On the 5th March 2012 an online video was launched that, within hours, was on its way to becoming the then most watched viral video of all time. In less than 6 days it reached a hundred million viewers and #KONY2012 dominated twitter worldwide. A year on, Media Parents PD Sam Farmar writes about filming the only interview with Joseph Kony that exists to this day.
The controversial 29-minute video was designed to make Africa’s most wanted war criminal, Joseph Kony the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) infamous so that he might be captured and tried for crimes against humanity. The film was met by a furious backlash from the international media and within days President Obama was being badgered by his own children into taking action. Within a month a hundred US elite Special Forces commandos were sent to track down Joseph Kony. They were not known to be successful.
In June 2006, working freelance and without any sort of commission in place, I set off to interview Joseph Kony on camera and challenge the Lord’s Resistance Army leader on the massacres, mutilations and mystical spirits that make him Africa’s most wanted man – to this day it remains the only interview Kony has ever given. Below is the account of how the meeting came about.
I first heard of Joseph Kony and the LRA in 1995 when I was working in a sprawling refugee camp in Northern Ugandan before heading to university. One night Kony’s forces stormed the camp, attacking and looting the already impoverished refugees and leaving many dead. I wasn’t caught up in the immediate attack, but as morning broke I soon became all too aware of the sweeping fear that engulfed the terrified crowds. Tales of atrocities proliferated: massacres of whole villages, mutilations, children abducted and forced to kill and even eat their victims.
The LRA combines the fanaticism of a cult with ruthless military efficiency, and while its apparent aim is to impose the Ten Commandments on Uganda, its means could scarcely be more evil. It was on hearing these tragic stories that I made it my mission to track down Kony and confront the man behind the attacks, putting out feelers wherever I could. It seemed an impossible task but with the help of Mareike Schomerus an indefatigable researcher and academic we set about making contact with everyone and anyone who had ever had any association with Kony; family members, former negotiators, politicians, LRA escapees, aid workers, military advisors…. After a year of tirelessly pushing door after door and racking up thousands of pounds in satellite phone calls, all on our own personal budgets, we finally got word: Kony will meet us.
I literally couldn’t believe it. After what had become a grueling test of perseverance an dogged determination it just may actually happen. I raced home, high-fived my flat mates, sunk a curry, booked a flight and packed my camera. Within twenty-four hours I was in Nairobi airport. I was met by Dennis and Ray, undercover LRA commanders who certainly did not look like bush fighters. Dennis wore a boy-band denim cap, Ray a tight Ben Sherman shirt.
As we flew on to Juba, Ray explained why he had joined the LRA. “I had no choice,” he said. “They just came and abducted me at 14. Many times I tried to escape but it was not easy — they can punish you badly. If you are unlucky you may lose your life.” Tears welled in his eyes. Ray introduced me to Sunday; a comrade who said he had been abducted at the age of 7 but now regarded the LRA as family.
We waited for a week as the LRA men checked me out. They were so suspicious that they had originally proposed buying us new cameras lest ours were fitted with devices that would betray Kony’s location.
I wasn’t actually scared, with so much over the phone planning before this point I felt pretty confident that Kony wanted to meet us as much as we wanted to meet him. In his mind he no doubt hoped that we could be manipulated and charmed enough to give the LRA some positive PR, at a time when they weren’t as strong as they would have like to have been.
I was also confident that we had put in place all we could to mitigate the risks; for our own security we had told very few people what we were doing – if our location had got out then Kony himself may have felt compromised and could potentially act irrationally. Besides, it is said ‘worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of sorrow but empties today of strength’ – and we needed every last ounce of strength we could get.
