Peacekeeper offers nuanced opinion about 'Kony 2012'

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2012 - 10:37 AM
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TIffany Easthom, right, at a United Nations briefing

Photo: Doug Hostetter,

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The staggering power of the Internet was again evident early this month with the debut of "Kony 2012." The 30-minute documentary (www.kony2012.com) examines the brutality of Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which forces children into sex slavery and war.

If you haven't seen it, I'm betting that a Facebook friend has. The counterintuitive title comes from the filmmaker's urgent plea that military leaders capture and disarm Kony and the LRA before year's end. In six days, it had more than 100 million views.

One view may be particularly interesting to Twin Citians.

Tiffany Easthom spoke Tuesday in St. Paul at a fundraiser for the Nonviolent Peaceforce (www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org), which brings trained, unarmed civilians into high-conflict areas to restore calm and build relationships. NP, which has international headquarters in Brussels and a U.S. office near Minneapolis' Loring Park, has earned international respect.

Before arriving in the Twin Cities, Easthom spoke to members of the United Nations Security Council in New York, which singled out NP as "timely and relevant" in its mission to broaden the capacity of peacekeeping.

That brings us back to Kony.

For two years, Easthom, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, has been NP's country director for South Sudan, the world's newest nation. She oversees 65 unarmed civilian peacekeepers in eight locations, including areas affected by Kony.

Her team has protected children who have escaped from the LRA, finding their families and getting them medical checkups and psychological help, as well as support to reintegrate. "Some girls come back as mothers," she said, "and are rejected by their communities." It's something they are changing due, largely, to the resilience of children. "They can survive any ordeal," she said.

Easthom, 40, did her graduate thesis in Uganda "in the heart of the Lord's Resistance Army." Uganda, she said, has endured a long history of conflict, first led by Kony's cousin. The LRA, she said, "is shrouded in mysticism and extreme violence against their own people and others."

Still, she calls the Kony 2012 campaign, "well-intentioned but overly simplified." In a breakfast interview Tuesday, enjoying eggs Benedict -- "one of my fantasy foods that I can't have in South Sudan" -- she said that complex international stories "sometimes need to be simplified, to get people's attention." But it turns out that "Kony 2012" is a bit tardy.

Around 2006, a massive effort was begun to shut down Kony, she said. The effort was led by the Ugandan government and its allies, with government ministers whom the LRA trusted who met directly with Kony.

Kony and his army, Easthom said, are now largely marginalized. She describes them as "small raiding parties" moving back and forth for food and supplies between South Sudan and neighboring countries.

"The squeeze-out has been happening for a while," she said. "We're already there supporting communities in South Sudan affected by the LRA. We're already responding."

Still, she finds the effort behind "Kony 2012" heartening. "I feel very worried about the process of civil engagement. This is a way to encourage people to get active again."

Easthom's activism is in her blood. "I was one of those social-justice kids," she said. She remembers begging her parents to take in homeless people when she was 10, feeling "outraged" when they wouldn't. She was a community mobilizer in Latin America.

In Uganda, she became "obsessed with the concept of civilians as cannon fodder," joining NP in 2009.

Nonviolent peacekeeping, she said, "is not an idealistic concept. It's pragmatic. It's a very effective tool for civilian protection. Power brokers won't listen to the rainbows-and-unicorn crowd. You have to provide something concrete."

For 10 years, NP has sent peacekeepers to some of the world's most dangerous spots. Her work has taught her that conflict is complex. A good-bad dichotomy is seldom accurate.

"People in conflict shift positions all the time," she said. "Everybody's a victim, and everybody's a perpetrator."

The demise of Kony is another reminder that conflict is not inevitable. "It has a very predictable pattern," she said. "There are always ways through it."

Social networking is one way. "There's been a lot of progress getting people exposed to people like Kony," Easthom said. "But there's no replacement for human interaction."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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