Thursday, October 4, 2012

Russell's out-of-body experience?

USA Today, the nation's colorful, vapid newspaper, got a jump on the coming Oprah Winfrey interview of Jason Russell, founder of Invisible Children and maker of the now infamous Kony 2012 viral video.

In the advanced excerpt, undoubtedly leaked to boost viewers for Oprah's  less-then-successful network, Russell claims he had an out-of-body experience this past March.

If you saw the video, it was hard to forget, of course.

It showed a butt-naked Russell on a busy street corner in San Diego ranting and raving at traffic, snapping his fingers, shouting incoherently, and slapping his hands on the pavement.

(The article wrongly states that Russell was pounding his fists on the pavement, which makes me wonder if the reporter bothered to see it before writing about it.)

Russell clearly flipped out. The true reasons are probably known only to Russell and his psychiatrist, but the man clearly has some deeply rooted issues he needs to confront. I doubt that his meltdown was because of the fact that the video was viewed by 100 million people.

He's trying to make a comeback, and why not? His Invisible Children organization raises millions of dollars each year from gullible college students for his anti-Joseph Kony crusade. Without Invisible Children, Russell and the others at the organization stand to lose their fame, fortune and So-Cal life style.

My criticism of the Kony 2012, which some have said was too harsh, still stands. Russell used his child to generate a superficial emotional response on the part of millions of naive viewers to a very serious and complex problem.

He not only used his child, but he drew on historical film footage to create a host of misleading impressions, the worst of which is that Kony is still terrorizing children in northern Uganda. He then concluded the video by asking for money.

Only in passing does Kony 2012 mention that Kony left northern Uganda in 2006, and has been roaming a remote region of central Africa ever since.

What bothers me the most is that Russell has the personnel and the resources to do much, much more, and to have a serious impact on the on-going push by the African Union soldiers to find and capture Kony and ultimately put him on trial.

Here's the article from USA Today:

Oprah Winfrey has scored another first.
She's talking to Kony 2012 campaign creator Jason Russell, who had a very public meltdown soon after the phenomenal success of the video that brought worldwide attention to Uganda rebel leader Joseph Kony. It all happened in March. And while many remember the initial Kony video, another video â?? of Russell â?? emerged, showing him on the streets of San Diego naked, yelling, disrupting traffic and pounding his fists on the pavement.
Russell was hospitalized with what his wife said at the time was "reactive psychosis."
He and his wife, Danica, will discuss with Winfrey on Sunday's Oprah's Next Chapter (9 p.m., OWN) what happened on that day and the impact the events have had on his career, his marriage and his continued fight against Kony.
Here's an excerpt:
OPRAH: "What do you remember, Jason?"
JASON: "I remember me flipping off cars."
OPRAH: "Flipping off cars? Like with your..."
JASON: "With both hands. I remember that just like 'doot,' just like a little memory. I remember running around our lemon tree. I remember ..."
OPRAH: "There were reports that you were breaking into cars?"
JASON: "There are reports. I mean I think I was stopping cars in the street. People said I was laying in the street â?? it's a busy street â?? I was laying in the street."
OPRAH: "How did you get your robe off? How do you go from running out with your robe on to your robe off?"
JASON: "Again, it's really hard to explain if people who have never had an out-of-body experience, but it really wasn't me. That wasn't me, that person on the street corner ranting and raving and naked is not me, that's not who I am."
Russell goes on to acknowledge that he was "walking around snapping my fingers up and down" and "slapping my hands on the ground as hard as I can. Just slapping them on the ground. Talking to myself. Ranting. Raving. Talking about good versus evil, God and the devil. I mean it was just very out of control." He shows that he dented his wedding ring because he was pounding the pavement, literally, so hard.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

M23 atrocities in eastern Congo predicted

Human Rights Watch has released a scathing report on abuses being committed by the Rwandan-backed, ethnic Tutsi group M23, now wreaking havoc in eastern Congo.

HRW does the best work of any humanitarian/rights group in the region and their research is impeccable.

