‘The victims need to be the subject of a campaign, not Kony’

Victor Ochen.

Photo by Iona Lawrence.

Kony 2012 hit the world by storm. The film has had 80 million hits on YouTube and is plastered all over Facebook and Twitter. Joseph Kony, the number one criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court, is now a household name. People are already slapping up posters of his face all over cities, wearing bracelets with his name on and writing petitions for his immediate arrest.

The world of social media is huge but arguably still shallow. If you zoom out from that bubble and into a dusty town in northern Uganda you will find a place racked with poverty, where the majority of people do not have internet and televisions and are excluded from the discussion.

The irony was not lost on Victor Ochen, a victim of the conflict that ravaged his country for more than 20 years. He grew up in the refugee camps that were created by the Ugandan government while Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) plundered the area abducting children, massacring civilians and destroying homes. Along with millions of other war victims, he was without healthcare and education for most of his childhood.

In 2005, he set up the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), an organization that seeks to rebuild communities and empower young people so that they may have a more hopeful future. He has been implementing projects that allow war victims life after conflict and has campaigned for international recognition of their plight.

This week Ochen decided to take the Kony 2012 film to the young people he works with, using a projector and a makeshift screen in a field in the north Ugandan town of Lira. I spoke to him about his motivations and the response the film received...

Why did you screen the film?

As someone who was part of the conflict, the picture the film paints is reminiscent of a life I lived not so long ago in the camps – excluded and isolated. But is that where the people of northern Uganda are today? I would say not so much. And for the international community to understand what the people of northern Uganda feel, they needed to see war victims' reactions to the film. If you take the victims to the world, you bring the world into our community.

What was the reaction?

The first reaction was the turnout itself. As the sun was setting, I saw thousands of people coming in streams to the showing and I realized this is a response. It was clear that people wanted to know exactly what was going on and have the chance to make their own decision on it.

‘The film ignores the fact that it is our families who are still in captivity and that they could be harmed by military intervention’

The screening itself brought such heartbreak. One victim in particular summed up the opinions of many: ‘This film is not for us, it was not made for us but they are using our name. If it is about us, why is it full of American kids?’

The few Ugandan lives that are pictured in the film are the lives of the past for the victims of today. It is offensive and foolish to reignite the imagery of the conflict in this way. Of course we welcome the idea of arresting Kony but this should be done in a way that will respects our feelings and international campaigners must recognize that our hearts are still with the people imprisoned by Kony – how do you make sure they are safe? By supporting or encouraging a military aspect, the film ignores the fact that it is our families who are still in captivity and that they could be harmed by military intervention.

What do you think of the film?

Let me ask you: What is the motive of the film - is it to help the people of northern Uganda? Or is its aim to simply recount the failures and challenges that we in northern Uganda had to face for the first time many years ago and have continued to face ever since? We started the process of rebuilding a long time ago so we want the world to see these. The film serves to carry our memories of past pain into the present and shed light on the chaos that we have struggled so hard to move on from.

‘In reality the film shows events that happened a long time ago...It is totally wrong to call it Kony 2012 when this started in 1986’

Furthermore, it’s foolish to claim that this is the first time the world is hearing about Kony. We have seen the international spotlight shed on Kony on many occasions by the UN, aid agencies and governments who have not only been talking about it but have also been working to help people in northern Uganda.

In reality the film shows events that happened a long time ago, more has changed since the conflict subsided in Uganda in 2007, more than anyone could imagine. It is totally wrong to call it Kony 2012 when this started in 1986. And what about what we have done since 2007 since the conflict ended to rebuild our lives and communities?

We need an international campaign of this size but with our own solution to the problem – Kony 2012 has used social media to get the world’s attention but it’s a sensational 30 minute YouTube hit. We need one with the voices of the victims at its heart, an everyday reality of what life is like for us now.

‘A film with American kids and Kony memorabilia makes no sense to us – it belittles the prolonged suffering and discounts all the work we have done to create a future’

This war became a way of life for over 20 years but since 2007, it has been replaced by the struggle to rebuild and heal. That is why a film with American kids and Kony memorabilia makes no sense to us – it belittles the prolonged suffering and discounts all the work that individuals, communities, local organizations, international agencies and huge numbers of others have done to create a future.

With attention refocused on Uganda, where do you go from here?

The campaign has triggered knowledge and debate and put northern Uganda and Kony into the limelight. But why make Kony famous? Putting his face up round the world is just a waste of resources. We need to help the victims of the war, that's what we need to talk about – there was nothing in that film that clearly reflected the people of northern Uganda.

‘We have victims here and they need the attention...Kony’s arrest is crucial. But his arrest alone is not enough’

As much as bringing an end to the LRA is important, we have victims here and they need the attention. The people that still live in chronic pain from injuries inflicted on them years ago, the families that need their livelihoods rebuilt, the children that need educating. Of course we need to build a society where everyone knows that any criminal act is totally unacceptable, that criminals will not be celebrated and so Kony’s arrest is crucial. But his arrest alone is not enough.

