Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

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Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

GWU Anthropology Symposium this Friday

For those in the DC area, my department at GWU will be hosting our annual Anthropology Symposium this Friday all day. Please come check out some of the cool stuff going on in my little corner of the world. I am one of the organizers this year, and we’ve brought together a solid slate of presenters.

I’m particularly excited about our keynote speaker, Adrienne Pine of American University, who will be giving a lecture (at 4:30pm) titled “Preparing for an Anthropology of Fascism” and uses ethnographic data from the DC area as well as Honduras to ask what anthropological possibilities and responsibilities are emerging right now.

gwsymposiumflier

A full program is available symposium-schedule (pdf). Hope to see you there!

Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.

Conflict after Peace? News from South Sudan

One of the paradoxes of studying insecurity and conflict is that, when your topic of research happens too much, you can’t actually do the research. Five days before my flight to Yambio, South Sudan, I just had to cancel the whole trip as news comes out about increased tension near Nzara (a nearby town and my other field sight) and the potential spread of violence. I’m unhappy about my research prospects, for sure, but really the news of renewed violence in this region is bad news for everyone there, especially as South Sudan stumbles towards what was supposed to be a peaceful resolution of its civil war. This and other news from South Sudan seems to also fit right into an increasingly frequent pattern of violence that comes after peace treaties are signed and disarmament begins.

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In the late 1980s, when unrest first began in northern Uganda, the government signed the Pece Agreement with the rebel UPDA forces (see Caroline Lamwaka’s report here [pdf]). Overtures had been made to include the Holy Spirit Movement groups (including what would eventually become Kony’s LRA), but in the end government forces attacked HSM before talks could begin, and the they were excluded from the Pece Agreement. As Lamwaka says, “the failure of these initiatives was to have lasting consequences. Fighters loyal to Kony resumed their raids on civilian and NRA targets” (31). While many of the UPDA soldiers were either disarmed or integrated into the national army, the LRA remained in the bush and at war. As Adam Branch notes [pdf], “Kony stepped up attacks in reaction to his exclusion from the agreement. Setting a precedent that it has followed since, the Ugandan government had begun negotiations with Kony in early 1988, only to sabotage the talks at the key moment, provoking a outbreak of violence from Kony” (15). This cycle has repeated itself often, most recently in the 2008 Christmas Massacres that the LRA carried out in the Congo after failed peace talks and a government attack.

The LRA’s increased violence after being excluded from a peace process is not unique. Just in this region alone, rebels who have felt slighted by peace agreements, or armed groups who did not get an adequate share of the spoils after war, have turned to more war as the solution in Congo, CAR, and South Sudan. Several anthropologists and others have looked at how peace processes actually lead some actors directly to taking up arms again or reconstituting themselves as an armed group to gain legitimacy at the table.

Even after the peace treaty is signed and demobilization programs get implemented, things aren’t guaranteed to work. Danny Hoffman has described the labor that goes into being or seeming violent in order to claim participation in DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration) schemes in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the conclusion to their edited volume on Central African Republic, Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis briefly describe the failures of DDR programs in a place where the state has never had a monopoly on violence and self-defense groups, while predatory, can also at times be a line of protection. Lombard’s forthcoming book promises to delve even further into these processes.

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The peace agreement signed recently between the SPLA and the rebel SPLA-IO in South Sudan has given many some hope for some semblance of a way forward to peace, but it’s a rough road, and not everyone’s on it. Last week, news came of large-scale violence in Wau, where an alleged new rebel group killed 43 people, mostly civilians. Apparently, the peace agreement did not address the grievances of these groups – or perhaps even exacerbated them. If reports are to be believed, the new group includes a motley combination of former government soldiers, LRA, and Janjaweed militia fighters – all of whom likely have unique, localized reasons for taking up arms, but have perhaps consolidated or collaborated in order to effectively threaten the state. Sometimes peace deals bring some people together, but not all, and those left out turn to violence, or those who see the spoils of a peace agreement want to take a share as well.

