"I’m not a lunatic with a samurai sword and a ponytail." -Robert Young Pelton
Adventurer Robert Young Pelton thinks he can do what no one else has so far been able to do: Find Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord hiding somewhere in Central Africa along with his Lord's Resistance Army, a ragtag company of abductee child soldiers.
The U.S. State Department has offered $5 million for information leading to Kony’s arrest, and he’s been wanted since 2005 by the International Criminal Court on 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Most of the world learned of Kony’s atrocities last year via Invisible Children's viral video Kony 2012. (More than 100 million people saw the video and about as many saw the meltdown of Jason Russell, founder of the controversial group.)
Pelton, who claims to have located Osama bin Laden in 2003 (“I kept saying he was in Chitral then, which he was.”), is calling his manhunt Expedition Kony and has teamed up with two filmmakers, Ross Fenter and Rob Swain, to document the experience. To pay for the media part, the trio has set up an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign.
Pelton says his use of crowdfunding offers an alternative to traditional charities whereby the donor is part of the mission—donors supposedly have front row seats to the action. According to Pelton, those who contribute to his campaign will have a say “in making real-time decisions” via direct participation or web feeds.
As of December 4, Expedition Kony had raised $9,231 of the requested $450,000. This doesn’t leave much time to fill the coffers if, as Pelton says, the expedition gets underway in January 2014. Pelton, however, is also funded by himself and private donors.
No matter how much money comes in, Pelton says he’s going to Africa to find Kony. We caught up with him in Washington, D.C. to ask him about his impending adventure.
Whose idea was this in the first place?
Ross, Rob, and I were sitting around and Ross said, “Why don’t you go find Kony?” And I said, “Why not?” In the late ’90s until 2003, I did this TV series The World’s Most Dangerous Places, and that was basically me showing people how to find people. I went into dangerous shitholes and found bad guys and terrorist groups. This is a more finely tuned version of that. I’ve been tracking Kony since 1993, and I know the area and how rebels bushwalk and the placement of their camps. So this is a pretty natural idea for me.
Who is Joseph Kony?
Kony is the leader of an ethnic group that’s mutated into a quasi-religious cult—similar to al Qaeda. He is not the leader of a functioning military group. His group is broken into small pieces scattered around Garamba National Park in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We’re talking about 200 people, half of whom are abductees tagging along because they’ve been forced to live in the bush. He’s not representative of a political movement. It’s called the Lord’s Resistance Army, but he’s not really resisting anyone. He’s not even in the country where he started his fight, which is Uganda.
So I guess the question is, where is he?
My guess is that Kony is traveling with two bodyguards, and he’s moving quickly toward Sudan. Keep in mind that for years, Kony was supplied and coordinated by the government of Sudan. For many years he had safe harbor there. The funny thing about fugitives is that they can only stay away from their center of gravity for so long because it costs them so much. But there’s nothing stopping him from getting in a car or a plane and moving hundreds or thousands of miles away. He has a large group of supporters in major cities all the way from Nairobi to Kampala. God knows how many criminals are hiding in the slums of Nairobi right now.
Do you have a method for searching for him?
I use standard search and rescue concepts. I’ve spent a lot of time humping over mountains and know how rebel groups move and think. I know how much they have to eat and how much they have to carry. I’ll use that logic and my investigative journalism skills to contact friends and enemies and people who know Kony. I’ll reconstruct a probable path and thought process. You have to start out where you know he isn’t, then zoom in on where he could be and where he wants to be. This guy’s not dumb, he’s been in the bush for 20 years.
So will you be hacking through the jungle or in a hotel room working the phone?
Let’s talk about the Darwinian theory most people have about criminals. They always think they’re hiding in the bush. We thought bin Laden was hiding in a cave because we chose to think that way. We think Kony is hiding in the jungle. In reality commanders typically have a roof over their heads. They have communications, booze, minions, money, supplies, whatever. It’s silly to assume this is going to take on a cartoon-like structure where Kony’s running through the bushes and I’m chasing him.
Looks like the area he’s hiding in is pretty remote.
When I say Central Africa, you pull up your most stereotypical image and that’s it. Large areas of elephant grass, which you can get lost in three feet off the road. There’s areas of triple-canopy forest, there’s plantations where people have burned the bush and planted corps. There’s vast areas officially called national parks, which are actually poaching parks. There are crocodiles that want to eat you, there are mosquitoes that want to kill you, there are angry men with guns who want to shoot you. It's not going to be easy.
Sounds like a nice place. You hiring security?
Of course. Depending on what we’re doing. Bushwalking you don’t want to have a huge group. The larger your footprint, the larger a target you are. Work with locals, move quickly, think small. But when we’re in the rebel areas, we’ll need a truckload of slack-jawed, stoned soldiers to guard us. But not two. If you have two, they’ll fight each other and start a civil war.
Is there anything about the expedition that’s worrying you?
There are a lot of other people looking for Kony, and not all of them want us to look for him. But there are also people looking for Kony who want us to find him. There are some competing agendas that I hope I can iron out when we hit the ground and get 100 percent of the people rowing in the same direction.
I’ve been in Washington meeting with people who want to get Kony, and now that they know I’m not a lunatic with a samurai sword and a ponytail, I think they get it. Hopefully, we can have unified effort.
So why crowdfunding for this project?
Usually I would just do this, but this is an experiment to see if I can catch people’s imagination. People say they don’t like global warming or child slavery but all they do is throw money at organizations that they don’t have any interaction with. People feel let down. We’re talking about giving people a front-row seat, making sure your dollars go to the thing you want them to. Those who have a moral stake in this can be a part of it for five or ten bucks. We’ll be in constant communication with updates on our progress.
Do you think people feel let down by Invisible Children?
You can’t fault Invisible Children for what they did. They’re the biggest reason there’s so much focus on Joseph Kony, even if their methods are a bit bizarre. They’re responsible for drawing the political support of young voters who wouldn’t know where Africa was or what Kony was doing. They took that energy and translated it to political will, which then translated to tax money, which is why U.S. Special Forces are there now. Whoever gets Kony will have my support and admiration. It's not a contest. But I do like a challenge.
As one State Department person said, “Well you’re both zero for zero, so we’ll see how it goes.” What that means is that there’s no shortcuts. The proof is in the delivery.
Well I’d say you have your work cut out for you.
If it was easy it would already have been done. There’d be Catch Kony bus tours.
It’ll be a true adventure. I have to say, of all the things I’ve done, this ranks up there as a five-star.