U.S. Spent Two Decades On 'Kony' Before Viral Video

A video by the advocacy group Invisible Children calls for military action against the vicious African militants known as the Lord's Resistance Army. The video has gone viral, getting 40 million views since being posted Monday on YouTube.

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An advocacy group based in California has managed to shine a bright spotlight on a long running conflict in Africa and one of its most notorious players. Joseph Kony leads the Lord's Resistance Army. It's a rebel group that has wreaked havoc on Uganda and neighboring countries for decades. Kony is known to steal children and turn them into killers.

The advocacy group, called Invisible Children, released a film on the Internet and it has traveled the world, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: If it hasn't shown up on your Facebook page or Twitter feed yet, the video "Kony 2012" probably will soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KONY 2012")

JASON RUSSELL: For 26 years, Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group, the LRA.

KELEMEN: As Invisible Children director Jason Russell explains in somber tones, the girls are turned into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KONY 2012")

RUSSELL: He makes them mutilate people's faces and he forces them to kill their own parents.

KELEMEN: Over 40 million people have watched the video since Monday, says Michael Poffenberger, who runs a group called Resolve, which is working on the campaign with Invisible Children.

MICHAEL POFFENBERGER: It's blown up all over the world. I mean we've been getting messages Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, and a student group in Libya who wants to be involved in the campaign.

KELEMEN: Poffenberger's role is to translate all this attention into policy recommendations. But what he and others are suggesting is actually what the U.S. is already doing.

POFFENBERGER: This isn't an issue where we're outraged that our government hasn't been doing anything. It's an issue that we're outraged about what's going on and encouraging our government to keep up the good work. And we think that with the progress that's made, that this attention can help actually see this issue resolved. That it's possible to see Kony arrested this year; that it's possible to help these communities who've been suffering these attacks.

KELEMEN: Kony was pushed out of Uganda in 2006 and has been operating more recently in eastern Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Last year, the U.S. sent 100 military advisors to help all those countries track the Lord's Resistance Army.

And Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson says they're making progress.

JOHNNIE CARSON: Kony's forces have been dispersed and they have been degraded. They certainly have not yet been defeated and he has not been captured. But progress has been made. Our efforts these days are to try to do everything that we can to bring the small number of individuals who still cause great havoc throughout the region to justice.

KELEMEN: Experts believe there are only about 200 fighters with the Lord's Resistance Army now. But they're in small groups in an area twice the size of Texas, Carson says. Communities are isolated and the region is densely forested. So, part of what the U.S. is doing, Carson says, is improving communication links.

CARSON: We've helped to establish cell phone towers and cell phone networks. I know the Invisible Children have also spent money on UHF radios to allow isolated communities to be able to contact security forces in their various capitals, and the Ugandan force which is tracking Kony.

KELEMEN: The viral video has its critics, who say Invisible Children is oversimplifying issues and question how the money it's raising is being spent. The non-profit has been posting information about its finances on its website to try to clear up questions about that.

And the good news out of all of this, says Carson, from the State Department, Americans are more aware of an issue the U.S. has been focusing on for two decades.

CARSON: We're determined to do as much as we can. And we appreciate the voice of others in the United States who are keeping this issue in focus, and also hopefully raising resources to help communities and governments in Africa to do the work that they need to catch Kony.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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