When the Kony 2012 video went viral, I immediately thought of my friend Victor Ochen. Victor grew up in IDP camps in Northern Uganda during the height of the LRA conflict. His own brother was abducted by the group, never to be seen again.

Today, Victor is a social entrepreneur and peace builder in Uganda. His NGO, The African Youth Initiative Network, runs programs to help physically and psychologically rehabilitate youth that were affected by war.  Among other projects, his NGO brings plastic surgeons to communities in Northern Uganda to treat people who were mutilated in LRA attacks. In 2010, Victor organized a soccer game for war crimes victims in Uganda that was attended by Ban Ki Moon. And, in the run-up to the contentious 2011 national elections in Uganda, Victor’s NGO held programs to combat the radicalization of youth that tends to accompany close elections in the region.

Victor is both a victim of the LRA’s crimes and an inspirational leader who brings hope for a more peaceful and vibrant future for Uganda. My personal opinion is that the energy and attention brought by the Kony 2012 video should be channeled to support on-the-ground community based peace building efforts like the Africa Youth Initiative Network.

Victor emailed me his reaction to the video, which I reprint in full below

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In light of the recent publicity around Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012’ documentary and campaign, and speaking as a survivor, a young man born and raised in the midst of the LRA war, growing up in internally displaced person (IDP) camps and avoiding abductions in many ways, I represent the realities of the LRA war.

I am now the director of a Ugandan organization that is practically and directly supporting war victims in northern Uganda. The organization African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET) www.africanyouthinitiative.org that I founded in 2005 has supported at least 1500 victims of critical medical need resulting from serious crimes and violations that occurred during the war.

There are four points I want to make I response to Kony 2012, and from the victims views.

First, it is important to take stock of the efforts by the Government of Uganda, the African Union, the United States and other key international partners to help end the LRA threat.  These actions are important but much more that needs to be done, in particular there is a need for much greater protection of civilians in South Sudan and the DRC where the LRA is now active.  Furthermore, many of the effects of the LRA and Government of Uganda war have not been addressed in northern Uganda, including the serious physical and mental health effects, the weakening of key social and protective services, and the near complete lack of accountability and remedy for harms suffered.

Second, as someone whose brother and cousin were abducted and are among the thousands of disappeared whose fate is unknown, I join with other Ugandans who hope our relatives are still in captivity and will come back home alive. Any advocacy aimed at military bombardment of the LRA rebels remains very sensitive throughout northern Uganda, and I imagine the DRC and South Sudan as well, because thousands of children and adults have been abducted and have not come home. My own father is deeply traumatized due to my brother and cousin’s abduction, and every time he hears about any report of killing LRA rebels he is not sure whom they have killed and wonders if people are celebrating his beloved son’s death.  These are the feelings many families have.  I agree that Kony must be stopped as soon as possible. However, it must be done in a way that avoids further civilian casualties and the loss of innocent child. Raising false expectation such as arresting Kony in 2012 will not rebuild the lives of the people in northern Uganda. Rebuilding communities and victims’ rehabilitation is what we need. The stronger that survivors become, the less that Kony becomes an issue. Restoration of communities devastated by Kony is a greater priority than catching or even killing him.

Third, one of the main criticisms launched against Invisible Children is in regards to their financial accountability. I completely understand how those generous donors feel if their fund are not better used. Working with victims demands more or physical and human accountability that well designed financial report.  A very typical example is my organization in the last five months received $100,000 from the United Nations in Uganda under the Peacebuilding fund for victims’ medical/surgical rehabilitation. With this small amount of money, we provided critical reconstructive surgeries to 447 victims of war. On average it takes about $350 to provide the intensive and reconstructive medical rehabilitation to children with severe burns, repairs girls and women who have suffered terrible sexual violence, rebuilds lips, ears, and noses that have been cut off, heals debilitating gun and shrapnel wounds, provides extensive psycho-social care, and restores hope and dignity to victims of the war.  To date we have helped over 1500 victims of war with such horrific inhuman pains, and there are thousands more victims from Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan, DRC and yet we don’t have the resources to help all in need.  There are definite, life-changing needs in northern Uganda, and there are ways to directly help victims. I agree that people’s generosity must change lives, and why spend millions on Kony alone, yet thousands of survivors are dying of repairable physical and psychosocial pain.

Fourth, for whatever efforts are put forward from the media storm about this film, let’s put the real victims first.  As such, simply killing or catching Kony will not improve the lives of the victims in northern Uganda.  The victims I work with daily and those I meet in my work have shown incredible strength and dignity, are struggling to move forward against seemingly insurmountable odds, and are try to build a better life for themselves, their children and grandchildren.  The more we are connected directly to the victims, the more real our support becomes. Now is the time to work together for regional peace and a better, reconciled and stronger Uganda.

–Victor Ochen

UPDATE: Victor emails me to say that his NGO is organizing a screening of the film.

“In northern Uganda, less than 2% of the LRA/Kony war survivors have access to internet, television and electricity. If the people of that region have heard of it at all, their information has so far been almost exclusively from secondary sources. For this reason AYINET is organizing community screening for victims across northern Uganda in northern Uganda, starting from Lira Town on 13th March 2012. At 7:00 PM East Africa Time.”

I’ve asked Victor to share with me the community’s reaction to the film.

  • Carol Flank

    I am looking forward to hearing Victor’s community’s reaction to the film.