Filmmaker Robert Young Pelton is convinced he can do what the U.S. government can’t: find infamous warlord Joseph Kony and bring him to justice
Robert Young Pelton has been a lot of things. Journalist, adventurer, TV show host, book author, graphic novelist and Website editor. Now a filmmaker, the 58-year-old Pelton is raising money via crowdfunding Website Indiegogo in an effort to track down Joseph Kony, leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group in Central Africa. War is Boring’s Peter Doerrie spoke to Pelton by phone.
WIB: You say you want to collect $450,000 via crowdfunding in order to travel to some of the some of the most dangerous places in the the world and find one of Africa’s most notorious warlords, namely Joseph Kony. In this context, a recent Foreign Policy article asked if you are crazy. Are you in fact crazy?
RYP: No, I don’t think I’m crazy. I’ve been working and traveling and doing multiple projects in war zones since probably the early ‘90s. If someone is crazy he wouldn’t have a track record of being healthy and alive and doing successful work on different media platforms. What I’m trying to do with this project is to expand what I have always been doing, which is trying to get people to engage with solving problems.
The first thing I did was I wrote a book called The World’s Most Dangerous Places, which did very well. It is still in print and gets updated. I then did an ABC interactive Web event in which I took viewers around the world. I wrote copy, took pictures, did video and I interacted with the readers. It was kind of the forerunner of what they called the “SoJo” or “solo journalist” concept, back in 1996, I think. I then did a TV series on Discovery and then I expanded that into ground networks in Afghanistan, in Somalia and Pakistan. So I’ve constantly been looking for ways to engage people, in particular young people, because those are the people I want to motivate and excite and get out there.
Crowdfunding was a very strange thing a few years ago and now it has become a very normal way for individuals to fund projects. That could be media projects, or products they want to buy. So I think people are comfortable with that idea.
I think I have a very unusual track record in finding wanted people, like terrorist groups and warlords, you name it. So I want to combine all these things and I want people to see if we can use their funds, go to these places, locate and take some of those criminal actors like Kony off the map. And if it works, we will expand it. I think it’s actually a very logical extension of what I have been doing for many years.
WIB: What exactly do you hope to achieve by proving that Joseph Kony can be found?
RYP: First of all, there is no proof that Joseph Kony is alive. If you do your research you’ll find that he hasn’t been very chatty or even been located since about 2006. And there was a time where he was ambushed at a camp, they say, in 2011.
He has been probably one of the more secretive people that I have been tracking since 1993. I want to make sure that this hysteria, this “global awareness,” as they call it, is actually linked to a real person. Because we know the LRA exists and we know there are atrocities and there are kidnappings and murders and violent attacks, but I haven’t actually heard from Joseph Kony. So that’s my goal, to find him, see what he wants to do and then I’m also going to offer him the ability to The Hague [Kony is indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague], if he wants to stand trial. And if he doesn’t want to stand trial, then we all know he exists.
It’s a true adventure. It’s not a certainty. There is no guarantee of anything. But I hope that the people that contribute to the project know that my history and my reputation is based on finding people.
WIB: You mentioned in your first answer that your goal is to “take some of these criminals off the map,” now you say that you want to offer Kony to go to The Hague …
RYP: This is a critical point. If you are the victim of a crime, you want justice. Justice is having the opportunity to bring forward that crime to the accused person and getting your day in court. I have had a lot of experience with people who have been victimized by warlords, militaries, militias and terrorist groups. And even if their first reaction is just to kill them [the perpetrators], I think that’s not the way you take criminal actors out. People need their day in court and so do victims.
WIB: So this is not purely a journalistic adventure?
RYP: No. I worked as a journalist, I’ve been an author, I’ve been a researcher, I’ve been many things. I don’t try to pigeonhole myself. I want to do this in a way that has journalistic standards, but at the same time we are dealing in a very amorphous area and also a very violent area. I don’t think Joseph Kony or the LRA will follow any legal restraints if they ambush us or if they don’t want us to contact them. I have to operate in the new reality of terrorism and warlords and violence.
WIB: How will you go about this research? How will you approach it?
RYP: We will set up a number of teams. We will identify areas in which there has been recent activity by the LRA and then we will work with trackers, security people and intelligence folks. We will set up ground networks and we will do our best to get as close as we can to the LRA, the various groups that are wandering around the Garambe area in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We are also going to do a lot of, I guess you can call it intelligence work, because I have a huge network of people who deal with me very quietly, who also have been tracking Kony. This includes Kony’s friends, people who have been tracking him for many years. We are really operating on all levels and that’s really the key about it. Not only are we crowdsourcing the funding, but we are crowdsourcing a lot of the intelligence gathering that gets us close, so we don’t waste time. And more importantly, we will be able to move very quickly. We are not a military unit, we are not a government agency. One person can get to the scene very quickly and we also don’t pose a threat. A single person showing up unarmed in a LRA camp is not really considered a threat.
WIB: The countries where Kony is operating in central Africa — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan — they all have very weak and corrupt governments, the armed forces are not very professional. They are highly dangerous in their own right. There is a very limited infrastructure. How will you deal with these challenges?
RYP: The same way I deal with any challenge. I’m very experienced operating in failed states, whether its Liberia during the war, Afghanistan under the Taliban, that is actually where I feel very comfortable.
