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Invisible Children found itself the sudden focus of lavish praise and scathing criticism. Effusive backing came from a host of Senators, Representatives and celebrities as well as International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who told the BBC, "They've mobilized the world." But academics and bloggers, particularly Africans, criticized the group for overstating the threat--with 150 to 200 mostly barefoot fighters, the LRA has never been weaker--while Ugandan video blogger Rosebell Kagumire became a Web hit herself when she attacked Invisible Children's staff for casting themselves as "heroes rescuing African children." Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who has starred in a number of the group's previous, less popular films, seems genuinely surprised by the furor. The film is "changing the world," he told TIME as Kony 2012 approached 100 million views. At the same time, he added with equal bewilderment, "people are calling me the devil."
Who are Invisible Children? Why are 100 American commandos helping local forces pursue a tiny guerrilla army in Central Africa that poses no threat to the U.S.? Did the phenomenal interest generated by Invisible Children help shape the President's decision to send in the troops?
Stumbling upon a Cause
It is March 2003, a few days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and three San Diego slackers, childhood friends now wearing baseball caps and goatees, are explaining to the camera why they are going to Africa to make a film about a 47-year civil war that has cost 2 million lives. "We are naive kids that have not traveled a lot, and we are going to Sudan," says Bobby Bailey, 21. Laren Poole, 19, rambles on about how "media is life, it defines your life. So it's an obvious choice for three kids who want to find the truth." In a voice-over, a 24-year-old Russell adds, somewhat superfluously, "None of us knew what we were doing."
Russell, Poole and Bailey make it to Sudan but find no fighting. After filming themselves vomiting, setting anthills on fire and chopping a snake in half, they follow a trail of Sudanese refugees south to northern Uganda. When they approach the town of Gulu, a truck in front of them is shot at and two people are killed. Forced to stay in Gulu, they film as thousands of children show up at nightfall and sleep on street corners, in a bus park, in hospital corridors. "Needless to say," narrates Russell, "we found our story."
Bailey, Poole and Russell had found the fallout of the LRA's war: tens of thousands of children who wouldn't sleep at home for fear of being abducted by the rebels. The crisis was not new. The LRA was founded in northern Uganda in 1986 to oust Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose troops tore through the north when Museveni, a southerner, seized power that year. The LRA never seriously challenged Museveni, and the group might have remained forever obscure but for one thing: Kony is one of the cruelest and most twisted men ever to hold a gun. His MO runs to rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism, and he sustains his group by pillaging villages, stealing food and abducting children to take as soldiers and wives.