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I didn’t pay much mind to the #Kony2012 kerfuffle when it first surfaced back in March. I couldn’t be bothered to watch the film and was a bit blasé about the re-emergence (as it seemed to me) of the Lord’s Resistance Army as a topic of wide international interest. But now Invisible Children has released another film that promises the unleashing of a new wave of activism (they’re promising to take over the US capital in mid-November) and awareness-raising.


The new film is an ode to martyrdom (a frivolous aside: watch Ben Keesey from 20:02 onward and compare his embattled defense to this one) but I otherwise found no reason to add to the blogosphere’s thorough deconstruction of the phenomenon. Instead I went through my notes from a 2005 research travel through Acholiland. Over one month, I talked to representatives of the Ugandan Army and other organizations in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. The conflict had been underway at that time for nearly 20 years already.

The research, which was intended to guide a planned documentary film, went in the end toward my own edification. My knowledge of the conflict, even if not necessarily my ability to make sense of it, increased. But the film that got made, “War Dance,” concentrated on an annual dance tournament held in Acholiland, and like #Kony2012 avoided delving into any political, economic and sociohistorical context.

Rather than explain why I left Northern Uganda without drawing hard conclusions on Kony, the LRA, and the popular support it enjoyed among Acholis, I’ve reproduced a small section here from the notes and photographs taken in 2005.

Kilama George (in the photo above) is slim and shy, introspective. He, like many of the young Acholis one meets in Acholiland, northern Uganda, shows no signs of trauma. Also like many young Acholis, Kilama George was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and spent time in the bush, fighting the Ugandan army and terrorizing civilians. In the bush, Kilama George was a bodyguard of Otti Vincent, the number two man in the LRA and a commander renowned for extreme viciousness, reputedly because of sexual impotence. Kilama George claims to have killed many people, merely carrying out orders, as he put it, and it was his ruthlessness on raids—torching huts, beating and maiming civilians—that brought him to the attention of Otti.

Kilama George is a particularly fascinating subject to interview for this reason: he is exceptionally thoughtful and perceptive about the LRA and its mystical leader. Unlike virtually all of my correspondents, George described Kony as having a mental problem, an assessment he made from seeing the LRA leader burst into sudden and inexplicable laughter. He also was able to explain that Kony’s frequent foretelling of government attacks was the result of maintaining regular radio contact with his commanders.

Kilama George’s story, and academic research currently being done in IDP camps increasingly affirms that simple readings of the LRA, its support among the Acholi populace and even the experience of abduction and return undergone by children are frequently wrong and with potentially harmful outcomes.

Many aid agencies have set up rehabilitation centres to provide psychosocial counseling to returnees. Much, if not all of this counseling is premised on the notion that time spent in the bush is essentially a continuous nightmare for the children, and that all children yearn to escape; only fear or death prevents some from actually doing so.

Most of the returnees I spoke to admitted that life in the bush was hard: in the dry season, water and food is particularly scarce and the lack of foliage cover means frequent attack by the Army’s helicopter gunships. Many, however, spoke of incidents that were startling, of unexpected kindnesses and actions that any casual follower or observer of the LRA would not expect.

George remembers being bound very tightly with rope by a commander at the time of his abduction, so tightly that he thought his arms might break. However, a few days later, his feet swollen to the point where he was unable to walk, the same commander carried George on his back, while other children similarly afflicted were summarily clubbed to death.

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By Olufemi Terry

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