But you have to expand those states, you have to recognize that Kony has received assistance and shelter from countries like the Sudan. He is a political pawn, so our search is actually much wider. If you were to use simplistic terms, we are operating over an area the size of the United States of America, the continental U.S. What we are really doing is, we are expanding the search beyond the area that is currently being focused on by U.S. Special Forces and their proxy forces. We are not limiting our search to a specific geographic area.
WIB: If you indeed find Kony and meet him in person, this will definitely happen outside the reach of any official security presence. How will you guarantee your security or that of your team?
RYP: In my experience, and I have located and interviewed well over two dozen very violent and dangerous individuals, they have a reason to talk to me. I make it very clear that I’m coming, that I want to talk to them and they obviously research me, they know where I am, they have their own intelligence networks.
In all cases, these people reach out to me. They want to talk to me, have me stay in their camp and understand what they are doing. They will try to use me as a pawn as well, so its very much a two-sided arrangement. What I think is going to happen is if I can locate Kony, if he is still alive, firstly people will have a much deeper understanding of who he is and where he is. And secondly he will have a better understanding of that his options are somewhat limited. He is under pressure right now. That is what I like about the ICC [the International Criminal Court] and the new initiatives that are global in nature — they stop people from traveling and moving. It essentially ends their activities.
WIB: What about the point that you mention in the Foreign Policy article and on your crowdfunding page that you assume the Ugandan army and the U.S. don’t really want to find Kony?
RYP: Well, I don’t assume that but here is what I know from experience: There are no bad actors in this, other than maybe Joseph Kony. [But] everybody has a mission. The ultimate mission of the U.S. military is to protect the U.S. and Joseph Kony has never threatened the U.S., nor has he launched any attacks against any U.S. assets. So you have to kind of wonder why the U.S. is so robust in that area. The biggest problem they have is of course the incursion of Islamic militants into the CAR and across northern Africa. [Missions like catching Kony] are basically cover for them. These get them with indigenous troops, they get them into training. Its a permissible way to gather intelligence.
Likewise you have charities. Charities are all well intentioned, they intend to help the victims of Kony and other people. But they’ve had a very long time to actually do something and they tend to focus on selling kids jewelry and wristbands to raise money. They take their focus off the source of this problem. I’m not saying that a charity should be in a manhunt, or that they should be involved in military action, but everybody sort of builds a platform that allows them to exist. That is why we are in Afghanistan for ten years and Iraq for eight years, you know? I call this “self-licking lollipops” — there are large sources of funding, large bureaucracies and they seem to be less effective the older and more affluent they get.
WIB: What would you do if you get approached by the U.S. government or the Ugandan government and they ask you to provide ways for them to locate Kony so they can take him out?
RYP: I have already been approached by the U.S. government and I have been very candid about what I’m doing and they are very excited about it. They see me as a very positive actor in bringing attention to this and I’m adding some additional benefit that they don’t have. I’m not the U.S. military, the U.S. military has much more capability than I do, but for many many years the U.S. military, the CIA and other people have read my books and became smarter.
And here is what you have to remember. If Joseph Kony died tomorrow, it wouldn’t solve all the problems in Africa. You still have ethnic conflict, you still have poverty, you still have state actors battling away. The point I’m making over and over again, is that Joseph Kony is the flavor of the week, but Joseph Kony is just one indication of problems in that region. And the U.S. government is in this for the long haul, you know. They don’t exist to assassinate Joseph Kony. They exist to bring stability to those regions that have no stability.
WIB: So you wouldn’t have a problem with the U.S. government or the Ugandan government using information that you provide to go in and kill Kony?
RYP: I don’t think its the goal of the U.S. government to kill Joseph Kony. I think its the goal of the U.S. government to bring him to trial. They want him healthy, they want him alive. The issue of killing Kony is negated by the fact that the U.S. has invested millions of Dollars to create a legal system to deal with war criminals. If you go to the website of the State Department, in no way do they encourage people to kill any of these criminals. They are looking for people who can provide information that lead to the arrest. And in some cases that arrest is voluntary in some cases it is not voluntary.
I think people are playing this in a very Darwinian way. They think Joseph Kony is hiding in the jungle, just like Bin Laden was hiding in a cave. I don’t ever approach people who have survived for twenty years and let a militia as stupid primitive people. They are quite the opposite.
WIB: Why Kony? What makes his case so special?
RYP: That’s a very good question. I first became aware of Kony in 1993 when I wrote my book “The World’s Most Dangerous Places”. Back then he was just one of many militia leaders in Central Africa. In 2010 he sort of hit the radar again and in 2012 they had this big PR campaign for that charity [the Kony 2013 by Invisible Children] and in the years since then I kept thinking ‘why can’t they find Joseph Kony?’
You have a hundred million people watching a video about him, you have 200 Million Dollars spend both in charity and tax dollars since 2008 and Kony is not the most dangerous or the most violent actor. There are actually more people working for Invisible Children than there are working for Joseph Kony.
It’s almost like a snapshot of what is wrong with the world. That is why I chose this project. Because I think it is ridiculous to invest millions and millions of dollars in someone who is not threatening the U.S., who is a very minor player and I think we need to get back to the real problems in the world, which are places like Syria, things like Malaria and hunger, warfare and chaos. I think this is a direct frontal assault on common sense. Let’s restructure our priorities to deal with big problems with big answers, not little problems with big answers.