The southwestern part of South Sudan that I am trying to do research in largely kept out of the civil war that wreaked so much destruction and tragedy in the country for the last two years. But, since the initial peace agreement was reached in August, violence has flared up in Western Equatoria State in a manner that runs tangential, but connected, to the national civil war. This International Crisis Group report highlights the predicament that fighters in the area find themselves in:

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”…. Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process [part of the peace agreement DDR program] as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

After several months of fighting, this spring I got word that I might be able to do fieldwork in this region as things had calmed down. But, as the fighting had occurred largely after the August peace agreement was signed, many of the armed actors in the region have now been excluded from the benefits of peace. In turn, some of them seem to have taken up arms again, with additional grievances.

While unrelated, the potential uptick in violence near Nzara and the killings in Wau may be derived from the same peace process which failed to account for violence at the margins of the war. In an effort to stake their claim that they are to be reckoned with, some of these actors have continued war. Here, Louisa Lombard’s other work, on threat economies and armed conservation efforts, provides a useful analytic. “Threats and confrontations can be a useful means to position oneself,” she says (221), and this applies to armed anti-poaching efforts as well as rebellion. “The rebels who emerged in CAR over the last decade have mostly sought not to unseat the president but to threaten him or her enough to force concessions and be included in largesse in new ways. Rebellion violence is more visible than that of armed conservation, but it relies on the same threat and hiding encounters, and the same claim to entitlements and an income” (224).

As South Sudan attempts to navigate its way out of civil war, it has left behind a string of armed actors that were excluded or otherwise marginalized from the path to peace. This has already had negative consequences in different parts of the country, but only time will tell just how far these consequences will reach.

Research to-go

Exploratory research is supposed to be just that. It can involve chasing multiple leads, pursuing vague hunches, and barking up the wrong tree. In the end, you rummage through your experiences to figure out what your real research will be and then return with a better plan. But it’s also a total mess.

I’ve been in Uganda for two weeks, and will be here and in South Sudan for the next five weeks as well. I’m here with two projects in mind. Firstly, I’m hoping to add to my 2013 research trip here on radio programs, adding some data to that project and reshaping my old thesis into something more publishable. But I’m also (almost) ready to move from radios to a second project which will eventually be my dissertation. Time will tell what this will actually look like, but it will likely be about the presence of armed groups and how they change communities. But who knows, I’m juggling lots of other ideas – barking up trees, as it were.

The thing is, my exploratory work has led me to move around a lot. I haven’t been in any one place for more than maybe five days, and I don’t think that will change by the end of my seven-week trip. Part of this is the logistics of my research – trying to conduct interviews in at least six different towns – as well as the vagaries of bureaucracy – I’m currently in Kampala trying (for a second time) to get some visa documents approved. Luckily, the radio project has a foundation – I’ve got a slew of interviews and notes from three years ago that I can build on. But at the same time, moving so quickly through these places has made it really difficult to do the actual work. As usual, interviews get pushed, new contacts get cultivated, chance encounters change plans. But often I find myself cramming these experiences into a few days. For an anthropologist – someone dedicated to the long-term engagement – I’m still figuring out what it means to move around so much.

I keep reminding myself that this is exploratory – and that’s a huge part of it. Next summer, I’ll likely move around a bit again. The year after that I’ll be much more situated in one or two places that will become the focus of my work. But at the same time, anthropology-in-motion is increasingly a thing. It’s not what I’m doing, per se, and it might not be in the end. But many aspects of my research – the aid workers, the AFRICOM soldiers, the radio recording files, the rebel returnees – move from place to place as well. The debate over how to do ethnography, how to do fieldwork, is one I’m refraining for engaging with just quite yet. (reminder: this is exploratory). But trying to figure out how to be engaged and embedded in the research, while potentially moving around, is a struggle.

As I line up more interviews and ride a five hour bus ride (again), I’ll get a better sense of what this summer is about. In the meantime, this is exploratory.