That M23, the successor group to the notorious ethnic Tutsi CNDP, is committing atrocities was predictable and I wrote as much in Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World's Deadliest Place, back in 2010.

At the time, the CNDP (a French acronym for the National Congress for the Defense of the People), had been incorporated into the hapless Congolese army. It was a foolish gesture by the Congolese to appease the various ethnic militias fighting over the region's minerals.

As I wrote in Consuming the Congo, it was bad idea and doomed to failure. The CNDP would only play along as long as they and their leader, the notorious Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, could continue to plunder the region's resources.

Even then, people in the region knew that the CNDP had stockpiled weapons for the day when the arrangement would collapse. It didn't take long.

The trigger came when the Congolese authorities made it known that Ntaganda was about to be arrested and taken to The Hague to face trial. Ntaganda would have none of that, of course, since he and his Rwandan backers were making too much money.

Ntaganda, it must be noted, was deeply involved in the $10 million gold scandal in 2010 that was thwarted by Congolese authorities who refused to let Ntaganda get away with that sale without getting a piece of the action. After the gold was siezed, its whereabout remain unknown.

So now the old CNDP, which has morphed in to M23, is back to killing, plundering and raping. Ntaganda remains free. Rwanda refuses to acknowledge any connection to the group, as always. Instead, Rwanda and President Paul Kagame collected praise and admiration from people such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Clinton should know better and should not be dirtying his hands, since the truth of the situation in eastern Congo is in the HRW report, according to Reuters:

"The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo," Anneke van Woudenberg, HRW's senior Africa researcher, said.

One victim said that M23 fighters had burst into her home, beaten her son to death and repeatedly raped her before dousing her legs in petrol and setting her ablaze, the rights group said.

HRW also said that at least 600 men and boys have been forcibly or unlawfully recruited in neighboring Rwanda, with recruitment continuing after allegations of Rwandan complicity were published in an interim UN report in June.

"The United Nations Security Council should sanction M23 leaders, as well as Rwandan officials who are helping them, for serious rights abuses," van Woudenberg said.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Hijacking, new film on Somali pirates

I, for one, am looking forward to seeing this film. The president of the shipping company, the ship's captain, and the primary negotiator for the pirates are all in my book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia's Terrorism at Sea.

Toronto Film Fest: Somali Pirates

Everyone is talking about a Danish film called “A Hijacking,” whose screening on Sunday afternoon was completely full.
A taut psychological thriller written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, tells the high pressure story of a Danish freighter captured and held for ransom by Somali pirates. The drama follows the pressure cooker of weeks of high-stakes negotiations that recalls Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” or even the classic “Das Boot.”


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bring in the drones

This past week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed holding a small drone that looked more like the handiwork of a model airplane hobbyist than a weapon in the American military arsenal.

The photo came while Clinton posed at the U.S. special forces base at Entebbe, the Ugandan airport on the shores of Lake Victoria, where she announced that these small drones would be used to help track down the elusive rebel militia leader Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.

Kony is in his fourth year of wreaking havoc and eluding what has proven to be an inept and unmotivated force of Ugandan soldiers hunting Kony from their base in the eastern Central African Republic town of Obo.

The Ugandans have never had any success stopping Kony and his army of child soldiers.  The recent infusion of aid and military advice from a hundred U.S. special forces soldiers sent to Uganda about a year ago by President Barack Obama has had little effect.

Obama sent the soldiers there at the end of 2011, much to the consternation of people such as the right wing radio ranter Rush Limbaugh, after signing a bill with the long-winded title: The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda  Recovery Act of 2009.

Yet, after nearly a year of American military advice, equipment, and infusion of millions of dollars, Kony and his army roam free.

While this is immensely frustrating to the people who continue to follow this issue, such as myself who has tracked Kony on the ground and written extensively on the LRA, it should come as no surprise.

Kony and the LRA have been wandering one of the most remote regions on earth, a place where the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) meet.

He has been there since early 2006 when he and his army abandoned northern Uganda and their so-called war against the Ugandan government.