So Invisible Children have laid unprecedented foundations to build on, the world has been sensitized to the plight of all of Kony’s victims in East Africa. The next steps have to be about putting the voices of war victims at the heart of the campaign so they can be taken to the international stage – the victims need to be the subject of a campaign, not Kony.

Why Evo Morales did a U-turn on the TIPNIS Amazon highway

Indigenous marchers have endured hunger and exhaustion during their march against the highway that threatens their territory.

Photo by Ivan Rodriguez Petkovic/Bolivian Express

As the global Occupiers movement gathers momentum, they would do well to look and learn from how protest is done in Bolivia. For the last two months, people from indigenous communities – be they pregnant, children, infirm or old – have endured hunger, exhaustion and police brutality on a march from their Amazon homeland to the seat of power in La Paz, 500 kilometres away and 4000 metres upwards.

Their highly-effective and determined action has successfully halted the construction of a major road straight through the middle of their protected rainforest territory, known as TIPNIS, the Spanish acronym for the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory.

This is how the story unfolded: It was August when the government first announced a plan to build an industrial highway right through TIPNIS. The highway, to be financed by Brazil, is central to Morales’ ‘process of change’, a concept within the government’s 2009-Constitution that proposed a fresh approach to capitalism. Morales’ version was to be an amalgamation of nationalisation, industrialisation and protection of specific ways of life, such as the indigenous world view of a living, Mother Earth or Pachamama.

Development vs destruction?

The government reasoned that the road would boost Bolivia’s national development by connecting agricultural and commercial areas while also improving public services for inhabitants of the park.

But TIPNIS residents thought otherwise. They feared the road would bring increased drug trafficking, deforestation and damage to their flora and fauna. In mid-August more than 1000 people from the TIPNIS area set off to defend their way of life

Brutal repression by police late September, helped secure overwhelming public support for the marchistas. In solidarity, over 45 per cent of Bolivians sabotaged their ballots during judicial elections in mid-October.

Tens of thousands poured out onto the streets to greet the weary marchistas like heroes.

Photo by Ivan Rodriguez Petkovic/Bolivian Express

By the time they arrived in La Paz, tens of thousands of people from all sections of Bolivian society poured out onto the streets to greet the weary marchistas like heroes. At the welcome ceremony in the Plaza de San Francisco, the leaders referred back to the landmark 1990 indigenous march which secured rights for their communities for the first time. This was only their second ever march, this time demanding that the rights they had won be respected.

As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales has cut an interesting figure on both the national and international stage, producing both smiles and scowls from different quarters

The marchers showed that the power of public protest in democratic Bolivia was as alive as ever. There was everything to lose and people were willing to sacrifice much to protect the rights they had fought long and hard for.

Morales’ split personality

The TIPNIS road has brought Morales’ competing agendas into a direct collision. The tenuous balance between rights, environmentalism and development has come close to collapse, rocking the entire nation and exposing Morales’ often contradictory policies.

As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales has cut an interesting figure on both the national and international stage, producing both smiles and scowls from different quarters. His promotion of coca production, nationalisation of natural resources and opposition to transnational corporations has incurred the ire of the US and business elites.

But his unique approach to climate change and development has won him the title of ‘World Hero of Mother Earth’ within the UN and a celebrated protector of indigenous rights at home.

At the heart of the TIPNIS controversy lay Morales’ divided identity – as indigenous leader on the one hand and socialist cocalero on the other.

Indigenous peoples’ opposition to the TIPNIS road was driven by fear of the anticipated ‘colonisation’ of the area by working class cocoleros (coca farmers) who make up a significant proportion of Morales’ support base, as well as speculation about possible oil reserves and manipulation by Brazil.

The two sides came close to exchanging blows in La Paz when pro-government movements came out in support of the highway and the ‘process of change’, a week before the marchistas were due to arrive.

The marchistas’ bravery will inspire environmentalists and minority cultures all over the world

But regardless of what conflict of interests were at play for Morales, the public came down firmly on the side of the TIPNIS communities. The struggle had become a national symbol, forcing Morales to defend his environmental credentials in the face of overwhelming pressure.

‘Vivir bien’

In Plaza de San Francisco, one marcher, Jose Sadivav from the indigenous confederation CONAMAQ was asked what the action meant to him. ‘TIPNIS means history,’ he replied. ‘Since our ancestors, we have chosen to live in harmony with Mother Earth. It is who we are’.

He said the marchistas’ bravery will inspire environmentalists and minority cultures all over the world. ‘I think we have set an example. This will always be worth fighting for,’ he concluded.

As the world reels from the excesses of global capitalism, small yet essential pockets of resistance appear, which force a recognition of alternative ways of being. They promote the idea of Vivir Bien, ‘to live well’ – a concept that Morales himself has proposed to the UN. This notion stands in opposition to the destruction wrought by competitive and exploitative capitalism. As the marchistas return home, the people of La Paz thank them for their courage and bravery. They have shown that Bolivians have the power to tip the balance in their favour.

For personal accounts from TIPNIS marchers, see Dario Kenner’s blog.

For more on this topic go to the Bolivian Express.