A few days ago, I tweeted a flurry of late-night thoughts on sensitization in LRA-affected areas that I’d like to flesh out further here. I should start by stating that, while the topic struck me with great interest while I was in the Congo this summer, I didn’t really get to do in-depth research on it, so this is really just brainstorming, or maybe a call for further research.
My research in Uganda and Congo centers around the use of radio. One such use is that of defection messaging: FM radio stations broadcast messages that encourage LRA rebels to surrender. These radio messages are accompanied by leaflets dropped via airplane and messages played over loudspeaker on helicopters. They are also accompanied by sensitization in LRA-affected communities.
When encouraging rebels to surrender, humanitarians/militaries/civil society actors also have to ensure that surrenders can happen successfully. This means sensitization: making sure that communities know that some LRA will (hopefully) try to surrender, that they will help facilitate that (by directing rebels to reception centers, not attacking rebels trying to surrender, etc.), and that people understand why facilitating surrenders is important.
But LRA fighters who surrender are not brought to justice. Acholi traditional leaders and civil society organizations have long-pushed for forgiveness and amnesty as a way to end the war. They pressured the Ugandan government into passing an amnesty law in 2000, and have worked closely with organizations in DRC and CAR to promote forgiveness for the LRA. This is largely because so many members of the LRA were forcibly conscripted, and are therefore both victims and perpetrators.
That’s where my research leaves off, and where another gap in the literature appears.
A potential starting question is, how effective are these sensitization programs? But this misses that gauging effectiveness in terms of compliance/acceptance might miss the dynamics of the sensitization process in the first place. Another question might be, how do Congolese understand and interpret the message these programs put forward? More fundamentally – what do these programs mean for the victims of the conflict?
It’s a lot to ask a victim of conflict to forgive his or her attacker, even if the perpetrator suffers too. When I was in the Congo, I talked to some people about this, and it was hard to get any real answers. On a long bus ride through Garamba, several people told me they would be willing to forgive the LRA if it meant the war would end. Some others suggested that the LRA should face some kind of justice, even if it wasn’t jail (maybe an acknowledgement of abuses, form of payment, etc.)
One example gets at why it’s so difficult to tease out the answers: one informant told me that he absolutely supported amnesty, citing an end to the suffering as well as Christian tenets of forgiveness. Later, my research assistant, who has known the informant for a long time, said that he thought he was lying to me. He had heard the informant talk about killing the next LRA that came through the town, about making the LRA pay for what they’ve done to the people.
It was tough to determine whether my informant had changed his mind or changed his story. Was he lying to me? And if he was, why? Did he think this was what I wanted to hear? Did he think that I was affiliated with groups performing these programs? Did he think he would get something out of it? I don’t know, but exploring this interaction – and others like it – is something I’ll be working on over the course of the next couple of months.
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Many of the sensitization programs are implemented by Invisible Children and its partner organizations (a number of local NGOs and religious organizations have worked with IC in the region). There is definitely some Acholi influence at play as well, in addition to pressure from militaries to establish safe reporting sites to which rebels can go to surrender. These groups carry some weight in these communities, as they are actively working on ending the rebel group that preys on these people. This raises the question of how who says the message can change how the message is perceived.
The topic of safe reporting sites is particularly worth exploring. These communities have been asked to serve as a reception point for LRA who want to defect (blue diamonds on the map below). This does two things first and foremost: it allows the community to play a part in the effort to stop the LRA, and it makes the community a potential target to LRA retaliation. The LRA has a long history of retaliating against civilians for collaboration (real or perceived) with the government (see Branch). It’s a tough position: radio messages identify which communities defecting rebels should go to, helping facilitate surrenders, but they also make it clear which communities are collaborating with counter-LRA forces and should therefore be targeted should the LRA retaliate.
Again, the role of the organizations promoting these sites is important. Given their central position to counter-LRA activities, Invisible Children, the Ugandan military, and U.S. military are primary actors in supporting, implementing, and protecting reporting site communities. They also have a lot of leverage in some of these towns, as they provide either protection or development programs. So, when communities decide to participate, it is difficult to gauge just how supportive these communities are. Do they want to participate? Were they pressured into accepting reporting sites? Or were they simply convinced by the argument for participation?
In a report from Discover the Journey [pdf], a short passage is telling:
Each community said they would be willing to allow their community to become an intentional defection point. Of the research locations, all except Duru, DRC, have received previous sensitization around the defection/safe reporting site principles. (29)
The report takes this as affirmation that the sensitization programs are working. People are being convinced that this is the right way to go. And it very well might be – as I mentioned, not only will defection messaging help shrink the size and fighting capacity of the LRA, but these types of programs allow the local communities to be involved directly in the process. They could be given agency in being a part of the effort to stop the violence.
But they could also be denied agency if they feel pressured to agree. If a community is approached by the military or aid groups to participate – will they say no? Might it be implied that, by saying no to reporting sites, they say no to protection, aid, and rehabilitation? And if that’s the case – is that right or wrong? If it’s for the greater good (ending the LRA, supporting infrastructure, ensuring protection), maybe it’s worth it.
Again, these exploratory questions are based on a very, very small experience in working with these communities. Has anybody studied the defection sites in South Sudan or Central African Republic? Or has anybody worked on sensitization/implementation and want to shed some light on the process? I’d be curious to hear more about how these programs are working, how they were implemented, and local opinion on the matter.