Demobilization as Defection, and Other Thoughts on Blurring Categories in Conflict

A big chunk of my MA thesis was on radio demobilization projects in the LRA conflict (shameless self-promotion: new [gated] article about it in ASR!), and I’m hoping to do some more work on it this summer as I sort out my next project (The Dissertation). A common theme that came up throughout my research – both in the field and in looking over documents and videos from groups working in the region – was the frequent blurring of different categories. I’ll illustrate by thinking my way through and around this recent article in the Daily Beast, “Joseph Kony’s Former Bodyguards Are Now Helping US Troops Hunt Him” by Kevin Maurer.

The article is centered around a recent incident in which LRA leader Joseph Kony’s guards fired on his house before escaping to a distant U.S. base where they surrendered, and since then they have been assisting the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts. This incident is definitely worth talking about – as several interviewees note in the article, this is an incredibly bold move by the abductees, and it only reinforces the continuing story that the LRA is shrinking and its command structure collapsing – but beyond just this incident and even beyond this article, I want to tease out some of the blurring that’s happening in the conflict and in how it gets represented.

Blurring Demobilization with Defection

The first thing worth lingering on is something frequent in how several people talk about the conflict – the conflation of demobilization with “defection.” The radio program is, at its heart, a demobilization campaign. Messages encourage rebels to surrender, to go home, to reintegrate into their communities, to receive amnesty, to give up on war. It is different from most DDR programs in that it is not post-conflict, nor is it en masse, but it is a demobilization campaign nonetheless. But, starting in 2011, some began to call this program and this process “defection.” In my thesis I tied this to a broader shift in linguistic and programmatic practices that signaled the militarization of humanitarianism:

LRA who escaped and turned themselves over to be reintegrated were no longer just “returnees,” but also became known as “defectors.” The leaflets that MONUSCO had been dropping became “defection fliers,” and come home messaging also gained the moniker “defection messaging.” This more militaristic jargon seems to serve little purpose except to align Invisible Children closer with its narrative as forming an “army of peace.” By 2013, there was even a department within Invisible Children called “Counter LRA Initiatives.”

[…]

This latest shift in discourse, paired by a shift in programming on the ground in the region, puts Invisible Children on new terrain. Where most NGOs operate in a place of aid and development, they rarely endorse military action or engage in collaborations with military forces. Even in Uganda, where humanitarian organizations were complicit in the government’s violent displacement policy (Branch 2008 [pdf]), NGOs did not endorse military action nearly as explicitly as Invisible Children has. By using an early warning network that relies on FARDC, assisting the UPDF and U.S. army advisers in establishing a military presence in the region, and using come home messaging as an effort to disrupt LRA activity, Invisible Children has moved into uncharted territory in its contribution to the militarization of humanitarianism. Quoted in a recent news article, the organization’s Program Manager for Counter-LRA Initiatives Sean Poole stated that “Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides” (Gonzales 2014).

I think an aspect of this linguistic shift is creeping militarism in humanitarianism, writ large – a problem bigger than Invisible Children or the LRA conflict, but rather a part of the post-9/11 securitization of (Western?) society. But, linguistic analysis and militarization critique aside, the fact of the matter is that some of the former LRA fighters who come out of the bush do actually help counter-LRA forces, effectively defecting to the other side in this conflict. Defection is happening. I don’t think that negates my argument, which has to do more broadly with humanitarianism, militarization, and ways of speaking and thinking.

Still, the linguistic practices are still doing a lot of work in Maurer’s article. When Maurer refer to these former child soldiers who have demobilized as “defectors,” the logical point of progression is that they will assist the U.S. in helping track Kony – that’s what a defector would do. If we started by calling them returnees or formerly abducted child soldiers, we might have a different perspective; maybe we would stop and wonder whether they should still be engaged in warfare at all, regardless of which side.

Blurring Child Soldiers with Soldiers

I do think that the presence of actual defectors is worth staying with for a bit, because it raises a lot of questions. In Maurer’s article, he focuses on the “Kony 7” – seven bodyguards who turned on Kony, tried to kill him, and fled to escape LRA captivity. They have since joined up with counter-LRA operations and are helping the U.S. Special Forces pursue Kony. In the article, Maurer notes that “Roland [one of the returnees] is now over 18 years old, as are his fellow Kony 7 members, Alex and Simon… The former bodyguards already completed reintegration training in Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, and were looking forward to starting a new life. But first they wanted to help the Americans free their comrades.”

