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A Comedy Writer Confronts

British comedy writer and celebrity journalist Jane Bussmann had a revelation while interviewing actor Ashton Kutcher at a Hollywood café: She really had to find something more meaningful to do.

So she embarked on a Google quest for the most evil man in the world and found Joseph Kony, head of the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army. “In a dramatic change of direction,” according to the jacket of the resulting book:

[S]he set out for Africa to interview a respected (very attractive) peacemaker. However things did not go according to plan. Six weeks later, alone in a war-torn country, she found herself investigating one of the worst crimes in African history. Until one day, she was standing over a corpse in an open grave, wondering if she would get home alive…

The paperback version of The Worst Date Ever: Or How It Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Africa’s Secret War was just released and a movie is “in development” by the producers of the Academy Award-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. It may be the most ribald book about the atrocities of war you will ever read; you may, (as I did), find yourself laughing in the face of what Bussmann calls “mind-shredding evil.”

For two decades, Kony’s outfit has kidnapped tens of thousands of children; turned them into child soldiers and sex slaves; taught them to use rape as a weapon of war; and cut the lips off of critics including young children. Kony, his top commanders and their backer, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of Northern Sudan, are all wanted international war criminals. The LRA massacres whole villages at a time in Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic. Two million people in Northern Uganda have been displaced.

Kony’s power over his victims is derived in part by his claim to be inhabited by spirits, including one that had jumped to him from Alice Lakwena (a kind of Joan of Arc figure), who led an unsuccessful rebellion against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 1987. Some of Kony’s kids say they believe in his supernatural omniscience because he always knows exactly when the Ugandan Army is coming, in what numbers, and what kinds of weapons they are carrying.

Indeed. The occasional skirmish not withstanding, Kony has apparently enjoyed high-level assistance in sustaining his lifestyle while evading Ugandan troops ostensibly tasked with stopping him.

Back in 1996, according to a document reprinted by Bussmann, the Ugandan and Sudanese governments knew exactly where Catholic school girls kidnapped by the LRA were being held. The Ugandan army had been tipped that the LRA was going to attack the elite St. Mary’s school, but had done nothing to protect or to rescue the 139 girls abducted. And yet, a brave school administrator, Sister Rachele, almost singlehandedly gained the release of 109 of the children. The LRA kept the rest—except for the one they hacked and tortured to death with machetes. Sister Rachele and the girls’ parents met with world leaders from presidents Museveni and Bashir, to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, to Kofi Annan, and Pope John Paul II.

“None of them got the girls back,” Bussmann observed. “Meanwhile, Kony built his city of children in the desert and shipped in his prize, the highly educated St. Mary’s girls. The girls were raped, impregnated, given syphilis, and watched as babies were smashed against trees.”

When Bussmann arrived in 2005, parents were still trying to get their daughters back. Mrs. Clinton had tried to help by getting the World Bank to donate. The Bank underwrote a special rehabilitation school for children who had escaped from the LRA. Unfortunately, one of Kony’s former top commanders, (an ex-bodyguard for president Museveni) was hired to run it.

Bussmann learned that this was more the rule than the exception. Writing on the Huffington Post she recently declared that some 20-66,000 children have been direct victims of what amounts to a “fake war.”

“But if everyone knew… why had nobody stopped him?” she wondered. “All around me, millions were being pumped into the effort.”

“Only a cynic,” she continued, “could conclude that, far from trying to catch Kony, the world turned this mass child rapist into an industry, so I will, for one reason: I don’t see why the kids I met should have to put up with it.”

As a comedy writer who has worked on the take-no-prisoners cartoon show South Park, and whose journalism experience, as she notes, stopped with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, she saw herself as an unlikely reporter for the occasion. And yet, she got the story when others have not. She says that she could recognize “absurdity.” And that may have been the best qualification.

Un-Faking the War

The ‘fake’ war may just get real.

President Obama recently signed “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act,” the main and most remarkable provision of which is:

to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield in the continued absence of a negotiated solution, and to disarm and demobilize the remaining Lord’s Resistance Army fighters.

