same age as my own children who were sitting with me, safe in the car. Some could be my relatives, as others were, who were kidnapped by the LRA. Some came back, others didn’t. The devastation from that war has left nearly every family from northern Uganda touched. The heartache and tears and nightmares cannot be scientifically tallied, but the fallout that can be measured is apparent from the high unemployment, high illiteracy levels for the whole population, the outbreak and spread of serious diseases like hepatitis E, cholera, resistant strains of malaria and meningitis, not to mention HIV/AIDS. What are we to make of these stories that are not being told by people who claim that they have our best interests at heart? Why are 100 million people distracted by a man whose heyday belongs in the past when people are being forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands by the partner government that Invisible Children works with? Why isn’t it of concern to Invisible Children, as journalist Harriet Anena reports, that Gulu has such a high concentration of child prostitutes?  

Watch never-before-seen footage of Kony in Klaartje Quirijns' new documentary, Peace vs. Justice. Plus an interview with the filmmaker. 

If the critics of KONY2012 are anything to go by, the relative lack of African (specifically northern Ugandan) voices in the efforts to apprehend Joseph Kony was and is insulting to the memory of those who have worked so hard and sometimes died to bring peace to the region. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARPLI) has been at the forefront of a negotiated peace settlement and amnesty for formerly abducted children. One of the founders, Archbishop Macleod Baker Ochola, who lost his wife and daughter to the violence of that war, has never stopped insisting on peaceful negotiations, rather than the military intervention that Invisible Children seems to insist is an option. The idea that it is Invisible Children that can effect change on its own as long as it has an army of well-meaning young people at its beck and call stifles the efforts of those who have been at this work without the benefit of world adulation or financial benefit. Advocacy workers and NGOs have been caught at the crux of this controversy and have had to ask some tough questions about their work: How much awareness can affect change? How much money should be moved away from efforts on the ground towards creating a loud digital presence? Is it worth it? Does local agency take away the emotional pull of potential donors? Must Africans be portrayed as voiceless in order to get any attention in the west? Is there an inverse relationship between African voicelessness and the empowerment of the target audience which buys into the idea that they can be saviors, the only hope for these starving, victimized and terrorized people?  

It is probably the circumstances that gave rise to these situations that we should spend some time on. We need to focus on the current challenges faced by the people of northern Uganda (if their images must be the main feature of Invisible Children’s work), rather than the perpetuation of a macabre legend that we from northern Uganda want to forget. Evelyn Apoko, herself a victim of the LRA, spoke eloquently on CNN in the first few days after KONY2012: “I would be glad to see the faces of the children who are being abducted - to make those kids become well-known to the people around the world, not the face of Joseph Kony.” She argued that as the abductor of thousands of children, Joseph Kony did not deserve the celebrity status that the Invisible Children seemed to confer to him. Joseph Kony is already infamous. He was already known to most, if not all the American politicians in Congress, seeing as they signed a bi-partisan agreement to send 100 troops to northern Uganda almost half a year before the release of KONY2012. How callous would it be to have millions of young people wearing t-shirts with the image of Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or Bashar Al-Assad in celebration - in order to “make them famous?" Dead or alive, people who have proven that they are responsible for other people’s suffering should not be propeled to stardom and celebrity. That’s just not right.        

The truth is that many have sought for and given their lives for peace and healing in northern Uganda. The efforts to make Joseph Kony famous might have been better placed in remembering the actions of Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, for instance. In October 2000, when Ebola disease was transported to northern Uganda via the body of a dead soldier, that outbreak, in the midst of war, no less, threatened to wipe out the people of that region and the medical personnel who were the fastest casualties of the disease. Doctors and nurses had to be protected, as did the people who were in the hospital who were working with very little support in terms of human or medical supplies. While others left to save their lives and the lives of others through their survival, Dr. Lukwiya refused to leave. He caught the disease and died while still trying to help. He should be famous.  He should be on the t-shirts worn by millions of people across the world. 

Sister Rakele, who risked her life going after the students who had been kidnapped by the LRA, should be more famous than Joseph Kony. It was the third time, that October in 1996, that the LRA had attacked St. Mary’s High School in Aboke, when 139 students were taken in the middle of the night, after having celebrated the Ugandan Independence holiday during that day. The first time, Sister Rakele had negotiated the release of all fifteen girls who’d been taken by the LRA. That October night, the LRA left with thirty girls and Sister Rakele returned with 109. She cannot forgive herself for failing to save the 30 who remained. Sister Rakele should be more famous than Joseph Kony. Angelina Atyam, one of the founding members of the Concerned Parent’s Association, which advocates for the protection and rights of war affected families in northern Uganda, should be famous. Member of Parliament for Kitgum, Beatrice Anywar, also known as Mama Mabira, led the protests against the planned descecration by deforestation of the jeweled Mabira forest and has, of late, spearheaded the campaign to get attention for the children suffering from nodding disease. She should be made famous. Needless to say, over twenty years of war marks a land and its people. We are scarred in more ways than we can imagine, but even then, we know that some will continue to try to silence us - in the claim that they speak for us, tell our stories, and invariably profit from our images while shoring their careers with the blood and tears that have stained our soil. But we’re still here. We’re still here and whether or not you hear it or read of it, we do have a voice.

Juliane Okot Bitek is an Acholi woman from northern Uganda who lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. She is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Liu Scholar at the University of British Columbia.  Juliane’s research interests include the narratives of formerly abducted women in post-conflict northern Uganda. Her latest writing endeavour, Stories from the Dry Season, is the culmination of her work with the stories of women who were abducted by the LRA. Juliane’s essays, poetry and nonfiction have been published widely in print and online.