If they’re going to help the U.S. fight, it’s good that they’re over 18 (child soldier laws, after all!) – but it’s not like the second you turn 18, years of abuse and trauma go away. Should these former child soldiers really be continuing to carry out war? (Again, if we start with calling them “defectors,” the answer is a more quick yes than if we start with “former abductee.”) In an article on military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström explains that:

The American military intervention, promoted by Invisible Children as essential to any solution, has itself been described by a US army officer on the ground this way: “These ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to reintegrate,” he said to the New York Times. “But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (10 April 2010). With a statement like this in mind, we ought to be more uncomfortable than ever with President Obama’s waiving of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for some of the very countries where the LRA is active.

The use of former child soldiers to help track Kony has been happening for a long time now, but should it? Does completing reintegration training do anything if you immediately head back into the bush with a gun, just under a different flag? Is that really reintegration? What does it mean to demobilize if you stay in a state of war? Is that really demobilization? Will these child-soldiers-turned-soldiers ever truly disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate?

The use of former LRA to go back into the bush where they spent recent years might have negative consequences for the returnees themselves, but it also feeds into other forces at play. How do victims of LRA violence feel, knowing that former LRA fighters are now coming back as counter-LRA fighters? When I was taking a break from interviews in northeastern Congo, one of the men I was with accused the UN of helping the LRA. Another interviewee told me that one of the issues the radio demobilization programming ran into was that locals that it was actually a coded message the Ugandan military used to coordinate with the LRA to attack civilians. Does actually using former LRA fighters do anything but exacerbate such beliefs?

Blurring Forms of Accountability

In the same instance, it’s worth noting that employing (deploying?) former child soldiers as soldiers pulls us away from the question of accountability. There’s a lot of ongoing debate over whether child soldiers – particularly ones that grow up to become adults and therefore legally responsible for their actions – should be held accountable. Much ink has been spilled on the place of child soldiers in justice after atrocities, and the issue continues to be debated (most recently in this symposium and my article on ICC-indicted LRA returnee Dominic Ongwen). Even from the perspective of LRA victims, it is often debated [pdf].

Child soldiers can (and should) be seen as victims too. Sometimes that leads to sympathy or solidarity between different victims, sometimes that leads to a perceived hierarchy of victimhood, sometimes it gets rejected completely and people see child soldiers as perpetrators instead. Often this depends on how the individual is portrayed – some get more sympathy than others.

When child soldiers grow into adult rebels, this gets murky enough. When the now-adult abductee rebels surrender and then take up arms as former abductee, former child soldier, now state soldier, things get even messier. How should local civilians interpret their change of uniform? Part of the reason even adult abductees and former child soldiers can be seen as victims rather than perpetrators is that every decision they make is shaped by the environment they find themselves in, and therefore the level of accountability or responsibility might change. For returnees who may not be able to imagine life after war, is choosing to switch sides rather than disarm still a decision in a wartime environment and a wartime mentality?

Blurring Returnee Experiences

And on the subject of accountability, there’s a lot of justice, accountability, and amnesty discussion absent from this article (either for space or because it didn’t really fit the narrative). In heralding the successes of radio demobilization programs, Maurer notes that:

One of [the] highest profile defectors was LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. He surrendered in January 2015. He was one of five high-ranking LRA officers indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. After Ongwen’s defection, military officials had him record a message urging his fighters to defect. The U.S. soldiers said many of the defectors said hearing Ongwen or other defectors on the radio convinced them it was safe to leave Kony.

“We try and let them know what is available to them,” the soldier said.

[Brownyn] Bruton [of the Atlantic Council] said there is some indication that LRA fighters listen to the radio and get the leaflets. The promise of amnesty is tempting.

“The people who go get amnesty, that is not a small thing,” she said. “To be able to wipe the slate clean, that is a very tempting offer.”

