LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Starting with grassroots service projects to create buzz and public support, activists out to stop notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony spread out in U.S. cities on Friday in a campaign aimed at justice half way around the world.
In Los Angeles, three dozen high school girls removed weeds, trash and graffiti from their campus. The girls were among small groups of activists who, inspired by the viral “Kony 2012” video, worked to attract media before a bid to paper cities from New York to San Diego overnight with anti-Kony art and posters.
Kony, who proclaims himself the spokesman of God and a spirit medium, has been accused by African governments and the African Union of ordering his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to abduct more than 65,000 children over the last quarter century to become child soldiers and sex slaves.
The group behind the U.S. project, Invisible Children, is seeking to generate public support to arrest Kony despite recent setbacks - including criticism of its portrayal of the complex conflict in Uganda, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo and the mental breakdown of its key filmmaker.
The “Cover the Night” event is the first major test of Invisible Children’s reach since filmmaker Jason Russell’s public breakdown. Officials say it could set the stage for a major rally at the United Nations in mid-June. But they also stressed that turnout could be limited.
“We’ve been encouraging people to keep it very small and intimate, so you can actually have a conversation. It’s not about just rallying with other people who agree with you,” said Jedidiah Jenkins, 29, the director of ideology for the group.
The “Kony 2012” video became an Internet sensation last month, racking up more than 100 million hits in six days on social media after it was first posted online.
Its success has been hailed for inspiring young people to activism, but the film has also been criticized for ignoring African initiatives to solve the crisis and opening up old wounds. The mission was dealt a further setback when Russell was videotaped naked in a meltdown on a San Diego sidewalk.
Invisible Children said it had received more than 320,000 online pledges from people intending to participate in “Cover the Night,” and Jenkins said he did not know if Russell’s breakdown would decrease Friday’s turnout.
Philip Alston, a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on judicial executions who carried out a fact-finding mission on atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army, said the film was powerful but suspected the public fascination with “Kony 2012” would fade.
“There’s a very strong likelihood that this is the 15 minutes that (Andy) Warhol spoke about, and that very soon the world will have moved on,” he told Reuters in an interview.
The sentiment around the campaign was not overly positive in Uganda, where some Kony survivors in the northern town of Gulu said it brought them little benefit, was opening old wounds and had certainly not achieved justice.
An image of Margaret Aciro, whose lips, ears and nose were sliced off by Kony’s fighters, is shown in the “Kony 2012” video highlighting the fugitive leader’s atrocities. Last week, she left hurriedly after watching herself at a film screening at an outdoor stadium in Gulu.
“I felt stressed. It was my image being used to get money, but I‘m not getting any help,” said 35-year-old Aciro, who still bears the scars of the 2005 attack despite surgery that helped partially reconstruct her nose.
“They are benefiting out of my experience. If I were able to take them to court I would, but I‘m unable.”
Aciro’s sentiments echo those of many other victims of Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and is accused of terrorizing northern Uganda for two decades.
Kony and the LRA were ejected from northern Uganda in 2005. He and a few hundred followers are believed to roam the jungle straddling the borders of Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
The African Union, backed by the United States, has put together a 5,000-strong military force to hunt down Kony, who at one time wanted to rule Uganda by the biblical Ten Commandments but is now better known for hacking off his victims’ limbs.
Despite encouraging supporters world-wide to mark the day of action, Invisible Children did not organize similar activities in Uganda to mark the day.
“What we do in Uganda is totally different from what our office in the U.S. does,” said spokeswoman Florence Ogola.
In New York, a survivor of the LRA who organized public screenings of the film in Uganda, said people there saw the film as insulting and misguided for offering a military solution.
Victor Ochen said one screening had to be cut short when viewers began throwing rocks. “The victims felt super insulted.”
Reporting By Edith Honan in New York, Jocelyn Edwards in Uganda, Marty Graham in San Diego and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Todd Eastham