KAMPALA, Uganda – The young American boy sums up what his father does for a living: “You stop the bad guys from being mean.”
Yes, the father says, but who are the bad guys? The child thinks, then offers a guess: “Star Wars people?”
Though a galaxy away from this preschooler’s American upbringing, the truth is far more sinister.
The bad guys are Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal Central Africa militia that has kidnapped thousands of children and forced them to become sex slaves, fight as child soldiers and kill family members.
The father-son conversation is one of many gripping moments in a 30-minute video that has rocketed through cyber space since its release Monday. By late Thursday it had been seen more than 37 million times on YouTube.
The father, Jason Russell, is the co-founder of San Diego-based Invisible Children, an anti-LRA advocacy group, and the film’s director. He asks his son, Gavin, what he thinks should be done about Kony.
“Stop him,” Gavin responds.
The boy’s words are quickly echoed by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, where Kony is wanted for crimes against humanity. “Stop him,” Moreno-Ocampo says on camera, “and (that will) solve all the problems.”
The video is part of a campaign called KONY 2012, and it’s goal is to see Kony captured â€” after 26 years in the jungle â€” this year.
Despite an International Criminal Court arrest warrant and the deployment last fall of 100 U.S. Special Forces to four Central African countries to help advise in the fight against Kony, few Americans know who he is.
To those 99 per cent, Russell poses this challenge: Make Kony and his crimes so infamous that governments view it as imperative that the mission to capture him succeeds.
“If we take the pressure off, if we’re not successful, he is going to be growing his numbers,” Jim Inhofe, a Senate Republican from Oklahoma, tells the film’s cameras. “People forget and you’ve got to remind them. … And if interest wanes it will just go away. … It’s got to be 2012.”
The LRA began its attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when Kony sought to overthrow the government. Since being pushed out of Uganda several years ago, the militia has terrorized villages in Congo, the Central Africa Republic and South Sudan.
“Kony is a monster. He deserves to be prosecuted and hanged,” Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for Uganda’s military, told The Associated Press.
Because of the intensified hunt for Kony, LRA forces â€” once thousands strong â€” have diminished in number, splitting into smaller groups that can travel the jungle more easily. Experts estimate the LRA now has about 250 fighters.
Victims are mutilated by machetes, their faces slashed into grotesque shapes. Women are raped and killed. Young girls are forced into sexual slavery.
Jolly Okot was abducted in 1986 by the militia group that later became the LRA. The then-18-year-old could speak English, so she was valuable to the militants, who also forced her into sex slavery.
Today, Okot is the Uganda country director for Invisible Children. She said the group is helping 800 people affected by LRA violence to attend high school and college. The program has given hope to kids who previously dropped out of school.
“The most exciting thing about this film is that I’m so grateful that the world has been able to pay attention to an issue that has long been neglected,” she said in an interview. “I think it is an eye-opener and I think this will push for Joseph Kony to be apprehended, and I think justice will get to him.”
Moreno-Ocampo said it has been hard to raise public awareness about Kony since issuing the arrest warrant against him in 2005.
“Kony is difficult. He is not killing people in Paris or in New York. Kony is killing people in Central African Republic, no one cares about him,” Moreno-Ocampo told the AP. “These young people from California mobilizing this effort is incredible, exactly what we need.”
“They are not fighting, they are just putting the right focus: stopping the crimes, arresting Kony, helping people,” he said. “Perfect.”
The burst of attention has also brought some criticism of Invisible Children’s work, including questions over the ratio of the group’s spending on direct aid, its rating by the site Charity Navigator and a 2008 photo of three Invisible Children members holding guns alongside troops in what is now South Sudan.
Invisible Children posted rebuttals to the criticism, saying it has spent about 80 per cent of its funds on programs that further its mission, 16 per cent on administration and about 3 per cent on fundraising. The group said its accountability score is low because it has only four independent voting members on its board of directors, but is seeking a fifth.
Last year, Invisible Children began installing high frequency radios in Africa’s remotest jungle to help track militia attacks. People in areas without phones can report attacks on the radios to people who put them on a website called the LRA Crisis Tracker.
Invisible Children’s 2012 anti-Kony campaign is asking celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Bill Gates, as well as policy makers like former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to get involved.
In the video, Russell tells of meeting a Ugandan boy named Jacob who watched LRA fighters kill his brother. The American promises the African child he will do whatever he can to help. Nearly a decade later, Jacob is part of Invisible Children’s campaign to bring awareness of the atrocities to college campuses in America and beyond.
The film opens with Gavin’s birth, and Russell’s philosophy that in the interconnected world the globe has become, “where you live should not determine whether you live.” If Gavin, born in American, can have a happy upbringing, Jacob should too.
“We are not just studying human history, we are shaping it,” Russell says. “At the end of my life I want to say that the world we left behind is one Gavin can be proud of, one that doesn’t allow Joseph Konys and child soldiers. A place where children no matter where they live, have a childhood free from fear.”
Gavin shakes his shaggy head of blond hair and says: “I”m going to be like you dad. I’m going to come with you to Africa.”
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat contributed from San Diego and Mike Corder from The Hague.
On the Internet:
Invisible Children‘s reaction to blog accusations: http://s3.amazonaws.com/www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html