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.”