A bipartisan cheer went up when the bill became law. But some groups, including the progressive Institute for Policy Studies and the Africa Faith and Justice Network (a coalition of Catholic orders), are concerned that the hunt for Kony by US or allied Special Forces could lead to reprisal massacres against civilians—like those that followed last year’s failed anti-LRA campaign including the armies of three countries and backed by the United States.

The Enough Project of the Washington DC think tank Center for American Progress has worked tirelessly to stop the LRA and bring peace to the region. But co-founder John Prendergast told Religion Dispatches that Kony has refused numerous peace proposals, and he believes that:

The only way to bring an end to the suffering he causes is to support the military efforts to apprehend him in line with his outstanding International Criminal Court arrest warrant. As a peace advocate, it is painful to come to this conclusion, but I realize that there are occasions when force is necessary to achieve peace. This is one of those times.

Bussmann’s discovery of Prendergast in Vanity Fair magazine in 2003 had launched her on another Google quest at the heart of the book. “Damn,” she exclaimed, “I had to meet John Prendergast. He wasn’t just hot; he was wise. I wondered how wrong it would be to sit on his knee during the interview.” Bussmann found in Prendergast a dashing romantic interest; “his eyes red from saving the world.”

While her pursuit of Prendergast by way of pursuing Kony became “the worst date ever” of the book’s title, he is generous about her work. She has the capacity, he said, to school people about “some of the worst human rights crimes in the last half century” in a way that “isn’t sanctimonious or boring.”

When RD had the opportunity to talk with Bussmann about all this, we decided to disregard the professional advice she offered in her book—that when “talking to famous people, never bring up religion, they might have an opinion.”

Actor Ashton Kutcher told you he has met “some really great priests.” You aver (although not to Kutcher) that you don’t like priests, and not because you are an atheist. And yet some of the real heroes in the book are priests like Father Carlos, and of course, Sister Rachele. Has your thinking evolved since then?

 The biggest shock to me was that the priests came out the heroes of the book! I had great fun mocking myself as events led inexorably to the conclusion that priests were saving the day. I decided it would be fun to lure the most skeptical reader in with a barrage of anti-religion abuse and then have them follow me as I met people like Father Carlos Rodriguez, a deep-thinking, kind, mild-mannered Spanish man with no concern for his own safety. He went into the bush armed with nothing but his Bible to rescue 17 children from the LRA. No bullets fired. But when the priest went back to get more kids—and how often can you say that in a positive context—he was sabotaged, and not by Kony, but by the Ugandan government army.

Until I went to Uganda, I thought missionaries were shady types who couldn’t make it back at home, so they bailed to sunnier climes where they could strip the joy out of human existence unchallenged. But then I met the Combonis [a Catholic order of priests and nuns]—these people risk their own lives fighting for human rights. I met nuns who had been beaten up. Sister Rachele still bursts into tears 14 years after trying to save her girls from Kony (Google her. I don’t vote on any canonization panels but she has to be a contender). And Father Carlos may have saved my life. An author with more dignity wouldn’t have put it in their memoir, as it was a deeply humiliating incident involving a safety pin and a hospital with no doctors, but I couldn’t resist it as the logical, almost divine conclusion to an adventure that began with my saying I didn’t like priests.

Father Carlos last year published a fascinating account of his experiences under the radar in Africa called Tall Grass, after the elephant grass which hides not just rebel child soldiers but all the mysteries in Africa.

What do you make of Kony’s claim to be a religious leader and how he carries himself in this role?

Kony shows many signs of brain damage, or at least advanced mental illness, so I wouldn’t authorize any grants to his church at this time. But if you consider religion to be an inspiration to humans to behave better, Kony uses it as an excuse to behave worse. It wasn’t me, Pa, it was the spirits. Kony is nothing but a lousy little rapist who can’t believe his luck—he hit a period in history when the people supposed to be hunting him found it more useful to use the hunt as a smokescreen for lining their pockets in illegal mining operations and ghost soldier salary rackets. He also had the smarts to claim to represent the disenfranchised Acholi tribe, which stalled the intellectuals and academics who should be uniting against him. Sure, the Acholi are disenfranchised. But how can you insult the intelligence of Acholi moms and dads whose kids have been kidnapped by saying they’d choose Kony as their representative? There are politicians for that!

