In 2006, after a grueling eight month search which involved secret jungle hideouts in the Congo, defected child soldiers from Uganda and brushes with the Vice-President of Sudan, Riek Machar, journalist Sam Farmar became the first person to meet and then interview Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. Six years later and he remains the only person to interview the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader who is responsible for the abduction, rape and murder of thousands of children across Africa. Earlier this week we caught up with the London based journalist to discuss his arduous path towards Kony, the skepticism surrounding the Kony 2012 campaign, and sharing doughnuts with the most wanted criminal in Africa.
You were the first journalist to interview Joseph Kony in over 23 years, can you talk us through the eight months you spent trying to track him down? So it all started when I was in the North of Uganda when I was eighteen years old. I was working for a missionary organization on the Sudanese-Ugandan border in a refugee camp called Adjumani and during that time Joseph Kony attacked that camp with his rebels. And although I wasn’t affected personally by the attack I had a real sense of the fear that he instilled in the people in that area. So he’s very much always been on my mind. I think – if I’m really honest – it was pride. But through pride it lead me to think “I want to track this guy down, he hasn’t been interviewed before,”. I mean, I wasn’t particularly clever about it. I didn’t have any links or contacts that anyone else didn’t have but it was just a matter of persistence and it became a bit of an obsession, I suppose.
So I contacted one person, initially a child soldier who had fled his army, and he put me in touch with his cousin who put me in touch with someone else who put me in touch with someone else and so on. And we slowly worked our way up the ladder, but in doing that I came across a British researcher who was also talking to similar people and her name kept coming up in conversations as I was talking to people. I think my name came up with her as well so we joined forces. Her name is Mareike Schomerus and she is a PhD student based in London. So we joined forces and realistically without her I don’t think I would have met Kony. And if I did it would have been delayed so she was a huge help to me. She was a great researcher. Anyway, we eventually made contact with Vincent Otti who is Joseph Kony’s number two and he said we could meet with Kony and in the summer of 2006 we got a phone call to say “come out to Kenya and we’ll talk”.
So I went up to Nairobi airport where I was met by two young looking guys, one with dreadlocks who had just taken his driving test that day, hardly the sort of jungle LRA fighter I was expecting to meet at all. They’d also been racing the day before at the Nairobi racecourse and they were wearing the latest Fila jeans and Tommy Hilfiger tops so they weren’t what you’d imagine. Then we checked in for the flight. They checked 500 or 600 kilos of excess baggage which was rubber boots, tents, army equipment, no guns but army equipment and we flew up to Juba where we spent ten days living in a compound with them waiting for Kony to actually agree to meet us for the interview.
During that time we thought we were being under the radar, unfortunately we weren’t and Riek Machar the vice-president of Sudan at the time, and still now actually, he made contact with us and he travelled with us to meet Kony in the bush which was a two day journey by car. Eventually we travelled to this jungle hideout and there was a bit of an exchange via satellite phone and we were then taken into a clearing in the jungle by Vincent Otti, the man we had been speaking to on the phone up to that point, actually Vincent Otti has since been killed by Kony so he’s no longer around. That’s how we met Kony.
Were you satisfied with the interview? Yeah, I think I could do it slightly better now with more experience. But I think I challenged Kony. I asked him very clear questions. I said, “you’ve been accused of cutting people’s lips out, cutting people’s ears off, terrible crimes, rape, pillaging, killing 10,000 people, abducting 20,00 children, what do you have to say for yourself?” And it was a difficult interview because he denied everything. He just said “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” And that’s very hard as a reporter because if someone says “yes there’s some truth to that but…” that’s one thing. But if they say “I didn’t do it” then I say “but you did do it” then they say “but I didn’t do it” it just goes back and forth to nowhere. So yeah, it was a difficult interview. He was totally in denial and blamed all the atrocities on Yoweri Musevenn the President of Uganda.
Having said that he was a relatively jovial character, he was enthusiastic, he called me by my first name, he was quite relaxed, we sat on little plastic chairs in the jungle together, we ate mandazis together which are like a local doughnut and he was reading Time Magazine when I met him. He’s a relatively educated man, he’s relatively bright and he didn’t seem like the warlord and the criminal that he’s portrayed to be. I have no doubt he is though, I have no doubt that he’s a very evil man but he certainly didn’t come across as that.
Did your perspective on the LRA change after meeting Kony? I mean, it’s a complicated situation just like any war is complicated. There are grey areas. It’s not goodies and baddies. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Joseph Kony has committed almost all if not all the atrocities he’s been accused of – maybe even more. There are other factions though. The Sudanese forces have been blamed for some things. Whenever there’s an attack in Uganda, Sudan and Congo in that sort of region it’s blamed on the LRA and I don’t always know if it’s them. And the Ugandan Army has some motives as well and they haven’t always played their cards right and have contributed to some crimes. But let’s be clear about this – Joseph Kony is the main man causing instability in that region. Now his war has moved from Uganda into Congo and Sudan and he still remains at large, he’s still abducting children, he’s still killing children, he’s still a real threat.
What’s your opinion on the Kony 2012 campaign, have you seen it unfold? I have seen it unfold and I’m totally amazed by the cynicism of people. I really am. I mean, people are picking up on relatively small things like as I said the war isn’t in Uganda anymore it’s in the Congo and Sudan – but he still exists! And he’s still very active and he’s still doing horrible things. I’ve met Jason – the guy in the film – a few times and I’ve been to the Invisible Children offices in Gulu. I’ve been incredibly impressed by those guys, they have tapped into the hearts and minds of the American people and of many young people around the world. And I find it amazing and very encouraging that people in America and all over the world are impassioned by and care for people on the other side of the world who they’ll never ever meet. I find it very exciting. I think this is the most creative solution to a deadly problem that I’ve ever come across.
Because you actually found Joseph Kony have you been contacted by intelligence agencies to try and locate him? I have had some conversations although nothing that I think would be helpful to anyone. But yes, I have been approached by one or two people.
Sam, thank you for your time. Thank you.
Interview by Chris Wirasinha.
Title Image Provided by Sam Farmar