In May 2010, Shannon Sedgwick Davis flew to South Africa to meet with the Elders, a nonprofit founded by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jimmy Carter to bring peace to places of violence. She had been asked to join the Elders’ advisory board in 2007—an offer you don’t turn down, Davis said.
As she walked beside one of her heroes, she asked whether or not she should pursue Joseph Kony. The Ugandan warlord has, in the past two decades, abducted tens of thousands of children, forced them to slaughter their own families and friends, and then enlisted them in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), his rebel army of child soldiers.
“Shannon, this one is clear,” her mentor said without pausing. “This one is black and white.”
For Davis, 39, the fight against Kony has long been a matter of passion and principle. Back in 2000, at the start of her legal career, Davis was drawn to social justice advocacy. That year, she began working for International Justice Mission (IJM), arguably the most acclaimed Christian human-rights organization today. At IJM, she did everything from fundraising to assisting victims to spearheading the Emmy-winning “Children for Sale” segment that aired on Dateline NBC.
Next, she worked for two foundations that funded groups like IJM: first as vice president of Geneva Global, now as CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, the charitable arm of investment firm Bridgeway Capital Management (which has $4 billion under management). Based in Houston, the foundation gives half its after-tax profits to organizations working to protect human rights and stop genocide.
Davis first learned about Kony when Invisible Children, a nonprofit founded expressly to end LRA atrocities, sought Bridgeway funding for its 2006 short film. Invisible Children: Rough Cut tells the story of three Americans who travel to northern Uganda and witness firsthand the destruction caused by Kony and his followers.
“Our mission statement has in it ‘a world without genocide,’ ” Davis said. After meeting the founders of Invisible Children, “I realized we weren’t doing that. We were doing a lot of amazing things, but we weren’t stopping war—we were just picking up the pieces. I went to the board and said, ‘We need to mean what we say in our mission statement or change our mission statement.’ ”
In December, Invisible Children (best known for its viral anti-LRA campaign Kony 2012) announced that it was downsizing its efforts and would likely shutter most activities by the end of 2015. CEO Ben Keesey told GOOD magazine and The New York Times that the organization would stop producing short films, and operate in the United States only, lobbying Congress to support anti-LRA initiatives.
At least one reason, it's safe to say, that Invisible Children is shuttering operations is that its goal is nearly completed: the LRA's deadly force has been removed root and branch. And fewer people are to applaud for that removal than Davis.
While Davis was charting a career path that led directly to Kony, Kony was finding his own life purpose: to create a rebel force so horrific it would rip apart Uganda from the inside.
Kony grew up in a devout Catholic family in northern Uganda, often called “Acholiland” for the Acholi tribe—Kony’s tribe. Kony was reportedly a timid child who didn’t like to fight. He served as an altar boy at the local chapel, where he was fascinated by hymns and rituals.
In the mid-1980s, Kony briefly joined a rebel movement against President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who had continued the tradition of treating the northern tribes as second-class citizens. It was a tradition that began in the late 19th century, when British colonizers put southern Ugandans in charge of the central African country’s finances, agriculture, and education. This colonialist arrangement led to economic disparity, deep racial tensions, and widespread violence between the north and south.
Shortly after Kony’s stint in the rebel group, he fell ill and was diagnosed by a witch doctor with possession by an ancestral spirit. The Acholi believe in two options for people like Kony: have the spirit exorcised, or call in a more powerful witch doctor to install a spirit of healing. Kony’s family chose the latter, and from that point on Kony was known as a healer.
In 1986, Alice Auma (also an alleged healer and prophetess, as well as believed to be Kony’s cousin) rallied thousands of Acholis who disapproved of Museveni’s rule. Her Holy Spirit Movement rebel group failed, and Kony used the opportunity to recruit the rebels for his own army. By 1991, Kony’s rebels had taken control of Acholiland and were feared for their ruthlessness. That spring, Museveni’s government launched a five-year effort to reclaim the north. When Kony’s fellow Acholis began turning on him, Kony maimed members of his own tribe whom he suspected of being informants, cutting off ears, lips, and limbs, and citing Mark 9 as justification.