But Ongwen wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. He received no amnesty. He demobilized and then was arrested and is now on trial. Ongwen might be an example of the success of the radio come home messaging, but to say that he defected – and then to equate that with amnesty – glosses over a lot of detail. It makes demobilization programming explicitly counter-LRA and a tool for fighting rather than a tool for not-fighting, a tool for demobilization. It also obscures the fact that Ongwen was sent to The Hague and has now been charged with more war crimes than anyone in history, surprising for a child soldier (again, see the JiC symposium or my Warscapes piece for more).

On the ground in the LRA conflict, returnee experiences are in the plural. Some returnees were never abducted, though most were. Some returnees received amnesty, while many enjoy freedom (or impunity, depending on how you look at it) but without official documentation. Two men are actually in jail cells, one in The Hague and the other in Uganda, both pending controversial trials. Many reintegrate into their old homes, some reintegrate into the army, some don’t reintegrate at all and move away to escape ostracism. Much of the literature on the LRA sees one process, but there are many, many ways that demobilization and reintegration occur. Blurring these together obscures that, and blurring them into defection obscures even more.

Blurring Agency

But, in this very blog post I’m also blurring some representations of the actors involved. Child soldiers, inherently through the act of abduction and conscription, lack a certain level of agency in the legal sense, but also in scholarly and journalistic and humanitarian discourse. A lot of the back and forth in discussing the actions of abductees (and, me above, returnees) is shaped by this refusal to grant/recognize agency. But former child soldiers (or even active child soldiers) can be said to make their own decisions – decisions structured by the violent circumstances they find themselves in, of course, but decisions nonetheless.

The question remains whether, upon demobilization, taking up arms against the LRA is a decision shaped by structures of conflict or structures of post-conflict. Some post-conflict agreements include not necessarily demobilization but reintegration into the national army, after all. Is that what’s happening for these fighters? It’s not clear how long they will continue to act as soldiers, or if they’re role in helping Uganda and the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts may end up taking them as AMISOM soldiers in Somalia or as riot police to Kampala or contractors in Baghdad.

So, my own hesitation against turning demobilization into defection and turning former child soldiers into soldiers also steals away a certain agency for these individuals. Child soldiers could become soldiers, and they could defect. Who is to say they can’t take up arms? Can former LRA returnees still desire regime change in Uganda at the barrel of a gun? Can they desire to end the LRA once and for all, even if it means staying in the bush a little longer to help the U.S.?

Questions of agency in wartime are hard ones to answer, but they are questions worth asking again and again. But, in asking them, I’m trying to avoid blurring different categories together. As this erasure keeps happening, language and representation obfuscate what’s happening on the ground. In doing so, we may be closing off possibilities and asking the wrong questions.

GWU Anthropology Symposium

Putting you all on notice that my department’s annual symposium is this week. On Friday, April 15th, we will be hosting “Porous Boundaries: Risks and Flows Across Spaces” on campus all day. The symposium will include four panels of presentations plus a keynote speaker, anthropologist Clara Han, whose lecture is titled “Poverty and Vulnerability: Household Events and the ‘Drug Economy’.” The full schedule can be seen here [pdf].

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The whole day is packed with good stuff. Like, actually. I’ve seen some of these talks before, and I’m really excited about a lot of the work going on in my department, including community organizing against slow violence in Baltimore, complexities of sex work in India, and the politics of archiving at Howard University. Check out the schedule, there’s good stuff. But I must admit a shameless self-promotion: I’ll be presenting at the tail end of the 2:15-3:45 panel. It’s the same presentation I gave at AES two weeks ago: “Between Justice and Forgiveness: Accountability across Borders in the LRA Conflict,” which looks at the ICC intervention, amnesty and reconciliation initiatives, and the forgiveness-based demobilization radio messages that I researched in my MA thesis.

I hope those of you in the DC area will be able to join us. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions – scottross [at] gwmail [dot] gwu [dot] edu.

