A Possible Peace in Uganda?
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
A rebel group has been terrorizing Uganda for decades. Now, it may lay down its arms forever. The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, was formed by religious radical Joseph Kony in the mid-1980s. For 20 years, Kony has tried to overthrow Uganda's government and replace it with a theocracy based on the Ten Commandments.
The LRA has kidnapped thousands of children, training them to kill. It's also displaced nearly two million Africans in three countries. I recently gathered a few folks who've been putting a lot of time and energy into this ceasefire with the LRA.
Joining us were John Prendergast, co-founder of ENOUGH, a joint effort between International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress. It's trying to combat genocide and crimes against humanity worldwide. And in March, he returned from northern Uganda with actor Ryan Gosling who scored a best actor nod for his turn in last year's "Half Nelson." He's now working on a film about child soldiers in Uganda. Also joining us was Betty Bigombe, a senior fellow with the U.S. Institute for Peace. She has spent years trying to broker a deal with the LRA.
Prendergast said he's hopeful that the current cease-fire will actually become a lasting peace.
Mr. JOHN PRENDERGAST (Co-Founder, ENOUGH): Although it's Africa's longest war, it's actually the easiest war in the entire world to resolve. There are only a few issues out there, and there's a peace process that has begun. And it really simply requires a strong push, a strong international push, to get across the finish line and give the people of northern Uganda a chance.
So yes, I think it's actually a possibility. It's been a very difficult story, but one that has the very good chance for a hopeful ending. And what we need right now is very, very simple. We don't need to send American troops to end this war. We don't need to send billions of dollars in reconstruction there. We need to send one senior diplomat to work the peace process, visibly manifesting that the American government and the people of the United States want to see this horror end for the people of northern Uganda.
CHIDEYA: Betty, can you explain a little bit more about the whole concept of the Ten Commandments that underlies the Lord's Resistance Army. There's so much going on across the world, where theocracy is an important part of how people deal with conflict and how people chose to attack or not attack each other. What exactly does it mean to have a Ten Commandments philosophy guiding this group?
Ms. BETTY BIGOMBE (Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace): Oh, it's something I've been trying to understand for the last 19 years since I've been dealing with this war. The leadership - Joseph Kony believes he has divine power and he has indoctrinated his followers to a point that they do not question this power at all. I have, because of all these, even had a crime profiler from Britain do some kind of analysis and they come up with the report that he is psychotic. He also has multiple personality…
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Schizophrenic.
Ms. BIGOMBE: Yes. Right.
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Schizophrenic.
Ms. BIGOMBE: He also has multiple personality disorder, and looks at himself as - he compares himself with God.
CHIDEYA: Well, I want look back to this. But, Ryan, I want to bring you in here. There is something very strange about the six degrees of separation world where you have an actor like yourself who gets nominated for best actor along with Forest Whitaker who's playing Idi Amin, who used to be the head of Uganda, and now you're involved heavily in Uganda doing a film about child soldiers. It's just a weird set of coincidences to me, how did you get involved in dealing with Ugandan issues?
Mr. RYAN GOSLING (Oscar-Nominated Actor): I had the opportunity to go to Chad, to the Darfur refugee camps a few years ago and to shoot a little piece of the documentary. And I think like anybody that goes to a refugee camp, that sort of experience, you know, follows you around forever. It was something I couldn't shake. While I was there, I was - I became aware of this whole phenomenon of child soldiers in northern Uganda and found it hard to believe, to be honest.
I heard stories that I didn't quite - I couldn't see how that was possible. It almost sounded like something out of the Grimms Brothers' fairytale. And I, sort of, had to research it to know for myself if this was true, and then I started researching and reading. And I read a book called the "Innocents Lost" by Jimmie Briggs about the phenomenon of child soldiers, not only in Uganda, but all over the world.
And then I had the opportunity to work with Jimmy, and with John and Betty, and we all, at the beginning of the year, went out to Gulu and spent some time there. It was one of the most important times in my life for sure.
CHIDEYA: John, you've worked with Don Cheadle as well, and we've talked to you about your work with Don Cheadle on Darfur. Why is it so important in your mind, John - and Ryan, I want you to chime in on this as well - that you get people who are not traditional activist types or U.N. types to weigh in on these issues?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Well, frankly, for 20 years we've been banging away on these human rights issues as activists making very limited progress whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration, it doesn't really matter. There's a sort of a glass ceiling on most of these issues in terms of the real leadership that the United States could possibly take to try to resolve them.
What Ryan, and Don, and Clooney, and Angelina, people like that, bring to the table is a built-in audience. When they shine their light, basically, on a particular issue, a lot of people, for the first time, find out about it so we widen the list of people that are possible and would be activists. And then a lot of people get involved simply because they see these guys put their heart on the line and go out there and do and raise some awareness about the issue.
So it basically - it helps build a movement, a small but able movement of people of human rights activists who at the end of the day are necessary in order for to raise their voices in a high enough quantity and quality to change American policy and make this kinds of issues a higher priority for resolution.
CHIDEYA: Well, in case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES, and this is a special Roundtable on northern Uganda. We're talking with actor Ryan Gosling. He received a best actor nod for his turn in last year's "Half Nelson." Also John Prendergast, co-founder of ENOUGH. A joint effort between International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress meant to combat genocide and crimes against humanity worldwide. And Betty Bigombe, now a senior fellow at U.S. Institute for Peace, and she spent the better part of 20 years trying to broker peace in northern Uganda.
