Jason Russell captured the world’s attention eighteen months ago with Kony 2012, the viral sensation that exposed the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The 29-minute film got more than 100 million views in a week, and it put Russell, a filmmaker and co-founder of Invisible Children, on the cover of TIME. Russell later had a public breakdown and was hospitalized for stress-induced psychosis.
Now, a year and a half has passed, and Russell is doing much better and continuing to advocate for the end of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Last week, Invisible Children launched a new campaign, ZeroLRA. The initiative, says Russell, is sort of like “Netflix meets the Peace Corps meets Comic Con.” It allows visitors to read stories about people who have escaped from the LRA and to fundraise for more to do so. I caught up with Russell in Atlanta to ask him about the effort.
What is ZeroLRA?
Instead of having the focus be on Kony as it was in Kony 2012, this campaign is focused more on the people he has held captive. There’s about 250 fighters held captive, 140 women held captive, and some 80 children. No one really knows how many people are in [the LRA], that is why they are called invisible, because no one is keeping track of their names or lives. We want to stand for zero, no child soldiers, no killing, no war. At the same time we talk about the horror and the mutilation, we are going to celebrate every escape, every name, every life. The theme to this campaign is really celebratory.
How does this fundraising help people escape?
We have had 58 individuals escape from the LRA, and 81% cite “come home” messaging, the defection fliers or “come home” fliers we dump over the canopy forest where the LRA are known. The fliers are all compostable. We have FM radio messaging that says come home, and we have speakers mounted on helicopters, where former combatants will speak directly over LRA regions telling them to come home and escape. We need more capital to invest in our programs that we know work.
How are young activists participating?
They do it online, they set up a fundraising page, they set a goal. A lot of fundraising page goals are set at $20,000 because at $20,000 you win a trip to Uganda to see our program. You see these young teenagers, college kids saying, I want to go to Africa with Invisible Children, so they just start baking cookies, car washes, whatever it takes to raise money, and eventually they see hundreds come in, and thousands. Our goal is $3 million by Dec. 31. We have thousands of pages already set up and over $100,000 already raised.
What makes ZeroLRA unique?
I have never heard of a conflict, even a vaccine, where they are actually counting down to zero. We know there are less than 500 people in this LRA group. That is actually doable, tangible. When we started it was in the thousands. We are hoping to see an end of the conflict by the end of 2013. That would be the dream. We’ve always been hopeful, but we need all the stars to align.
What needs to happen?
The 100 advisory troops from America need to keep working well with the Ugandan military and the regional people being affected by the LRA. More escapes need to happen. Basically as we weaken the LRA one person at a time we are getting closer and closer to them surrendering. I have dreams about Joseph Kony coming out with his hands up, being, All right, send me to the International Criminal Court. What are his options? We are either going to kill him, capture him, or he could surrender. That would be the best.
You already have the end-of-war victory party planned—what will it be like?
We are getting buses all over Uganda, and we are getting in them and going from village to village. They have crates of beer, we are going to dance, we are going to sing, we are going to literally party. We are going to make sure that everyone who has been affected by the war has a chance to celebrate—their children are home, the women are home, the fighters are home, and almost three decades of war is over.
May I ask, how are you doing personally?
I’m doing really well, great actually. We got a new puppy. My wife and I are looking forward to Downton Abbey. We actually have a normal, Target-shopping, two-kid happy life in San Diego. We love where we live, we love our friends, we love our family. We don’t ignore the breakdown, but it is something that we feel we have done enough time rehabilitating, recuperating. I have a great therapist, we go to yoga, all is well. For anyone who was concerned or scared, I thank them for their kindness and their prayers. I really mean that, I feel that deeply, and to quote Kelly Clarkson, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a cliché because it is true.