While Taylor Maxwell vacationed in Florida during spring break in March, she found her inbox flooded with emails about the "Kony 2012" video campaign. Maxwell, a senior political philosophy major and co-president of the University of Virginia's Invisible Children chapter, discovered on Facebook that the advocacy group had released the Kony 2012 film.
The film featured heart-rending stories from the thousands of Ugandan children abducted, raped, and forced to serve in the militia of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. It quickly went viral, generating 87 million YouTube hits in just a few weeks. Almost overnight the plight of Ugandan children became a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre on college campuses.
However the film soon came under fire as misleading, its director was arrested after a public meltdown, and with its credibility shot Invisible Children itself seemed headed for invisibility, despite the continued support of students like Maxwell.
But the situation in Uganda is considerably more complicated than the controversy would suggest, say some who work in the country. The problem with the video, they say, is not merely that it re-opened a wound but that the furor reduced a much bigger problem down to a soundbite, "Let's get Kony."
Almost as soon as it appeared, critics pointed out that military experts believe Kony left Uganda six years ago, retreating first to Sudan then to Democratic Republic of Congo. He now is probably hiding in Central African Republic with a force U.S. officials believe has been reduced to about 250, WORLD Magazine reported. Sporadic raids still take place, but not the mass attacks that once threatened northern Ugandans as portrayed in the film.
As the controversy unfolded, San Diego police announced that they had detained Kony 2012 director and film narrator Jason Russell after witnesses claimed (and YouTube videos seemed to confirm) he was pacing the streets naked while screaming incoherently and banging his fists on the pavement. The police found him in his underwear. The Kony 2012 follow up film, "Beyond Famous," unsurprisingly, generated much less attention: less than two million Youtube hits.
Maxwell says she still supports the organization. "It's such an important issue," Maxwell said, "and talking about [Russell's illness] instead of the thousands of children forced to become soldiers or sex slaves seems absurd to me."
Kony is still active; he abducted nearly 600 people last year according to the LRA crisis tracker. The girls become his sex slaves. The boys, his soldiers. Kony believes he is the recipient of prophecies from spirits and has kidnapped close to 30,000 children.
But the situation in Uganda is more complicated than the Kony 2012 film conveys or Invisible Children addresses, said Rae and Phil Wilmot. Rae Wilmot visited northern Uganda last summer, interacting with local residents and visiting the capital city, Kampala. Phil Wilmot married a native Ugandan, Suzan, and lives there part of the year. Additionally, he is involved in grass roots restoration work in Uganda.
The Ugandan army has tried to arrest Kony since he was put on the International Criminal Court's most wanted list in 2005, but the military is guilty of human rights violations itself. "The Ugandan militia has done things very similar to what you hear of the LRA," Phil Wilmot said. "They were being paid to stop the LRA, but many saw it as a money-making venture." For example, the army would attack villages, but frame the attacks to appear as if they were committed by the LRA.
Additionally, various factions are struggling in Uganda and neighboring countries for control of valuable mineral resources such as copper, phosphate, cobalt, iron-ore, and gold. The mineral deposits like cassiterite and germanium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo provide the country's main source of income. Other minerals, like columbo-tantalite used in cell phones, are essential for Western technology.
"When power politics and guns get involved, you see a country that could be really blessed struggling," he said.
Wilmot said that he and his wife have switched to a cellphone provider, Earth Tones, that doesn't provide phones containing columbo-tantalite. "If you want to fix the situation, you have to be willing to make a change," Rae Wilmot said.
Phil Wilmot also called the Kony 2012 dehumanizing because it implied that the Ugandans are powerless to help themselves. He said that when Ugandans first saw the film, they threw rocks at the screen.
"The only way to help is to give them the authority to solve their own issues," Suzan Wilmot said. "Some people still think they can't survive without foreign aid."
The film reopened a wound in a healing country by showing images of LRA victims. "People are going back to their homes. People are doing well," Suzan Wilmot said. "The movie refreshed in the mind the problem, but it's not a problem anymore."
The bigger problem, she said, is the government's corruption. "The [main] problem Uganda has is it doesn't have a good government," Suzan Wilmot said. "The government is letting the people down."
Uganda is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the Anti Corruption Coalition Uganda. Uganda ranks 2.4 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception's Index 2011 where a 0 is highly corrupt and a 10 is very clean.
The president of Uganda, Yoweri K. Museveni, abuses U.S. foreign aid, using it to support a luxurious lifestyle rather than help his needy people, according to Phil Wilmot. Additionally, Museveni has no real interest in capturing Kony, said Wilmot, because foreign aid would decrease after his capture.
These are some of the reasons why people like the University of Virginia's Maxwell still support Invisible Children. The human aspect of the victims presented in the Kony 2012 film was necessary to "understand why Kony is such an evil figure and how important it is to get Kony taken to justice," she said. "It's tough to make a documentary and not focus on the [human aspect]."
"Invisible Children wants to make sure that the Ugandans have a say in what's going on and are primarily responsible for creating a change," Maxwell said. She wished that the 30 minute film had included more information about the work Invisible Children does in Uganda: mentoring, educating, and rehabilitating.
Maxwell said that more people on campus have become aware of who Kony is and what he has done. "I no longer get the joke about 'Why if they're invisible do you need to help them?'" she said. "I'm relieved that people have a general understanding of the organization."
Invisible Children chapters at various schools, including the University of Virginia and Regent University, still participated in the "Cover the Night" event on April 20. "It will definitely make people ask questions," said Maxwell. "If people go online and search 'Kony 2012' that will be great."
However, Phil Wilmot suggests aiding Ugandan NGOs, churches, and other activist groups like Action for Change and Refugee Law Project. "Our global class privilege and power is silencing the efforts of agencies which actually understand the complicated mess that we have reduced to a single soundbite: 'Let's get Kony,'" Wilmot said.