Hypocrisy and Public Works: Local Perceptions of MONUSCO

The first time I visited Congo, I was talking with a new friend, a local leader in a small community north of Dungu, under his paillote. I had finished interviewing the radio operator there earlier in the day, and we passed some time under the thatched roof, just chatting. Amid casual conversation, joking around, and taking a photo together, one of his entourage who had been sitting with us complained about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping stabilization mission in Congo.

As a driver for another organization, this man had witnessed the UN helping the LRA in 2010, dropping off rebels and sending them back into the bush. He described this amidst a litany of accusations, from the UN arming the rebels to refusing to let them surrender. I struggled to understand this then, and it received only a small discussion of rumor and violence in my MA thesis at the time. I’ve tinkered around with writing more about it as I continue to work through making sense of how people make sense of MONUSCO’s presence and the LRA’s ongoing activities.

In 2017, I heard a story in the village of Dungumai about a time a few years prior, when the local population there cut down trees and blocked the road in protest of the UN’s complicity in LRA violence. This story was also something I fell into—I had been visiting RTK, a radio station in Dungumai that played “come home” radio messages (the subject of my previous research), and talking with the director there about people’s complaints about such programs. An older couple had stopped by to speak with him, and as we wrapped up our conversation it turned to accusations against MONUSCO. He mentioned this to his visitors, and I ended up hearing a story from a woman as she recalled the protests there. People blocked the road, attempting to stop MONUSCO’s work and hold the mission accountable. “We had heard, but that day we saw,” the director translated for me, pointing emphatically at his eye, “that the UN was helping the rebels.”

This fieldwork trip, I’ve placed questions of MONUSCO at the center of much of my research, because one of my key research questions concerns who people turn to for security and to whom people attribute insecurity. The answer is filled with gray areas as basically everyone that is supposed to protect civilians is also accused of abusing them or abandoning them. Even the one consistent positive answer regarding who effectively protects communities—self defense groups, both ad hoc and organized—have had a history of abuse further south in the Kivus. Attributing security and insecurity to certain actors isn’t an easy task.

The MONUSCO offices in Dungu town, where protests have also occurred.

I’m still working through the transcripts of various short trips I’ve made during this stint of research so far, but during two days back in Dungumai this month I heard the word “hypocrites” used to describe MONUSCO multiple times. “Ils jouent un double jeu,” one person said—MONUSCO plays a double game. Someone else called the peacekeeping force “two-faced” for its declarations of combatting the LRA while it actually helped them. In Niangara town, rather than describe MONUSCO as responding to existing violence, several people associated the arrival of MONUSCO troops with impending violence to come (something Kristof Titeca has pointed out in explaining how people in this region make sense of increasing violence in their midsts as multiple armed actors arrived in short order).

And yet, when I put to these respondents the question of whether MONUSCO should stay or go, an overwhelming number of people in Dungumai said that they should stay, but do better. A few in other communities said they were glad MONUSCO had closed some bases in the region, and a couple said they hoped the peacekeepers would leave altogether. But a vast majority attributed some benefits to having MONUSCO around even as they criticized what they saw as not only complete failure to protect them but a betrayal of this commitment. For many, this ambivalence was attributable to the infrastructure projects that MONUSCO has engaged in, especially maintaining roads and rehabilitating bridges. A few buildings at schools had been constructed by MONUSCO, and some young men had found work with the peacekeeping force as well. Many others pointed to training the FARDC as an important practice carried out by MONUSCO. In short, there were benefits to having MONUSCO in the region, even if those benefits weren’t security.

A playground built by the Moroccan Battalion of MONUSCO in Dungumai.

The main bridge in Niangara, rehabilitated by MONUSCO’s Indonesian Garuda Contingent.

One hears news of MONUSCO packing up in Haut Uele altogether, though recent LRA incidents near and far may push this timeline further back. I should note, however, that such incidents are more than mere coincidence for some of my interlocutors, who wondered aloud why LRA attacks were increasing just as the peacekeepers’ mandate was winding down and now might have to be renewed. “No Kony, no job,” one person said in English, and I’ve heard similar phrases uttered on previous trips here. Allegations of MONUSCO complicity run far and they run deep. For over ten years the LRA has been preying on the population, and for much of that time UN peacekeepers have been performing poorly in countering the violence, in the opinions of people I’ve talked to.