After two years of farcical peace talks, the final round of which ended in November 2008 after Kony refused sign a negotiated settlement for the third time, the international community tried to strike back.

In December 2008, the Ugandan army botched a secret raid on Kony's sprawling camp in northern DRC. Kony escaped and went on a rampage, killing about 1,000 civilians in the region who had nothing to do with Kony or his fight with Uganda.

Long before that December 2008 attack, organized and supported by the U.S. military to the tune of $1 million, I had argued that Uganda has never wanted Kony and the LRA captured, despite the rhetoric to the contrary.

Kony continues to be a valuable asset to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda with an iron fist for 26 years.

Museveni's army is one of the best trained and motivated in Africa, yet strangely has been unable to kill and/or capture Kony since 1986. Why?

Between 1986 and 2006, Kony waged a war that was conducted largely against his own people, the Acholi tribe of northern Uganda. To most people, this does not make sense.

But the fact is that while the Acholi people detest Museveni, they also rejected Kony and refused to support his lame war against the government. Because the Acholi rejected Kony as their "savior," he turned on them in vicious and horrifying attacks, kidnapping their children to fill his ranks.

This played directly into Museveni's hands. Because Kony turned on his own tribe, who were also Museveni's enemy, he did little to stop Kony in the north.

Instead Museveni turned to more lucrative pursuits and sent his army across the border to plunder the mineral-rich mountains of eastern DRC from 1996 until about 2003. (Details of this are in my book, Consuming the Congo.)

All the while, Museveni has continued to collect vast sums of money from the international community, telling them that he needs more and more money to keep fighting Kony.

Museveni continues to use this ploy with great success.

Not long after the spate of articles in April 2012 that detailed how U.S. special forces were helping the Ugandans on the ground in Central African Republic, a different story soon emerged.

The Ugandans complained about how frustratingly difficult and dangerous the hunt for Kony was. They complained of the heat, the flies, and the fact that two of their comrades had been attacked by crocodiles, killing one of them.

They complained that when they reached the latest village that had been attacked by Kony's men, the LRA fighters were long gone. It was a useless wild goose chase.

Then came the stories that the Ugandans were running out of money and supplies ... again!

These complaints are more than a little ironic.

The U.S. has committed to spending $35 million in 2012 just to find and fight Kony, according to news agency reports. Since 2008, the State Department has spent $50 million to support Uganda's non-lethal efforts to capture Kony, such as securing helicopters to transport troops and supplies.

Since 2008, the U.S. has spent and additional $500 million to help rebuild northern Uganda.

Where has the money gone?

Uganda has very little interest in capturing Kony. He is considered a source of revenue by the Ugandan leadership and is not viewed as the scourge against humanity that Kony is presented by such groups as Invisible Children and the Enough organization.

To many Ugandans, Kony is not considered their problem any more. Kony is Ugandan but has not been in their country since early 2006.

Ugandans rightly question why they need to carry the burden when Kony is in the Central African Republic now, which for all practical purposes is a failed and lawless state, much like its neighbors, Sudan, South Sudan, and the DR Congo.

Although Kony is Uganda's responsibility, there is little hope that Kony will ever be captured by the Ugandan or any of the other countries in the region, even with an air armada of drones.

That can and only will be done by an international cooperative military mission -- a mission that few, if any, countries outside of the region are willing to undertake.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Me and Ali

Are Somali pirate negotiators guilty of piracy?

This past week a federal court judge decided that no, in at least one case, they probably aren't.

The ruling by District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle came in the case of a man I'd met and interviewed in Somaliland, Ali Mohamed Ali.

Ali was far from the fearsome, gun and RPG-wielding pirate that's portrayed in the news media. He was friendly, polite, and casually confident as we met in a hotel lobby in Hargeisa in September 2009. He spoke English with an American accent, thanks to the more than 20 years he'd lived in the U.S.

I had come across Ali, who asked me to use a pseudonym for him in my book, Pirate State, by a series of strange connections.