Co-authoring Identities on Social Media

Over at Sapiens, Sophie Goodman has a short little piece on the socially fraught instances when someone tags you on Facebook, attaching your name – and profile – to something you hadn’t intended. The lede notes that “best friends and acquaintances alike contribute to your identity.” This is a fact on many aspects of social media, and one that people are increasingly aware of (perhaps nervously so).

While I remain focused on conflict and development, I’ve had a little side project on social media that recently took shape as a paper on Instagram that I’m tweaking a bit for future use. A central part of my work, though, is looking at this aspect of social media that includes different people co-authoring each other’s identities, and how people either try to police such behavior or revel in it.

Ilana Gershon has written about the former, in an article [gated, PoLAR] on how college students try to “sell” themselves on social media in order to get a job. To get a job in today’s employment market, Gershon says (emphasis added):

many in the United States are now expected to transform themselves into a brand so as to be (and remain) hirable as flexible agents in pursuit of other jobs. To brand oneself as a corporate person these days entails new media practices—orchestrating a single self-presentation across a personal website, Facebook profile, Twitter feed, blog, and so on—which ideally demonstrates that one is a recognizable, consistent, and employable self. To be employable these days is to appear coherent across media platforms, efforts that in practice are undercut for two reasons. First, in one’s daily life one might use different platforms for divergent social purposes. People often have to change their regular media practices when they start looking for a job (and will frequently revert back to earlier practices once they have found a job). Second, on many of these social media sites, the person putatively in control of the profile is not the only one who can contribute content to the profile, requiring the person supposedly in charge to monitor the account and delete potentially inappropriate statements and photos.1

Meanwhile, in Gershon’s other work – on break-up narratives – co-authorship occurs in different ways. If you’re trying to look for a job, you need to make sure you don’t get tagged in party pictures or crass jokes don’t get commented on your page. If you’re trying to break up with your boyfriend, however, you might need help on how to word things or advice on whether text or Facebook Messenger is a better place to start that conversation. Rather than shunned, co-authorship gets sought out. Gershon quotes one college student whose boyfriend broke up with her via MySpace:

So I start messaging him. And my friends come in and ask what is going on. So I say I am sending him a message, he broke up with me on MySpace. And they say, “oooh, let us help!” So it was like a conjoined big breakup letter that everyone was helping me with. Everyone on my floor was helping me with this breakup letter.2

Gershon (and Paul Manning, in the second article) cites Teri Silvio’s animation theory [gated]3, a useful analytic from which to analyze this type of activity. In my own work on Instagram, the “animation” of people’s images, captions, and even decisions to post came up constantly. Here’s a snippet of my work-in-progress on how college students4 use Instagram.

First, Sarah outlines the level of co-authorship in consulting whether she should even post things for others to see:

When I’m not sure if something will get a good amount of likes, I’ll ask a friend – or three – what they think. If they say go for it, I do… Conversations with my friends are more based around the question, ‘Do you think I should Instagram this?’ which is basically asking whether the picture is worthy of being posted. I think both the questions of whether the picture has likes potential, and if it’s generally just a good picture, are implied in that one question. If they say no, then I probably won’t post it.

Second, here’s Emily, who tends to take and edit photos on her own, but captions are another story:

I have two friends who are really funny and witty. I’m not, like… well, I think I’m funny but like nobody else does [laughs]… so a lot of times I’ll think of something and I’ll be like, ‘hey, Linda! Is this dumb? Like, is this funny? Because I think it’s funny.’

And here’s a paragraph straight from my paper, highlighting co-authorship:

The “self” being curated on a primary Instagram account is made up of posts, but also comments, tagged photos, and even the photos one likes appear in a list on her profile. One friend told me that he never posts photos to Instagram, but the section of his profile where it lists “photos of you” gets updated frequently because his friends and sisters tag him often. But the co-authorship of Instagram goes beyond merely contributing to each other’s profiles. Numerous Instagram users noted asking friends for advice on their posts at least on occasion. Lauren sometimes shows photos to friends near her to help select filters, but she knew people who would text photos to each other for advice before posting. She even admitted – “as lame as it is” – that she sometimes brainstorms captions with friends before even taking a photo for Instagram. “We like to plan out our Instagrams, like at night, so, like, if we’re going somewhere where I know I’m going to Instagram, we’re like actually crazy, but we’ll be like, ‘okay, we have to get us doing this,’ like ‘this will get a caption,’ and we’ll make sure that we do it.” Photos posted to Instagram, like other animated characters, are “the creatures of collectives, rather than auteurs” (Silvio 2010:428). And once the photo is posted, the very same friends may go on to like or comment on these pictures, further contributing to the social lives of these photographs.

