Patricia Akello grew up in the midst of a brutal war in northern Uganda, involving a sadistic rebel leader named Joseph Kony and his murderous group, the Lord's Resistance Army.
The 24-year-old, who is visiting the United States for the first time, lost many friends and relatives to Kony, who's among the International Criminal Court's most wanted war criminals.
Among his many crimes, he is said to have abducted more than 30,000 children in 26 years, turning them into soldiers of war.
"I was born when this conflict was going on," Akello told a large group of UC Merced students who packed a lecture hall. "I grew up to about 18 and this conflict was still going on, and now I'm 24 and this conflict is still going on in the Congo. And so, like, literally, I have not lived in a generation where this conflict has not been there."
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Akello stopped Thursday at UC Merced to share her experiences with students and others. She's on one of 16 teams with the group Invisible Children touring the country to screen the documentary, "KONY 2012."
The film, which has had about 80 million views on YouTube, advocates the arrest of Kony and U.S. support to achieve that goal. On the flip side, the video has stirred controversy, as many critics question the motives and finances of Invisible Children. Others claim the film glosses over the complex issues facing Ugandans, and even whether Kony remains a threat.
The criticisms are expected to increase after Jason Russell, Invisible Children's co-founder, was detained Thursday after allegedly masturbating in public and vandalizing cars in Pacific Beach, according to the Los Angeles Times.
After Thursday's screening, Akello shared her personal story and took questions from students.
Akello said the number of children Kony abducted may be as high as 60,000. Kony and his soldiers went around every night abducting children, killing people and burning people's houses, she said. "Many people feared sleeping in their own homes," she said. People had to go elsewhere, she said. She was only 5 years old and had to sleep in the jungle to avoid capture by Kony's thugs.
"I went through that and it's so fresh on my mind," she said. "I lost many friends to this conflict. Many people I grew up with were abducted. People I knew, not just one or two or three (but) many, and my relatives got killed."
Kony's whereabouts are unknown. In 2006, Kony fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and some believe he may be hiding there.Akello said that even though Kony is no longer in Uganda, she doesn't feel relief because the same crimes happen in nearby countries. "They continue to do that right now as I speak," she said. "It's not OK with me. I know people (who) are still going through the things that I went through."
For the situation to change, she said, the global community must not turn a blind eye to Kony, and he must be brought to justice for his crimes.
"The international community can be more involved to bring this to an end," she said. "That can happen if we all join together, if you join us in this fight to bring peace."
Despite the popularity of "KONY 2012," there's been no shortage of critics worldwide. Some have pointed to the salaries of Invisible Children's executives. Russell reported earning $89,669 in 2010-11, according to tax documents posted on the group's website. Laren Poole, co-founder, reported making $84,377, and Chief Executive Officer Ben Keesey reported earning $88,241, the same documents show.
According to Invisible Children's 2011 annual report, the group brought in $13.7 million in revenue that year. The breakdown of expenses shows that about $3.3 million went to programs in Central Africa and $2.3 million was spent on awareness programs. The group spent $1.4 million for management and general expenses, $850,050 on "awareness products," $699,617 for media and film creation, and $286,678 for fundraising.
Even locally, there are those who wonder about the group's motives. After the presentation, a UC Merced senior student named Jacob, who declined to give his last name, raised questions about the company's finances and whether there was a connection between Uganda's oil and the United States deploying special forces to assist in Kony's capture. In October, the United States sent to northern Uganda 100 military advisers, who have since been dispersed into Central Africa Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Akello told the student that she doesn't believe there's any connection between the oil and U.S. presence in the area. "I don't think it's connected with this campaign at all," she said. "I'm from Uganda and I know it."
Hugo Sanchez, 21, a UC Merced senior, said he wasn't sure about donating money to the group, given the financial criticisms. "It made me think of what's another way that I can help," he said, adding that Thursday was the first time he had heard of Kony and his crimes.
Hannah Fordham, who is the leader of the team that appeared at UC Merced, said there's been some miscommunication about Invisible Children's finances. "Let me just say that we are 100 percent transparent," she said. "You can find all of our income statements and financial statements online since 2007, so we are not hiding anything from you guys. It's all online."
Fordham said the group didn't expect the criticism at the beginning, but now they're ready for it. "People are looking closer at us. We want these difficult questions," she said. "It was tough at first, but we kind of welcome it now."
To read more, visit www.mercedsunstar.com.