Almost overnight, an online video detailing the war crimes of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army sparked a massive outcry among millions of Americans, many of whom were learning about the African warlord for the first time. While the atrocities perpetrated by Kony came as a shock to many, they’ve long been a focus of attention for Catholic Relief Services.
The “Kony 2012” video by nonprofit group Invisible Children garnered more than 100 million views in a matter of days after its release last month, achieving the group’s goal of making Kony a household name. The video raised public concerns over the violence caused by Kony and the LRA, including the abduction of children forced to serve as child soldiers or sex slaves.
But Kony has been a menace since the 1980s, when he began a civil war against the Ugandan government and later spread his violence to include attacks on the native Acholi people. In response to the mass displacement of communities in northern Uganda caused by the LRA, CRS established an office in Kampala, Uganda, in 1996.
From its early efforts working with the local church to provide sanctuary for “night commuters” — youth who would leave their communities before nightfall in search of safe havens to avoid abduction by the LRA — to its ongoing recovery programs, CRS has provided comprehensive aid to individuals and communities in the wake of Kony’s violence.
Critics of the Kony 2012 video have noted that it fails to address the greatly diminished role of the LRA in recent years. But even though Kony and his troops have now departed northern Uganda, their actions still have a profound effect on the lives of many people.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done there to rebuild communities from the years of violence at the hands of the LRA,” said Art Kirby, CRS regional representative for East and Southern Africa. “It takes a lot of effort to build up these communities again, oftentimes from scratch.”
Kirby told Our Sunday Visitor that the work of CRS has shifted from its initial emergency response phase to long-term rehabilitation. Since Kony forced his young victims to commit brutal acts, such as beating to death or dismembering their own family members or neighbors, those who have escaped the LRA are in need of extensive counseling.
“They’ve basically been robbed of their youth,” said Kirby. “There’s a lot of psychosocial support that needs to be done to rebuild the psyche of that former child combatant.”
It is also a challenge for communities to reconcile with former LRA soldiers who committed violent crimes against them. CRS works with community leaders to help ease the process of reintegration and to provide a welcoming rather than hostile environment for returning LRA victims.
G. Jefferson Price, a journalist who spent time working with CRS in northern Uganda in 2005, told OSV that the communities showed an openness to accepting former LRA members, even those who had committed the most awful crimes.
He recalled meeting one young woman who, as a child soldier, had been forced to beat a 10-year-old girl from her community to death. Like other former LRA members, the woman was accepted back into the community after taking part in a forgiveness ceremony, which combines tribal rituals with a Christian-influenced prayer and reconciliation service.
Price noted that CRS has been highly influential in rebuilding communities.
“If it weren’t for the programs CRS was running, these people would have had no hope,” he said.
But as CRS focuses on recovery in Uganda, the LRA continues to pose a threat in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic and South Sudan. Though the LRA has dwindled to an estimated 200-300 members and generally attacks in small groups, they are still a concern for many people.
“Many of the inhabitants of the communities we work with have simply stopped going to their fields or travelling to the next village for fear of the LRA,” said Julien Marneffe, program manager for CRS’s Community Protection and Early Warning Project in eastern DRC. Even the rumor of the LRA’s presence, he said, is enough to create massive panic.
Working with CRS, communities have developed risk analysis and action plans to reduce their vulnerability to LRA attacks. They have also established a high frequency radio network between the local diocese and isolated communities that do not have telephones to relay information about potential threats more quickly.
Such efforts, Marneffe said, have helped to build solidarity within the community and have restored confidence that through a united front they can combat the LRA’s attacks.
“People have told us it has given them more hope and courage to go about their daily tasks,” said Marneffe. “They feel empowered by the project, realizing that they have the resources and capacity to improve things for themselves.”
He said that CRS hopes to use their success in eastern DRC as a model for areas threatened by the LRA while also looking toward rehabilitation programs and long-term recovery efforts similar to those established in northern Uganda.
Critical response to the video has been mixed, but Kirby notes that its effectiveness in bringing attention to the issue has undoubtedly been a success.
That’s a positive for CRS, he said, because it means a whole new wave of people will be looking for more information about Kony and what can be done in response to his actions. It will also help CRS gain more support for its work in the region.
“Now that awareness is raised, we have the opportunity to provide a little more detail,” said Kirby. “For agencies like ourselves that have been active in the area for years and have been working in areas currently and previously affected by the LRA, it gives us the opportunity to educate Americans even more about the issue and to explain the kind of work we are doing and the kind of work that is needed.”
Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.