Co-authorship is definitely a big part of social media – good and bad. While others have shown instances where it’s a place of worry or concern, there are other ways that it is sought out in mediating what ends up online. Here friends (online or off – some people sent photos to each other for approval before posting) don’t run the risk of posting something about you that won’t go over well with others – they’re there to stop you from posting something that won’t go over well.


1. Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 27 (2), 282. Emphasis added. 

2. Manning, Paul and Ilana Gershon. 2013. “Animating Interaction.” HauL Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3), 125. 

3. Silvio, Teri. 2010. “Animation: The New Performance?Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2), 422-438.  

4. I changed the names of my interviewees. 

 

The High Costs of Microcredit

I’m in two seminars this semester – Anthropology of Development, and Capitalism and Neoliberalism – which often overlap in, as you can imagine, some pretty depressing and enraging ways. From the complicity of NGOs in reinforcing the social networks in Rwanda that were mobilized in the genocide to the ways that U.S. bases employ migrant workers in slave-like conditions [pdf], development and neoliberalism have their share of horror stories on their own, and it’s no surprise that the neoliberal mindset makes its way into the development apparatus.

In my class on development, one of the ethnographies we read was Aminur Rahman’s Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh, which outlines how microcredit programs such as the Grameen Bank actually send their clients into cycles of ever-increasing debt as interest mounts. In typical microcredit schemes, peer pressure acts as collateral as peers in microcredit groups ensure debt repayment in order to continue qualifying for loans. Other forms of pressure, from women of higher status trying to form lending circles or from husbands who want access to capital, also force women into the system and into debt in the first place. Rahman outlines how a program seeking to empower women by providing them with loans actually uses patriarchal mechanisms to enroll them and then ensure debt repayment at all costs.

One of many aspects of neoliberalism has been how people increasingly view things in neoliberal, economic terms that had previously been outside of the market. My class touched on a variety of these issues, one of which was the growing black market for kidneys, where the world’s poor are turning to sell organs in exchange for meager amounts of money and poor health while the wealthy jump over everyone waiting on a donor list, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work to try to document and stop it. As this trade continues, the poor who are scammed into selling a kidney (or who do so out of desperation) wind up with poor health, little money to show for their troubles, and sometimes the stigma of having sold a kidney.

These two specific topics came together in a recent episode of Vice. Featuring anthropologists Scott Carney and Monir Monirauzzaman, the second half of the episode focuses on the kidney trade in Bangladesh, where there are many towns or even families where numerous people have sold kidneys to get by (the first segment, on LBGT rights in Uganda, is also worth watching). The segment, titled “Kidneyville,” features interviews with some the residents of the town of Kalai who have sold kidneys out of desperation. And here’s the connection:

We weren’t surprised to find out that people regretted giving up their kidneys, but we were shocked to hear many say it was to pay off serious debts from microfinance loans which were given to them by local non-profit organizations.

“I took one loan,” one man says, “but that loan wasn’t fully repaid so I took another loan. I became deep in debt.” Another man describes how a non-profit literally took the roof from over his house since he was behind on payments. He then sold his kidney and then bought his roof back from the NGO. One woman describes how the NGO came after her when her husband killed himself because of his indebtedness.

Development programs that send people into debt in the name of helping them get out of poverty, instead committing them to debt cycles that lead them into another incredibly asymmetrical exchange. And selling a kidney still doesn’t get people out of debt to the microcredit groups, but it could cause health problems, making it harder for the poor to then find work and pay off what’s left of their debts.