I'd been talking with the head of a Danish shipping company, Per Gullestrup, about his experience in  negotiating the release of his company's ship and crew that had been hijacked by Somali pirates in November 2008.  He'd had a rather hard time dealing with batallion of insurance company experts who collect high fees for their work, he explained, and had told him to put up and shut up.

For months the negotiations for the ship and crew of the CEC Future went nowhere until he got a call from a man known as Mr. Ali. Ali suggested that they cut out the middlemen and talk directly. Within weeks, a deal was struck. The ship and crew were soon released.

The piracy scenario played out hundreds of times, but this one was different. Never before had either the shipping company nor the pirate negotiator been so open about the process. Suddenly the world had a window on the sordid inner workings of the Somali pirates and ransom negotiations, all of which had previously been hidden from public view by paranoid shipping companies and their insurers.

The ordeal of acting as a negotiator had been terrifying. The Somali pirates were a crazed bunch, Ali explained, surly and unpredictable. At one point, Ali had been taken hostage himself.

When the ransom was delivered via an airdrop, brought on board, and divided among the pirate, there were bloody knife fights among the pirates over the money. Once on land, the fighting continued as the disgruntled pirates viciously turned on each other.

Ali had come into his role as a negotiator quite by accident. Living in Hargeisa, where he has a young son, he had been contacted months earlier to help with the release of a German couple whose small sailboat had been hijacked by Puntland pirates. The couple had been kidnapped and was held for ransom.

Ali told me he felt badly for the Germans, knowing that they'd been grabbed by desperate pirates who were unable to take a large commercial ship. He was able to help and eventually a ransom was paid, apparently by the German government, and the couple released.

The couple spent a several months in the Somaliland port of Berbera repairing their boat and eventually sailed away.

When I met Ali, he said he did not consider himself a negotiator and didn't want to be in the business. But, he felt compelled to help in these cases. I sensed he was sincere, since his fluency in English and familiarity with western culture made him a valuable commodity. But he had passed on many other opportunities to get involved.

Ali's life changed on April 20, 2011, when he was arrested by federal agents as he got off the airplane at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC.

He was jailed on a host of piracy charges, such as conspiracy, piracy, and hostage taking. He remained in jail until last week when Judge Huvelle ordered his release while he waits for his trial next year sometime.

Huvelle was irritated at prosecutors, whom she said had misled her on the case and called their behavior inexcusable. She said that prosecutors had been unable to show that Ali had "intentionally facilitated acts of piracy while he was on the high seas." According to the case, Ali had only been on the sea for less than 30 minutes, apparently only to visit the hijacked ship and crew.

I had all but forgotten Ali until this past spring when I got a call from an FBI investigator working on the case. I cooperated with the FBI, who asked if I would discuss my dealings with Ali. I reviewed my notes, but could find nothing that I had not already published and nothing that would support any of the piracy charges he faces.

When I mentioned that, the agent told me that you can't dabble in piracy. You're either part of the pirates, or you're not.

Judge Huvelle apparently disagrees.

While the government appeals the judge's rulings, Ali is under house arrest, reportedly living at a friend's house in Centreville, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington, DC. He wears a monitoring bracelet and can only leave to visit the local mosque and his lawyer.

While I support the full prosecution of Somali pirates, I don't think the government is going after the right man here.

 I wish Ali well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Viral Kony 2012 raises ethical issues

The debate over the Kony 2012 video and the Invisible Children organization raises a host of ethical questions.

The video, the filmmaker Jason Russell, and the Invisible Children organization present themselves as committed humanitarians striving to help the people of northern Uganda free themselves of the terrible rebel militia leader Joseph Kony.

Yet Kony and his army have not been in northern Uganda for six years. The war is over, Kony is on the run in central Africa, and northern Uganda is rebuilding.

Information posted on the group's website shows that only about a third of its $13 million annual budget, which comes largely from small donations from college students across the country, goes to projects in northern Uganda.

That most of the group's money goes to the group's salaries and overhead, its travel and fundraising budget, and its filmmaking efforts, is now being dismissed by Invisible Children and its devotees as not important.