During failed peace talks with Museveni in 1994, a young Kony compared himself to Jesus Christ and Muhammad, and began preaching his own religion—a hybrid of Christianity, Acholi tribal religion, and Islam. He said he was under divine orders to keep killing until either Uganda was ruled by the Ten Commandments or Museveni was overthrown.
When he could no longer recruit Acholis, Kony began kidnapping the tribe’s children, who were easier to manipulate and threaten. He routinely forced them to kill their own parents and to bludgeon other children to death. Disobedience resulted in being tortured or killed; compliance functioned as an initiation rite. According to Human Rights Watch, the LRA abducted at least 20,000 children and murdered tens of thousands of Ugandan civilians between 1987 and 2006.
Since 2005, as global resistance has grown, Kony and the LRA have left Uganda and scattered to the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, leaving behind them a bloody trail. One such incident was in December 2008, when the LRA attacked villages in the northern DRC and South Sudan, killing 865 civilians over the Christmas holiday, according to Human Rights Watch.
No Other Options
Even before Davis and her team funded Invisible Children’s 2006 film, they had supported other anti-LRA movements in the region, including United Movement to End Child Soldiering, Human Rights Watch, and Resolve Uganda. Stopping Kony seemed the most direct and urgent way to bring peace to a nation riddled by violence.
After the 2008 Christmas massacres, partner NGOs in the region told Davis and her team that they had reason to suspect 2009 would bring more end-of-year carnage. Along with undertaking a 38-day fast, Davis hired an international security adviser to survey the region, research how best to warn civilians, and report patterns in violence. When Christmas 2009 passed without news of destruction or upheaval, Bridgeway celebrated, thinking their efforts had paid off.
But a visit to the DRC the following spring revealed the wreckage of a 4-day bloodbath in which the LRA abducted 250 people (including 80 children) and killed more than 300 civilians. Victims were tied to trees and hacked to death with machetes and axes.
Devastated, Davis realized she had to do more. Multiple government officials and NGOs informed Bridgeway about a missing link in their strategy: training Uganda’s army. Its military lacked the guerrilla warfare training necessary to track Kony and his soldiers, many of whom were children and considered brainwashed abductees. Bridgeway also learned that remote villages needed a good communication system to warn each other of impending danger.
Bridgeway provided improved local communications systems quickly. Teams set up radios throughout the region and worked with Invisible Children to develop the Crisis Tracker, which uses radio towers and NGO networks to immediately alert villagers of attacks.
“I contacted the State Department and Human Rights Watch and others for advice, but I also did a lot of soul searching,” Davis said. “It was not easy. There wasn’t much of a road map for this type of intervention. It’s important to understand we didn’t pursue this strategy over other options. We pursued this strategy after exhausting what we believed to be all known options.
“It was complicated ethically and politically, but it was clear to us that there were ethical problems in not acting. Every day that clicked by was another day of horror for those being affected.”
Their vision refocused, Bridgeway’s strategy was threefold: rescue child soldiers, prevent future abductions and violence, and train Uganda’s military to fight strategically and find Kony.
Davis began meeting with General Aronda Nyakairima, until recently the chief of all Ugandan defense forces. He agreed to form a Special Operations Group (SOG) to be trained under Eeben Barlow, cofounder of the South African private military contractor Executive Outcomes. Somewhat controversially, Barlow and his company had hired themselves out in the 1990s to help end the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola, successful missions that gave them access to land and natural resources. For Bridgeway’s mission, though, Barlow didn’t want a fee.
Early on, Bridgeway kept quiet about funding the SOG training. According to Davis, Bridgeway saw its role as a small one and didn’t want to be in the spotlight when Ugandans were giving everything for the cause. But in 2013, The Washington Post got wind of Bridgeway’s efforts.
“Once the story broke, we chose to be open about what we had done and invested in,” Davis said. “The experts were right: training for those forces was a huge missing piece of the puzzle. The results have proven that to be the case.”
