New Internationalist

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

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Kony 2012 went uber-viral but how do those inside the country feel about it? Georgiana Keate speaks to Victor Ochen, who screened the film in northern Uganda.

Photo by Iona Lawrence.
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.

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  1. #1 marnell 20 Mar 12

    We must oppose US Military intervention in Uganda which might lead to exploitation of the people and their resources.

  2. #2 Brian Fisher 20 Mar 12

    I have never seen such vitriolic attacks as I have against the Kony 2012 campaign. While I agree that there is much more that needs to be done. Kony is still a criminal operating in Africa (maybe not so much Uganda). The world would be better off if he was captured and prosecuted and if Kony 2012 works, matybe we have found a way for social media to elicit action on many fronts. I do not understand the relentless attacks on this action. what are people opposed to ? Surely the campaign could result in a positive conclusion. Very very strange. I wish I knew who the real antagonists represent.

  3. #3 Dbestvater 20 Mar 12

    I totally agree that the story and the problem is deeper than presented in the Kony video. But it seems to me that the effort to shed light on the problem has merit. I have not been a long-standing reader of the New Internationalist, but am wondering, did the New Internationalist previously air anything on the topic (i.e. before the Kony video went viral)?

  4. #4 Richard Schmid 21 Mar 12

    For what its worth, the Kony campaign stirred up so much attention not only to child soldiers in Uganda but everywhere. I see it this way: the aternative to Kony 2012 is not having the Kony 2012 campaign. Why did the video go viral, because it's good, that's all. The rest remains for us intelligent human beings to see and act accordingly.

  5. #5 Elsa 21 Mar 12

    Brian, I believe the antagonist is the idealist who can't overlook the fact that this was commercialized so much. At the end of the day everything is about becoming successful enough to make an impact. And this did, it reached it's means which was to make Kony famous. It's done it's job! Now whether it was politically correct is another story. But it's only being made out a villain because it was successful in a short period of time, while Humanitarian messages take a longer time and don't appeal to everyone.

  6. #6 onedaywonder 21 Mar 12

    Dbestvater asked whether New Internationalist had published anything previously on the story before the Kony video.
    I remember a long feature on northern Uganda including the repercussions of the terror caused by Kony's actions, so I searched and found it in the August 2007 edition:
    And among the list of NGOs working in Uganda mentioned at the end of the article is... Invisible Children!

  7. #7 Reality 21 Mar 12

    The main point here is that the people that made the video are of no importance to us, the message is. the press will always minipulate the information out there, but if 100.000 peoople gained even a trace of knowledge from this viral video then as mentioned below its has been beneficial. Not only do i agree yes the people affected must be the cause but , to be fair Konys arrest is crucial to this situation or an alternative occuring .In terms of maoney raised , truthfully all the mechandise was not relevant but , what people need to consider is the opportunitys that have arisen from this. Not only will there be an increase in the interest of Uganda and its vicitims but alot more people will take action in visiting theses places , this video may not have ticked all the boxes concerning the cause but , it has opened alot of doors for help aid. Unfortunately no-one could ever reflect the views of the people , but to naive to thinking that these people dont live out of fear and prosecution is foolish.. there is alot of bad people out there and sometimes it takes seeing the enviroment and what these people go through to realise its a very sad world out there, and maybe eliminating the bad, will be a warning to other dictators and bad leaders that the power of social media and the people voice holds alot more then anticipated.

  8. #8 Dbestvater 21 Mar 12

    I am glad to hear this response. Thank you Onedaywonder.

  9. #9 Bob Cruickshank 21 Mar 12

    I found this article very enlightening. I believe that the emotional response from the USA was first from the terrible situation in Uganda, and second from a need to feel in control of something good, which does not seem possible for US citizens at this time. I pray that someone will come forward to harness this enthusiasm any take it to the next level, which is peace, prosperity and justice for all Ugandans. As we have witnessed the incredible progress from the ’Arab Spring’ let us all work together for a new Uganda

  10. #10 Hazel Healy 22 Mar 12

    Elsa: It's a tough call. Is it better that people watch Kony 2012 rather than Justin Bieber videos? Maybe. Will it improve the situation on the ground in Uganda / contribute to Kony's capture? My feeling is that it's unlikely. Yes it captured the attention of millions, but to what end? I worry that it may be a problem of style over content, a criticism that could be directed at Invisible Children's budget focus on media over project work.
    I also think that presenting Americans as the crusading heroes is deeply problematic and it's right that Invisible Children be pulled up on it.
    How victims are represented does matter, and it matters to the people concerned, as they articulate in this piece.
    They also say: 'We need an international campaign of this size but with our own solution to the problem'.
    Nesrine Malik has a good, nuanced take on well-meaning but misplaced activism in the context of George Clooney's recent arrest at the Sudanese embassy:
    This said, I don't think that critics are blinded by political correctness. The Ugandan piece ends saying what many of these commentators point out: Invisible Children have made a splash, let's see whether this can be put to some good.