The devotees now say that the group is not really a humanitarian organization, but a "messaging" outfit. Their purpose is to simply tell the world about Joseph Kony, which it has done with enormous success.

Does that mean that the group is actually a news media outlet? If it is an "advocacy" group, the definition of which is vague, does that mean the message does not need to be accurate? Or, if the group is advocating the kill and/or capture of Kony, does that make it a vigilante group?

If Invisible Children is presenting itself as a legitimate information dispersion organization, it needs to assume the mantle of responsible delivery of information. But it is pretty clear that the Kony 2012 video uses historical images to create false impressions about the realities of northern Uganda, Kony, and the Lord's Resistance Army.

Yet, this is being dismissed as less important than the "message." Does the end justify the means?

The filmmaker also uses his wife and son as vehicles to infuse the film with exaggerated emotions. Is this any different that any other stage mom or dad in America? He then uses baby talk -- "there a bad man who makes children to bad things" -- to explain an historical conflict of a terrible, but localized consequences.

The key Ugandan character in the Kony 2012 is a former "night commuter," one of the many thousands of children who at the time were fleeing the LRA. These children no longer exist in northern Uganda because Kony is long gone. These children, along with the tens of thousands of former child soldiers who escaped Kony's army, are now grown and getting on with their lives.

Whether Russell and Invisible Children are videographers, "messagers," advocates, or vigilantes, it is puzzling as to why the filmmakers never talked to any of the former child soldiers who populated northern Uganda then by the thousands and who remain there. Isn't that a much more real and compelling story?

The video asserts that by giving money to the group, the situation can change in northern Uganda, that "you can make a difference."

But giving money to Invisible Children, as the group now admits, does little to help northern Uganda, nor does it help to get Kony captured. That dirty business has to be done by Ugandan soldiers who have shown little will in the past 25 years to get the job done.

There are U.S. Special Forces advisers in Uganda now helping with this, just as they did before in 2008 when the Uganda's army failed to carry out a "surprise" attack on Kony's camp in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kony was warned and fled.

Now that Invisible Children has raised millions of dollars, everything is going to be different? How? Why?

Uganda has financial and military aid reasons to keep Kony alive, just as it has done for 25 years, despite its appeal for help in 2003 to the International Criminal Court to bring Kony to justice.

All of the emotional videos, all of the money, all of the marches, and all of the notoriety generated by Invisible Children does not solve the singular problem that remains: capturing Kony.

Nor does it help the people of northern Uganda.

The truth is that Invisible Children makes people feel good. They tell people they can do something about an obscure problem in a distant land, with no pain or effort. It is nice to think so, but is not true.

This says more about the emptiness of lives in America and the need to be relevant, than it does about solving Africa's problems.

It also reeks of neo-colonialism, which is what angers my African friends, such as Rosebell Kagumire, whose video is also posted on YouTube and typifies the African response.

Ironically, this conversation over the Kony 2012 video is taking place while 50 to 100 people per day are being killed in Syria, right before the world's eyes. Syria is a problem in front of us NOW that can be stopped, but world sits and watches. Where is the viral outrage?

And just across the border there in southern California where Invisible Children is based, there is a drug war raging in Mexico that has claimed some 40,000 lives. Where are the cries of anguish?

This viral video in question is not about any of these more pressing and immediate horrors, but is about a man, Joseph Kony, who is on the run in the remote forests of central Africa, and has been for six years.

Is Kony a perhaps more safe and lucrative thing for the group to focus on?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Viral Kony 2012 versus reality

More than 50 million people viewed the 30-minute video, KONY 2012, during the three days after it was posted on

The video rightly focuses global attention on Joseph Kony, one of Africa's most prolific killers, a maniacal, self-styled prophet, and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of child soldiers.

I lived and work in Uganda in 2005 and 2006 for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and like the filmmakers at the Invisible Children organization, was horrified at the LRA’s 20-year war northern Uganda. It had caused the death of an estimated 100,000 men, women and children, resulted in the abduction of well more than
50,000 children and adults, and disfigured many dozens.

