LIRA, Uganda – Few faces evoke more hatred and fear in northern Uganda than Joseph Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted men whose army of child soldiers preyed on this town for years and whose brutal legacy has been thrust back into the spotlight by a hugely popular U.S. video.
A wave of anger and depression swept over 27-year old Isaac Omodo as he stared at fuzzy images of young boys mutilated by the rebel warlord whose drugged and vicious fighters abducted Omodo’s brother at the height of northern raids by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 2001.
Those grainy pictures came from the first screening in northern Uganda on Tuesday of a 30-minute YouTube video filmed by a California-based charity, whose appeal for U.S.-backed Ugandan troops to capture the LRA leader went viral on the Internet over the last week.
“When I see some of those things Kony did I get mad,” said Omodo, whose sibling is still missing.
As the sun dipped over a dusty park in Lira, Omodo was among thousands who gathered to watch the screening of the video, which has been seen by more than 77 million people. It has attracted massive support on Twitter and Facebook and endorsements from celebrities like George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey in its quest to press for Kony’s capture.
But Omodo said he felt his raw emotional scars were being reopened.
“Why are we being reminded? I feel bad. We want to just forget all about Kony and the LRA madness,” Omodo told Reuters.
Some jeered as the projection neared its end and scuffles broke out as simmering frustrations boiled over.
Notorious for his use of children as fighters and sex slaves, as well as his fighters’ fondness for hacking off limbs, Kony terrorised northern Uganda for nearly 20 years until he was chased out of the area in 2005.
However, the campaign behind the online video, which is the work of the previously little-known Invisible Children non-profit group, has met with a skeptical backlash from some quarters, not least among Kony’s victims.
“Why make Kony famous? It baffles them,” said Victor Ochen, director for African Youth Initiative Network, the charity behind the showing, speaking of those who watched the video in Lira.
Nonetheless, Ochen said, it was important to show the film in a region long marginalized by the government in Kampala, more than 370 kilometers away, and where few have access to the Internet.
Kony, a self-styled mystic leader who at one time was bent on ruling Uganda by the ten commandments, fled northern Uganda to roam the thick forests of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic.
Attempts by regional forces and foreign troops to corner the fugitive warlord, who faces war crimes charges at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), have failed.
In a fresh push to bring Kony to justice, U.S. President Barack Obama sent 100 U.S. military advisers to the region last year to help Ugandan forces hunt him down.
Critics of the video say it oversimplifies a long-standing human rights crisis. Of course it does, filmmaker Jason Russell has said, pointing out the video was not intended as an answer to the crisis, but as a catalyst for action.
Reed Brody, Counsel and spokesperson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters he generally welcomed the public awareness raised by the film. But he said any increased military action against Kony in central Africa by the U.S.-backed Ugandan military should be “really targeted and protect civilians”.
Otherwise, he said, it risked being counter-productive. “We don’t really want to see Afghanistan in a corner of a forest in Africa”, he added, referring to Kony’s secluded bush hideaway.
In Lira, a town still clearly haunted by the horrors of Kony’s atrocities, disappointment and scorn filled many watching the scratchy images.
“We expected serious action, Americans fighting Kony like in a real movie,” one LRA victim, Okello Jifony, who was forced to fight under Kony for 18 months, told Reuters before giving a more somber assessment.
“Why didn’t they use the real victims in this film?” he added, referring to the shots of Russell’s young son juxtaposed during the film. The film does however show some Ugandan victims of the LRA.
Screening organizer Ochen said he would reconsider his plans to show the video elsewhere in northern Uganda, reminded of how painful the trauma remains.
“We start to believe Kony might come here again,” said Omodo, unsure whether he would ever see his brother again.