GULU, Uganda – Young Jacob Acaye’s declaration that he would rather die than continue to lead his life in fear has broken the hearts of the tens of millions of people around the world who have watched “KONY 2012,” an Internet advocacy documentary about the misdeeds of a Ugandan warlord.
But about nine years later – and just a week or so after the video became an online sensation – one of the most talked-about people of current days is a picture of anonymity.
In his hometown in northern Uganda, the 21-year-old seemed relaxed, and perhaps a little reserved, as he wandered down the street where he used to huddle under blankets along with up to 800 other children for protection from advancing rebels.
I stood with him, gazing down a busy sidewalk waiting for someone to catch his eye – to question him, to thank him or to embrace him. There's nothing.
We had traveled to Gulu to assess reaction to the 30-minute video, which has become one of the most successful online campaigns of all time. As of this writing, it’s up to 78 million views on YouTube.
But tweets, status updates and trending topics mean very little here. In downtown Gulu, it has pretty much missed many of those people who have been most affected by the bloodshed.
Ugandans watch the premiere of "Kony 2012," a 30-minute YouTube film created by the nonprofit group Invisible Children, in Lira district, an area 234 miles north of Uganda's capital Kampala on Tuesday.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. With access to the Internet limited, very few people here have seen the “Invisible Children” campaigners’ call to make Joseph Kony famous, a move they hoped would, in turn, make him infamous.
After all, he is already despised in these parts: His face and his name are known by everyone and have haunted this place for decades. It seems that everyone can name one of his victims – someone who was slaughtered, orphaned or abducted by his army of thugs.
In fact, many people in Gulu are far from excited by the campaign; they have heard it discussed on local radio and feel that it has its heart far from the dusty roads of rural Uganda. This is a campaign by Westerners, “the white men,” said one resident.
What divides opinion is whether that really matters. To Jacob it doesn’t, he would welcome attention from anyone, anywhere. To many others it feels like a patronizing challenge to national pride. “KONY 2012” doesn’t really feel like their campaign.
In Gulu, there are memorials to a series of massacres, the most recent in 2004. But while the legacy of fear created by a generation of violence certainly endures, in many ways this place has moved on. Confidence has grown with peace.
Sitting around making small-talk, a group of men asked me to join them. Their conversation is about Kony, as often seems to be the case. Fueled by bravado and, perhaps, a little beer, they said it would be impossible for the warlord to return. They spoke of him only in the past tense, despite rumors that he was in the area over Christmas for a brief visit.
“We don’t expect anything. We don’t expect him anymore in the country,” said one man, who is convinced that Kony is in hiding in the Central African Republic or South Sudan.
In other parts of the town, some told me that there is no need for a campaign at all, as Kony’s men have moved on. Others don't want to hear his name. “Why re-open these wounds?” one man asked me once he learned of my reason for being in Gulu.
Some fear that too much talk of Kony might bring him back and risk their community's relative calm. Others worry that their homeland is being characterized around the world purely as a place of terror – “Konyland” as one aid worker described it.
Most of all, they wonder why the world has suddenly started to worry about them now? It’s not necessarily that they don’t welcome the attention, but many cannot subscribe to the newfound enthusiasm of the campaign’s supporters abroad. They have long tired of asking for attention and being ignored.
Acaye, however, is as passionate as when he was as a boy and believes that the video is important and valuable.
“Kony has not yet stopped killing young ones,” he said. “Kony has not yet stopped abducting people. Kony has not yet stopped forcing young girls into sex slaves.
“And that is what we are fighting for. We want it stopped.”