  11. #11 forestfox 22 Mar 12

    i think that while maybe the merchandise should have been aimed more at the victims than of Koney, the video has managed to make many more people aware of the situation and maybe help to stop what is happening. since this has continued for 20 years the video should be made to cause an impact, if people think it isnt as big an issue as it is, maybe less will be done. maybe the video isnt entirely accurate of how the situation has changed, but now so many people know about it,and can now see what is happening and make their own decisions for themseloves.Also, this article wouldnt have been seen if it wasnt for Koney 2012, so no one would actually know the situation. personally, i didnt hear anything about Koney until i saw the video, so i think it served the purpose well. its not just about the video but what people do about this situation now, that matters.

  12. #12 Aldo Ruggieri 25 Mar 12

    The Kony2012 campaign is for international action to capture Kony, stop his ’army’, release his current victims, and, most importantly, prevent future capture of children and slaughter of more peolpe. That, I believe, is the aim of the current action. What happens in the future is the aim of other movements and possibly other groups. One volunteer group cannot provide all the answers for all people.(Look at their website. They claim that they are involved in development and support action in Uganda. Is that true? If not, provide the proof. If so, what's your beef? Do not provide apparently unsubstantiated criticism or possibly uninformed emtional responses.)

    The promotional material is not aimed at the people in Uganda, and should never have been treated as such. It is aimed primarily at the youth of America where the movement started. The fact that millions have agreed to support this cause should be welcomed by all rational people. The target audience has been motivated and even more has been achieved.

    The question as to the motivation for this activity, we will have to see. Even if the motivation is self-serving, if the outcome is success, then good for them. If they can bring about a second good outcome, why question them? Why castigate them? If you have evidence that they are perpetrating a ’con’, then declare yourselves, and decry the movement - not the cause.

    Your article was extremely disappointing. Show us the proof of what you are saying, or do not report at all. I thought you were professional journalists.

  13. #13 Assad2012 28 Mar 12

    The major issues I take with the movie:

    1) It makes no serious effort to educate, which is its primary professed goal. It fails, grossly oversimplifies and misleads. Is it useful that millions of people know the name ’Kony,’ and have a vague impression that he's not a nice guy and recognise his face? Are they likely to meet him while shopping at WalMart? Will the majority go off and read in-depth about the history of the central African conflict? Will they give agency to Ugandans? It's incredibly slick propaganda (in the true sense of the word, as in 'to propagate an agenda'). It's a shame they didn't use their, admittedly excellent, film-making skills to educate a little instead of only seeking to blindly ’motivate’ in true blue Made in the USA style.

    2) It's not just that the situation in central Africa is complex (isn't it everywhere?), and of course in 30 mins you have to be selective with the information you include. But its entire purpose, its sole purpose, is to pressure people of import (in the director's minds) to pressure the US Army to set up shop in the region till he's caught - a pointless task, as the US Army is setting up shop all over Africa with forward operating bases and its Africom - they're not going anywhere, and wouldn't listen to 100m schoolkids anyway. It has way more to do with the military-industrial complex's control of illicit flows of minerals, land grabs and Henry Kissinger than it has to do with singing, posters and ’awareness.’

    The real causes behind the US ’advice’ is the control of land and resources, and to combat the next Great Power: China. The Museveni autocracy, which is comparable to some of the toppled - and remaining - Arab dictatorships, is after kicking the Acholi people off their land and grabbing as much oil, water and minerals as possible. How many people prior to, or after, watching the video knew or found out about how the Acholi and others were pushed into refugee camps and off their traditional lands on the pretext of protection (many could never return to their lands). In the camps, mortality rates - compared with rates under 'normal' conditions - were easily comparable to the LRA killings in scale if not sensational brutality. But is not a slow death from needless poverty also without dignity and a form of terror? And this whole thing forgets that horrendous crimes were committed by Ugandan troops in the DRC in pursuit of that vast country's resources, with the tacit support of the people we in the Atlantic Alliance call our illuminated leaders.

    The White Savior Industrial Complex (HT: Teju Cole) needs to educate itself before it charges around ’helping the helpless.’

  14. #14 Gary Geddes 31 Mar 12

    Dear Georgiana Keate: Thanks for your article and interview with Victor Ochen. I interviewed Victor and many Kony victims in 2008 and 2009 in Gulu and wrote about their experiences in a book recently published called Drink the Bitter Root: A search for justice and healing in Africa. I think it handles the LRA situation in a way that Victor would approve of, letting Ugandans have the final word on what has happened and what needs to be done, how best justice might be served and how healing can take place. If you'd like a copy of the book for review, or for your personal reference, please let me know and I'll ask the publishers to send you one. It's available from Counterpoint Press in the US and Douglas & McIntyre in Canada; but also, of course, on
    You might also be interested in checking out my comments about kony 2012 and other sub-Saharan issues at Drink the Bitter Root


    Gary Geddes

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