Kony’s war was faltering at the time because his victims were not the government soldiers he claimed to be fighting, but his own Acholi ethnic group, who feared, but refused to follow him as their military leader and spiritual guide.

By early 2006, Kony and his fighters decamped northern Uganda and based themselves in the Garamba National Park, a former wild game shooting gallery for Belgian aristocrats in the northern forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Back in Uganda, Kony's former child soldiers streamed into rehabilitation centers where they were fed, clothed and counseled. They included young boys and girls, many of whom had given birth to children by Kony's soldiers.

Kony was far from finished.

In June of 2008, I traveled to Dungu, an overgrown town at the western edge of the Garamba park where Kony's men had been slaughtering the endangered wildlife and raiding villages in the

At the time, as Kony was negotiating a peace deal with the Ugandan government that he later refused to sign, his army swept through northern DRC and corners of South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR). Scores were killed, villages plundered, and hundreds abducted to carry the stolen food and supplies.

One of the kidnapped, a young third-grade teacher named Raymond Rpiolebeyo, had escaped and returned to his village of Doruma. I found a bush pilot who would take me there.

We flew over meandering, muddy rivers and an unbroken canopy of jungle as far as the eye could see before descending onto a narrow, red dirt landing strip. We were welcomed by a committee of villagers and their leaders.

Rpiolebeyo’s story typified 99 percent of those abducted by the LRA. He had escaped after just a week, fleeing in the middle of the night and running through the forests for the next day. We then rode small motor bikes to the surrounding villages where clinics had been burned and medicines stolen by Kony's soldiers.

In late 2008, Ugandan forces conducted a surprise attack on Kony's camp at Garamba. But Kony and his men were gone, having gotten wind of the assault, which had been arranged and funded by U.S. military advisers secretly in Uganda under orders of former President George W. Bush.

The attack failed miserably, but enraged Kony, who divided his army and sent his soldiers on rampages that killed nearly 1,000 people in the region’s three northern DRC, CAR, and South Sudan.

None of this critical background or details of Kony’s current status and location surface in the Kony 2012 video.

The video relies on a images from 2003 that are inserted into a home movie about filmmaker Jason Russell’s son -- his birth, his preschool dancing, and how he makes sand angels on a sunny SoCal beach.

The historical footage in the video is accurate for northern Uganda eight years ago, but unfortunately bears no relation to the situation there today.

Having been chased across three countries for the past several years by Ugandan soldiers, Kony’s forces are scattered and desperate. Lacking food and military supplies, they continue to prey on defenseless villagers.

Kony intentionally positioned himself in the region so as not to bother anyone of significance to the world at large. He also knows that the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan are effectively failed states that have neither the will nor a way to capture him.

When and if Kony is captured or killed, the thousands of child soldiers depicted in the video will not be suddenly freed since they are not with him. Kony’s army is comprised of his most hardcore fighters who have known nothing but a life of killing, rape and plunder, and have little hope of being reintegrated into society.

Kony rightfully should be taken to the International Criminal Court, which indicted him back in 2005, at the request of the Ugandan government. Unfortunately Russell’s video fails to mention that the United States refuses to join the court.

The Kony 2012 video states that Invisible Children now targets celebrities and policy makers who can make a difference. It may come as a surprise, but the U.S. Congress does not control what happens in sovereign African states and neither does Hollywood.

Yet, 100 U.S. Special Forces advisers have returned to Uganda so that country’s army can again go after Kony with renewed vigor, a move for which Invisible Children can take credit after lobbying a bill through Congress that authorized assistance in Africa to neutralize Kony.

One knotty problem is that the Ugandan government has a vested interest in keeping Kony alive. For the past 26 years, Uganda has used the Kony problem to collect millions of dollars in foreign military aid, with little result. The presence of U.S. military advisers in Uganda shows this practice continues.

Raising awareness is a good thing, but doing so based on neo-colonial notions that privileged white people must solve African problems, and using misleading and incomplete information that evokes overly wrought emotions, is a major disappointment.