You charge that some humanitarian and development agencies may be more interested in ensuring their cash flow than carrying out their missions. How and why have such groups enabled the suffering they are ostensibly in Uganda to alleviate?

First things first: Helping out someone who is having a tougher time than you is not just a nice thing to do, it’s a cornerstone of civilization.

My book is trying to shine a spotlight on what happens when charities don’t ask the crucial question—how exactly did these vulnerable people get here?—and risk becoming part of the machine of war, or a substitute for the right response from a government. I’d argue that you should always lend your neighbor money; hopefully he’d help you out someday. But if he’s beating his wife, you don’t parrot his story that she walked into a door and organise another whip-round to send her a private doctor. No—you call the police.

I became incensed when I read a World Food Program press release asking for more money to feed over a million people who were living in squalor because they had ‘fled’ Joseph Kony. They hadn’t fled Kony, they had been ordered in by their own government. Yes, some came willingly for protection, but they were told it would be for a few months while the government looked for Kony. Ten years later, not only was Kony not found, but the camps weren’t properly protected. And Kony was still kidnapping their kids. Inside the camps I saw hungry children, outside I saw crops left to rot. The WFP’s solution? To ask the public to send more money. Meanwhile, cash rolled in to the government, and foreign donors wrung their hands over the poor starving refugees.

One lousy rapist turned into an industry.

What really bugs me about contemporary charities are these ghastly, pornographic images of people suffering. They abuse people for cash. These images don’t just belittle women and children and reduce Africans to a continent of beggars, they unforgivably numb audiences to suffering. You see a kid who’s starving, you switch off inside instead of getting riled up to ask why he’s starving. Hence the book.

A joke—especially when there’s not supposed to be one—kind of restores the big stuff to what it should be: absurd, outrageous, just plain wrong. Plus it’s the only thing I can do, so I thought I’d have a go at putting it to good use for once. And believe me it’s ten times slower writing comedy about this subject matter. I get up every morning cursing myself, ‘if only you’d written Ghostbusters remakes for clapped-out comedians, you wouldn’t be getting out of bed at 6 a.m, to write yet more child soldier material… you’d be in a mansion… imbecile…’

The American and British public are staggeringly generous donors, genuinely caring for the vulnerable. If someone told them the full story of what made these people vulnerable, in a vocal society like the United States, there would be debate and regulation. Instead the public are presented with an image of the developing world as a telethon of random tragedy after random tragedy, with breaks for pop stars singing in the ruins for Idol Gives Back. The aid industry is bleak, but ironically, the truth is uplifting because many of these seemingly random tragedies are man-made—which means they could be stopped. We need a call to action.

Since the passage of the anti-LRA bill, it seems likely that American or European Special Forces will be deployed against Kony for the first time. Do you think that the Africa Faith and Justice Network’s concern about civilian reprisals by the LRA is justified?

Yes. It’s foul and Kony has always done it. Barack has to be smarter than his predecessor, who amazingly authorized Operation Lightning Thunder without even thinking to protect civilians, hence the Christmas Massacres. Anyone could have warned George Bush about Kony, even me, and I’m a comedy writer. A kid who watches CSI when the babysitter is asleep could have predicted the date the massacres would start, Christmas Eve, and the location, churches, because Kony is a cliché murderer who uses religious symbolism the way Eminem uses naughty words. Unfortunately it was left to US Intelligence to supervise, and hundreds died. Intelligence is expensive, common sense is free.

I don’t think that the LRA Act elevates military action above all other solutions, it says let’s do something. A peaceful solution would be better—but if peace fails, at Kony’s current rate, hundreds more kids will be kidnapped. In the event of military action, he must be stopped intelligently, because if not, up to 90% of the casualties will be former kidnapped children. Let’s be aware then, of three things. One, Kony always gets intel that the army is coming to get him and runs away. So block his escapes. Two, the LRA kills civilians. Protect civilians. Three, and most important of all, the armies who went after Kony before have been shamelessly, unforgivably trigger-happy about killing children. Watch them this time.

Frederick Clarkson’s writing about about politics and religion has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Mother Jones, Conscience and Church & State, to The Village Voice and The Christian Science Monitor for 25 years. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (Ig Publishing 2008), and co-founder of the group blog, Talk to Action.

Originally posted on Religion Dispatches.

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