A child in a Congolese refugee camp. (babasteve / flickr)
Thanks to the "KONY 2012" video made by the San Diego-based organization Invisible Children, millions of people are suddenly interested in humanitarian crises in Central Africa. This is great news, but the challenge now is to translate that concern into constructive activism.
Joseph Kony has led the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) since the mid-1980s. He created it from the remnants of a quasi-Christian movement led by the mystic and spiritual leader Alice Auma; its early followers opposed the marginalization of the Acholi people in northern Uganda by the government of Yoweri Museveni. At times the LRA was supported by the government of neighboring Sudan, as retaliation for Museveni's support of rebels there.
From 1987 to 2006, the LRA attacked and murdered civilians in northern Uganda. More than two million people were uprooted from their homes and most ended up living in camps that lacked food, clean water, and sanitation. Over the course of the conflict, tens of thousands of children were abducted and turned into soldiers, porters, cooks, laundresses, or sex slaves. Many were killed or forced to harm or kill others, including their own relatives. Some eventually escaped.
To protect their children from abduction by the LRA, parents in the countryside often sent them to sleep in the relative safety of nearby towns. Every night, children could be seen walking into towns. Hundreds of these "night commuters" would march for miles before bedding down in schools or churches or under storefront awnings. Community leaders and aid workers tried to protect them, not just from abduction but also from other threats such as harassment, exploitation, and rape. The phenomenon was only one among many tragic symptoms of a shattered society.
In 2006, a ceasefire agreement between the LRA and the government brought relative peace to northern Uganda. The vast majority of people living in camps have gone back home to their villages and are beginning to support themselves again. If the war has stopped, however,
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