Africa
3:18 pm
Mon October 24, 2011

Activists Support U.S. Move Against Uganda Rebels

Originally published on Tue October 25, 2011 4:50 am

Human rights groups don't usually cheer military forays. But they have offered loud applause for the Obama administration's decision to send 100 military advisers to several countries in Africa to help those nations fight one of the continent's most notorious rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army.

The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, is led by Joseph Kony and has been terrorizing Uganda and surrounding nations for decades. Advocacy groups say this is a case where military intervention is needed, and it comes at a time when the LRA has been weakened and is estimated to have only a few hundred active fighters.

But there are concerns. Kony's army has specialized in kidnapping children and forcing them to fight. These children could be caught up in any operation to find Kony.

As President Obama put together his plan to help African countries track down Kony, activists have put together their own innovative ways to focus attention on the conflict.

Monitoring The LRA

A website that tracks the LRA was put together in a joint project run by Invisible Children, a group based in San Diego, and an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., called Resolve, run by Michael Poffenberger.

"You can see video interviews with these people that we and our partners have filmed out on the ground, so it is not just a bunch of icons on a map but the stories of the people who have been most impacted," Poffenberger said.

He clicks on one spot in a remote part of eastern Congo that he says has been hit three or four times by the LRA within the past year. In an attack in March, six children and one woman were abducted and have not been heard from since, the activists say.

The LRA's widespread use of children is one reason this issue has drawn so much interest from young Americans, including Poffenberger, 28, who went to Uganda first when he was a student at Notre Dame University.

Ben Keesey, who runs Invisible Children, says he was inspired by three of his friends who went to Uganda to make a film and happened upon terrible scenes.

"On one night in March of 2003, our founders, when they were in northern Uganda saw the phenomenon called 'night commuting,' where children out of fear of abduction left their home and slept in the downtown city center," he said. "And they kind of changed all of our lives."

Highlighting An Obscure Conflict

With their documentaries and slick online video campaigns, Invisible Children has built a grassroots movement in the U.S. demanding more focus on Kony and the LRA. They welcomed President Obama's offer to send in the special forces troops, who will serve as advisers and will not take part in combat unless attacked.

But the military campaign worries Erin Baines, an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for global issues at the University of British Columbia.

"A large proportion of the LRA itself are children who have been abducted from their homes," Baines said. "So they are the front line of many of these battles and they are the first to be killed because they have the least knowledge of how to hide and protect themselves."

She has interviewed many former LRA victims, including a woman named Grace.

"The stories that she tells or that other women tell are horrific stories of being in a battlefield, the exhaustion, the hunger, the thirst, the constant state of fear," Baines said. "And some of the horrible memories women have of their children being shot while in their arms and they don't have a moment to mourn. They have to just put the baby down and keep going.

This is something that also worries Michael Poffenberger of Resolve.

"It's really one of the most sadistic components of Kony's strategy," he said. "He purposefully puts abducted children between himself and anyone trying to pursue him."

Poffenberger acknowledges there are no easy answers. But he hopes that with more U.S. involvement, the militaries in the region will be more sensitive to this problem. He would also like to see the U.S. do more to improve communications so that family members can use radio frequencies to try to get messages to their abducted children and help them escape.

Keesey of Invisible Children says his organization is working on a rehabilitation center for former child soldiers.

"If and when this comes to an end, first and foremost there's a lot of rehabilitation and development work that needs to happen," Keesey said. "When the guns fall silent that's the beginning of when you have a chance for peace."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Human rights groups cheered the Obama administration's recent decision to send 100 military advisers ready for combat to several countries in Africa. Their mission: Help take Joseph Kony off the battlefield. Kony is the infamous leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a militant group that's terrorized Uganda and surrounding nation's for decades.

Advocacy groups, usually wary of military intervention, say this is a case where it's needed. But others are worried that children abducted by Kony's army and forced to fight could suffer again as the hunt for Kony heats up. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As President Obama put together his plan to help African countries track down Joseph Kony, young activists were coming together with an innovative way to focus attention on the conflict.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This site was created to collect and publish data on the Lord's Resistance Army or LRA, a terrorist organization in central Africa responsible for the continent's longest running armed conflict.

KELEMEN: This is LRA tracking site is a joint project of San Diego-based Invisible Children and an advocacy group here in Washington called Resolve, run by Michael Poffenberger.

MICHAEL POFFENBERGER: You can see video interviews with these people that we and our partners have filmed out on the ground, so that it's not just a bunch of icons on a map. It's actually the stories of those people who are being most impacted.

KELEMEN: He clicks on one spot in a remote part of eastern Congo.

POFFENBERGER: This community has been hit three or four times just within the past year.

KELEMEN: Six children and one woman who were abducted there in March, the activists say, and have not been heard from since.

The LRA is notorious for using child soldiers and that's one reason this issue has drawn so much interest from young Americans, including 28-year-old Poffenberger who went to Uganda first when he was a student at Notre Dame University.

Ben Keesey, who runs Invisible Children, says he was inspired by three of his friends who went to Uganda to make a film and happened upon terrible scenes.

BEN KEESEY: On one night in March of 2003, our founders - when they were in northern Uganda - saw the phenomenon called night commuting, where children out of fear of abduction left their home and slept in downtown city centers. And I think that day kind of changed all of our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've called them on the Youth of the World to help their fellow youth in northern Uganda and Central Africa.

KELEMEN: With their documentaries and slick online video campaigns, Invisible Children has built up a grassroots movement in the U.S. demanding more focus on Joseph Kony and the LRA. They welcomed President Obama's offer of a hundred Special Forces to help.

But the military campaign worries Erin Baines, an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.

PROFESSOR ERIN BAINES: A large proportion of the LRA itself are children who have been abducted form their homes, so they are the front line of many of these battles. And they're the first to be killed because they have the least knowledge of how to hide and protect themselves.

KELEMEN: She has interviewed many former LRA victims, including a woman named Grace.

BAINES: And the stories that she tells or that other women tell are horrific stories of being in a battlefield; the exhaustion, the hunger, the thirst, the constant state of fear. And some of the horrible memories women have of their children being shot while in their arms and they have nothing they can do. They don't have a moment to mourn. They have to just put the baby down and keep going.

KELEMEN: This is something that also worries Michael Poffenberger of Resolve.

POFFENBERGER: Its really one of the most sadistic components of Kony's strategy. He purposefully puts, you know, abducted children in-between himself and anybody who's trying to pursue him.

KELEMEN: Poffenberger acknowledges there are no easy answers to this problem. But he hopes that with more U.S. involvement, the militaries in the region will be more sensitive to this. He'd also like to see the U.S. do more to improve communications in the region, so that family members can use radio frequencies to try to get messages to their abducted children and help them escape.

Keesey, of Invisible Children, says his organization is working on a rehabilitation center for former child soldiers.

KEESEY: If and when this comes to an end, first and foremost, you know, there's a lot of rehabilitation and development work that needs to happen. And we are committed to that. You know, when the guns fall silent that's the beginning of when you have a chance for peace.

KELEMEN: Asked what's next for Invisible Children, he says there are a lot of conflicts that need attention and a committed and passionate group to help shine a spotlight.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.