Betty, we had just been talking about some of the issues that people in the U.S. face, for example, in trying to understand what's going on in international conflicts. I want to follow up with a little bit about you, yourself. You have been someone who's been able to travel between worlds. I understand, and you can tell me if I'm wrong, that in addition to speaking English and a language, Acholi. Is that…
Ms. BIGOMBE: That's right.
CHIDEYA: …correct pronunciation? You also speak…
Ms. BIGOMBE: That's correct.
CHIDEYA: …Kiswahilis and Japanese, and you went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. You've played so many different roles and, as a woman as well as everything else, how were you able to travel through the worlds that you do and speak to people who you made completely disagree with but do it in a way where you think that it will help bring a resolution?
Ms. BIGOMBE: I think the driving force has been seeing the suffering of the people. You go into these camps with thousands and thousands of children who you know will not be able to go to school or have no access to basic social services and you see that there's no future for them.
So what has been in my heart that is to do whatever I can within my means to try to alleviate that situation. I have met with Kony several times. I've talk to him hundreds and thousands of times. I remember my first meeting with him vividly when in my mind I was very angry, but at the same time put on that face if I could convince him to come out and stop the suffering of the people, I would do anything I could.
He's somebody that when you're sitting face-to-face with, you say so you are the person. Why do you do what you do that way? I, you know, I felt at times like opening up his brain to see what, what makes him do what he does and the way he does it. It's not usually easy but you have to sit on your anger and frustrations and try to communicate to the person in a manner that can bring a change of mind.
CHIDEYA: You were just talking about Joseph Kony, the rebel leader, and meeting with him. And John, I want to ask from your perspective, you must have met a lot of people whose behavior you thought was unethical, reprehensible, even genocidal. How do you deal with someone face-to-face when you're in that kind of situation?
Mr. PRENDERGAST: Well, you got to keep your eyes focused on the end state. You know, in diplomacy, I mean, for roles - when I actually worked in government and did peace negotiations, like Betty, you know, you have to hold some of your private feelings about some of the people and their actions to yourself.
You can make it clear that they're reprehensible, and you can make it clear that you're - the principles upon which you're operating, but ultimately your objective is to resolve the problem. So you've got to figure out what the interest are of the person across the table, no matter what they've done and then figure out how are you going to appeal those interest or circumvent their opposition in order to get them to an agreement.
And, you know, unless we're going to invade the country, unless we're going to send troops to physically apprehend them and end the war that way - which is probably never going to happen - we've got to work through this peace process. And the way to do that is to understand people's interests and bring leverage to bear the incentives and pressures necessary to influence the calculations of someone like Joseph Kony.
CHIDEYA: Ryan, let's talk about your film. You're working on this film about child soldiers in northern Uganda. You've gone to refugee camps outside of the nation. This - obviously, you're known best as an actor. This puts you in a different role, what are you hoping to do and what kind of commitment do you have to make to do it? What I mean by that is how often are you trying to travel overseas? How often are you trying to stay in touch with people either in Uganda or in refugee camps outside of Uganda? What are you actually doing, and what do you want to come out of it?
Mr. GOSLING: In a way, I just like to be able to - for people to have the experiences that I've had. And I think that one of the most powerful experiences I've had is just getting to know these kids, you know? I think that one of the popular images that you see of kids in Africa is these kids with big bellies and flies on their faces. And, you know, they're just - this is sort of recycled images that are supposed to promote sympathy. But I think that, you know, even more so, it's not enough to just say, you know, that we should be helping. I think we should know who we're helping, you know. And I think that these kids are so fascinating.
You know, I go to these refugee camps. I see these kids who, and I remember seeing this one kid who had found somehow a piece of exposed film and he had turned it into sunglasses, you know. And he had took - and everywhere he look, he could see pictures. I mean, this kid is a little genius, you know. And all these kids are doing the most fascinating and interesting things with nothing, you know? They're so - they're just so lovely and full of life and also I think, you know, they - their ability to forgive is something I find totally overwhelming and inspiring. You know, I've been so inundated with revenge fantasies my whole life, you know, it really took a lot of meeting with these kids and being in these places to kind of hammer that out of me.
You know, they, you know, I remember I met one kid at a rehabilitation camp who, well, two kids actually. One - they were sharing the same bunk bed, and the kid on the top bunk had killed the kid on the bottom bunk's father and had beaten him within an inch of his life. And now they have to share a bunk bed, and they became best friends within a week, you know. They really - I think they're certainly in it's, you know, it's really inspiring and it sends a real impact in the way that I see my own life and the world. And I guess, in someway, I'm just trying to convey that experience of getting to know them in a narrative form.
CHIDEYA: John, Ryan and Betty, thank you so much.
Ms. BIGOMBE: Thank you.
Mr. GOSLING: Thank you. Thank you so much.
CHIDEYA: John Prendergast is co-founder of the human rights group ENOUGH. He recently returned from northern Uganda with Academy Award nominated actor Ryan Gosling. You can see him in theaters with Anthony Hopkins in the film "Fracture" right now. And he's working on a film about child soldiers in northern Uganda. Also with us was Betty Bigombe, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
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