Finally Riek Machar, a former Sudanese warlord with a degree from Bradford University, and the vice-president of southern Sudan, arrived. Mr Machar announced that he would come with us to meet Kony. The next day, accompanied by 40 Sudanese soldiers, we boarded a charter flight to Maridi; the closest Sudanese airstrip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We arrived and piled into a convoy heading straight into the jungle on a rutted track of deep red mud. Two days later my satellite phone showed that we had crossed the border into Congo. After a short while we stopped and two LRA fighters armed with Kalashnikovs jumped in. Their eyes were blank and bloodshot, their hair in dreadlocks, and strings of bullets hung around their necks. We looked at each other and said nothing. Outside, another fighter called ‘Knee of a Dog’ talked on a satellite phone, juggling our meeting place until the very last moment. Finally we reached a clearing where we found ourselves surrounded by camouflaged LRA combatants carrying M16 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. They never let down their guard, and they clearly lived in constant fear of Kony, to whom they attributed mystical powers. Sunday said that if he tried to escape, Kony’s spirit would seek him out to harm him. When I asked whether the LRA would disintegrate if Kony died, he struggled to comprehend the question. “Kony would never die,” he said. “I’m sure he cannot be killed.”
There we waited until Knee of a Dog received another call. We walked single file along a narrow path hemmed in by impenetrable vegetation. I began to wonder if I would recognise a man of whom there are so few pictures.
For more than two and half decades Kony has thwarted every effort to capture him, but now he was in front of me, in green Ugandan army uniform, and surrounded by a ragtag group of heavily armed guards who regard him with manifest awe. He wore a blue beret, a red sash over his shoulder, and green Wellington boots.
He was taller that I expected — perhaps 6ft 1in (1.8m) — and looked younger than his 46 years. He grinned at me, exposing two chipped and blackened front teeth, then shook my hand:
“I’m a freedom fighter who is fighting for freedom in Uganda,” he tells me. “I am not a terrorist.
We only spoke briefly that night; our real conversation was to take place the following day – before long he left, I set up my small green tent and exhausted fell asleep.
Early the next morning I was taken to another, smaller clearing where Kony had spent the night on a ‘mattress’ of cut grass. He was wearing a T-shirt, sitting on a brown plastic chair, drinking tea from a pink plastic cup and eating a ‘mandazi’, a sort of doughnut. He greeted me in English: “Come on, Sam. Eat breakfast!”
But the cheeriness vanished when we tried to attach a microphone. He had never seen one before, and feared that it was a tracking device. It was a rambling conversation, with Kony speaking in poor English, but for someone giving his first interview he seemed remarkably natural. “I am a human being like you,” he declared. “I have eyes, a brain and wear clothes, but they are saying ‘we don’t talk with people, we eat people. We are killer’. That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer?”
He insisted that he was not the monster his reputation suggests, that the atrocities of which he is accused are trumped up to blacken his name.
Asked about the killings, abductions and mutilations perpetrated in his name, he replied: “That is not true. It’s just propaganda by Museveni, the Ugandan President, he went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people that it was the work of the LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother, I cannot kill the eye of my brother.”
Youths joined the LRA voluntarily and were never abducted, he claimed. “I don’t have acres of maize, of onion, of cabbages. I don’t have food. If I abducted children like that, here in the bush, what do they eat?” Asked about the International Criminal court charges against him, he insisted: “I am not guilty.”
He was guided by spirits, he said. “They speak to me. They load through me. They will tell us what is going to happen. They say, “You, Mr Joseph, tell your people that the enemy is planning to come and attack”. They will come like dreaming, they will tell us everything. You know, we are guerrilla. We are rebel. We don’t have medicine. But with the help of spirit they will tell to us, ‘you Mr Joseph go and take this thing and that thing’.”
Perhaps the spirits are still protecting Kony because despite the unprecedented attention and rumors that he is dead, Kony is very much still alive. Only last month I was in east Africa and although I didn’t speak to Kony personally I am in touch with many of his closest commanders and his arms dealer and he is continuing to ruthlessly kill and abduct children. Kony 2012 may have been controversial and a surprising viral sensation but the core message is good and remains true to this day. Stop Kony.
Below is a link to an extract of the short film I produced, directed and shot about meeting Kony and later sold to BBC Newnight and numerous other broadcasters around the world.
Sam Farmar is an experienced freelance self-shooting PD, living in London. He helped initiate and worked as the development producer on BBC3′s ‘Our War’ – that last year won a BAFTA for Best Factual TV Series. He shot, directed and produced a few of Channel Four’s critically acclaimed ‘Unreported World’s and worked on Louis Theroux’s latest series. He holds a valid conflict and hostile environment certificate and a US I Visa. Sam Farmar can be contacted through the TALENT section of http://www.mediaparents.co.uk