By JASON STRAZIUSO and RODNEY MUHUMUZA
KAMPALA, Uganda — The young American boy sums up what his father does for a living: “You stop the bad guys from being mean.” Yes, the father says, but who are the bad guys? The child thinks, then offers a guess: “Star Wars people?”
Though half a world away from this preschooler’s American upbringing, the truth is far more sinister.
The bad guys are Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal Central Africa militia that has kidnapped thousands of children and forced them to become sex slaves, fight as child soldiers and kill family members during a 26-year campaign of terror.
The father-son conversation is part of a 30-minute video that has rocketed through cyberspace since its release Monday on YouTube. It had been viewed more than 40 million times by late Thursday, propelled by celebrity tweets and fans on Facebook and Twitter, especially teens and young adults.
The video’s premise is that people here in America — and the world beyond — have the power to stop Kony, if only they are willing to spread the word through the power of social media. Called Kony 2012, the goal is to see Kony captured by the end of this year.
The father, Jason Russell, is the co-founder of Invisible Children, an anti-LRA advocacy group, and the film’s director. At one point in the film, he asks his son, Gavin, what he thinks should be done about Kony.
“Stop him,” Gavin responds.
Then, in one of the video’s many slick moments, the boy’s words are quickly echoed by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, where Kony is wanted for crimes against humanity.
“Stop him,” Luis Moreno-Ocampo says on camera, “and (that will) solve all the problems.”
Despite an International Criminal Court arrest warrant and the deployment last fall of 100 U.S. Special Forces to four Central African countries to help advise in the fight against Kony, until now, few Americans knew who he was.
To those 99 percent, Russell poses this challenge: Make Kony and his crimes so “famous” that governments view it as imperative that the mission to capture him succeeds.
Celebrities — and teens — have quickly joined the cause. Data collected by YouTube show the video is most popular with boys and girls ages 13 to 17, as well as men ages 18 to 24.
“Even if its 10 minutes ... Trust me, you NEED to know about this!” tweeted Rhianna.
“This is not a joke. This serious. TOGETHER we can (hash)MakeAChange and (hash)STOPKRONY -- help another kid in need!” Justin Bieber tweeted.
“Have supported with $’s and voice and will not stop,” tweeted Oprah.
Invisible Children’s critics say the San Diego-based group oversimplifies a complex issue. In a rebuttal posted on its website, the group acknowledges the video overlooks many nuances but says it sought to explain the 26-year-old conflict “in an easily understandable format.” It called the film a “first entry point.”
“It’s something we can all agree on regardless of your political background,” said Ben Keesey, the group’s 28-year-old chief executive officer. “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white.”
Kony and the LRA began their attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when Kony sought to overthrow the government. Since being pushed out of Uganda several years ago, the militia has terrorized villages in Congo, the Central Africa Republic and South Sudan.
“Kony is a monster. He deserves to be prosecuted and hanged,” Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for Uganda’s military, told The Associated Press.
Because of the intensified hunt for Kony, LRA forces — once thousands strong — have diminished in number, splitting into smaller groups that can travel the jungle more easily. Experts estimate the militia now has about 250 fighters.
Attacks continue, with victims mutilated by machetes, their faces slashed into grotesque shapes. Women are raped and killed. Young girls are forced into sexual slavery.
Jolly Okot was abducted in 1986. The then-18-year-old could speak English, so she was valuable to the militants, who also forced her into sex slavery.
Today, Okot is the Uganda country director for Invisible Children. She said the group is helping 800 people affected by LRA violence to attend high school and college. The program has given hope to kids who previously dropped out of school.
“The most exciting thing about this film is that I’m so grateful that the world has been able to pay attention to an issue that has long been neglected,” she said in an interview. “I think it is an eye-opener and I think this will push for Joseph Kony to be apprehended, and I think justice will get to him.”
Moreno-Ocampo said it has been hard to raise public awareness about Kony since issuing the arrest warrant against him in 2005.
“Kony is difficult. He is not killing people in Paris or in New York. Kony is killing people in Central African Republic, no one cares about him,” Moreno-Ocampo told the AP. “These young people from California mobilizing this effort is incredible, exactly what we need.”
Still, the burst of attention has brought scrutiny, including over the ratio of Invisible Children’s spending on direct aid and its rating by the site Charity Navigator, as well as criticism of a 2008 photo of three members holding guns alongside troops in what is now South Sudan.
In a response posted on the Internet, the group said it spends about 80 percent of its funds on programs that further its mission, 16 percent on administration and about 3 percent on fundraising. The group said its accountability score is low because it has only four independent voting members on its board of directors, but is seeking a fifth.
Last year, Invisible Children began installing high frequency radios in Africa’s remotest jungle to help track militia attacks. People in areas without phones can report attacks on the radios to people who put them on a website called the LRA Crisis Tracker.
The group’s website www.kony2012.com prominently displays the faces of 20 disparate celebrities — from Warren Buffett and Bill O’Reilly to Tim Tebow and Stephen Colbert — asking viewers to click on them to send a message urging support. It also shows 12 politicians from across the ideological spectrum.
In the video, Russell tells of meeting a Ugandan boy named Jacob who watched LRA fighters kill his brother. The American promises the African child he will do whatever he can to help. Nearly a decade later, Jacob is part of Invisible Children’s campaign to bring awareness of the atrocities to college campuses in America and beyond.
The film opens with Gavin’s birth, and Russell’s philosophy that in today’s interconnected world, “where you live should not determine whether you live.” If Gavin, born in American, can have a happy upbringing, Jacob should too.
“At the end of my life I want to say that the world we left behind is one Gavin can be proud of, one that doesn’t allow Joseph Konys and child soldiers,” Russell says. “A place where children no matter where they live, have a childhood free from fear.”
Gavin shakes his blond hair and says: “I’m going to be like you dad. I’m going to come with you to Africa.”
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat contributed from San Diego and Mike Corder from The Hague.
On the Internet:
Invisible Children’s reaction to blog accusations: http://s3.amazonaws.com/www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html