Since 2012, LRA violence has dropped by 93 percent. In 2013 alone, Kony’s army lost at least 32 of an estimated 200 fighters at the beginning of the year; 16 soldiers defected, and another 16, including 4 senior officers, were captured or killed. Last year brought the biggest returns yet, with more than 500 returnees to date, including at least 172 women and children.
“One of the sad things is how quickly it did get better as soon as we got involved,” Davis said. “We should have shown up a long time ago.”
But Davis insists the credit goes to the Ugandans—not to her, Bridgeway, or the United States.
“We never want our role to be talked about in any way that [doesn’t] truthfully present who the real heroes are,” said Davis. “The Ugandans are out there every day [and] have lost their lives in terrible ways. Their unbreakable spirits and willingness to fight against a perpetrator who hasn’t been on their soil since 2005 is pretty remarkable.
“Some of these guys have been deployed for four years. A lot of them . . . had family members killed by Kony. For them it’s personal.”
Indeed, Ugandans have given Davis the most insight into a conflict that can seem unending. Davis, herself a mother of two young boys, listened to the mother of an LRA soldier sing to her child through an airborne helicopter loudspeaker, I love you, I forgive you, urging him to defect. Davis has watched Ugandan leaders embrace LRA defectors—the same rebels who in many cases killed their family members—saying, “Welcome home, brother. Let’s go have some tea.”
When Davis asks them how they can forgive, SOG troops say that when the alternative is continued war, forgiveness is the only option. Uganda is 84 percent Christian; Davis believes many Ugandans understand grace in a way that evades Christians in more privileged contexts.
“We have so much to learn,” Davis said. “We are more educated and better fed, but in this way, they’ve got us beat. Where does that come from? I want to have some of that.”
Davis said this grace is the single best entry point for former soldiers to regain some of their innocence.
“They have a huge uphill battle. Some of them have been with the LRA for decades. Many of them were forced to kill their parents or other villagers and then to mindlessly kill and abduct and loot—completely counter to the way a child would normally behave.”
Davis, who grew up having a youth director mother and now attends a nondenominational church in San Antonio, says faith has guided her in times when she’s witnessed horrific suffering.
“If I viewed my work through an agnostic lens, I would have a much harder time getting out of bed in the morning,” she said. “Yes, we have what some might call ‘impossible’ assignments. But when looked at in light of what I believe about God and the goodness with which we have all been created, those assignments seem worthwhile—and achievable.”
Kony is still out there, suspected to be hiding along the Sudan–South Sudan border, a hard-to-reach locale for troops. But LRA defectors report he is no longer able to operate on the scale he used to. Kony is welcome nowhere and is still actively being pursued.
In Central Africa, a region rife with conflict, Davis and her team are welcomed by countries unified in their desire to end Kony’s reign. But Davis says it has never just been about a hunt for one man.
“It’s about showing up for our brothers and sisters who have been suffering,” Davis said. When she first began working with SOG troops, she was mzungu (“white woman”); now she is “African sister.”
“If Kony is out there to the last of his days but the atrocities have ended, that’s still a success. But I also believe it would be a tremendous contribution if he were captured and brought to the ICC [International Criminal Court]. I want that for the victims.”
These days, Davis spends 70 percent of her time on the Kony mission while juggling parenting and serving on the boards of multiple organizations, including Humanity United, TOMS, and Charity:Water. Often she feels like she lives between two worlds—one where children need carpools to swimming or basketball practice, another where children have survived by eating plant roots while waiting to be rescued. Last summer she began to bridge the gap by taking her sons to Rwanda for two months while she worked in the field.
“As Americans, we represent less than 5 percent of the world’s population. We are disproportionately blessed, and we have lived in a peaceful and prosperous time. For this reason we have such an extraordinary responsibility,” Davis said. She holds fast to Matthew 25:35–40 and a Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote:
We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself. . . . Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
“When we allow ourselves to be present enough to . . . let some of these tragedies take residence in our hearts, it helps us see all of the places in our lives where we can contribute,” said Davis. “The opportunities are everywhere.”
Laura Joyce Davis (no relation to Shannon) is an award-winning writer based in Oakland. She recently completed her first novel, inspired by her year working with victims of sex trafficking in the Philippines.
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