Thus, while the peacekeeping force was under almost universal critique for failing at its primary objective of protecting the population and combatting the LRA, people mostly stopped short of calling for its departure, partially due to the other benefits of MONUSCO’s presence separate from security. To what extent might we think of the UN peacekeeping force as a development enterprise? Especially since several forward bases have closed and the remaining Moroccan Battalion only occasionally conducts patrols these days, the main encounter with MONUSCO seems to be through its infrastructure projects and maybe also its human rights monitoring. Most international NGOs have left the Uele region, and several people lamented being “forgotten” by NGOs and unable to get the attention of the government. But MONUSCO remains (for now), and just a few weeks ago a team of Indonesian peacekeepers smoothed out some of the major dirt roads here in town. How might we understand the public works projects of MONUSCO in the broader context of their mandate and effectiveness?

Orientations

Every morning, a radio operator sits at the table in a dimly lit room at the NGO that I study. As the day begins and the morning fog clears, the operator begins the morning round by calling out to different communities over the high frequency radio. In turn, between the static and beeps so often heard on the radio, radio operators in rural communities respond with quick updates. Through this daily round, the network of radio sets are able to keep these distant communities in touch with one another, in a region where there is little in terms of communications or transportation infrastructure.

Almost exactly a decade ago, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group originating in northern Uganda, was in the middle of a stand-off with the Ugandan government. The two sides had been negotiating in Juba, South Sudan, but were at an impasse. During this time, LRA forces were gathered in a couple of positions in South Sudan, as well as a contingent camped in and around Garamba National Park in the Congo, where they had been since 2005. After months of stalled talks, the Ugandan military launched an incursion into Garamba in an effort to rout the rebels in December of 2008, exactly ten years before my arrival to my fieldsite last month (to the day, in an unplanned twist).

Several have written about why the operation failed. Much has also been written about what happened next: in retaliation for the failed UPDF attacks, the LRA launched a series of coordinated attacks across Haut Uele district on and around Christmas Day, clustered around the communities of Faradje, Duru, and Doruma. After the initial massacres on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the rebel campaign continued into the new year. Human Rights Watch’s report details the atrocities, in which 865 people were killed and 160 abducted in a span of two weeks. Almost exactly a year later, the LRA carried out another large massacre in mid-December 2009.

It was in response to these attacks that a number of local civil society organizations and international NGOs embarked on an effort together to establish the early warning network. The idea was that installing radio stations in rural communities could help provide warning to people who could get to safety or alert authorities who could respond more quickly. The network is posited as a lifeline for these communities in an area that is difficult to traverse, is home to a number of armed actors, and sits at the edge of the country on the frontier of warring states.

I’m interested in this specific origin story of the network, because it highlights the humanitarian characteristics of the network. Humanitarian intervention is intended to response to moments of crisis and need, providing relief amidst political violence (or epidemic, or weather-related disasters, etc.). But the radio network, in practice, is much more. While the impetus behind it was a response to violence, it is also a development project in that the radio has the potential to change the community by connecting it to others, with potential effects on sociality, belonging, and communication in the region. And while this iteration of the network is a humanitarian project, it is modeled after an ecclesiastical network that linked parishes in the region. And beyond these factors, there is the way that the network brings in a range of actors such as the military and park rangers, and a range of assumptions about its potential, that makes it an interesting point of entry for research on humanitarian infrastructures.

A decade after the LRA’s most destructive attacks in this country, the radio network continues to report incidents every day. Not only LRA attacks, which continue to occur, albeit on a smaller scale. But news comes over the radio waves about accidents, elephant poaching, abuses by the state, news concerning Central African refugees, and other types of security incidents. A couple of weeks ago a father used the network to see if his child would be coming home for Christmas. The humanitarian network provides an infrastruture for all of this information, some of it critical, some of it mundane, to be shared.

If this is the rosy picture post, a future post will point to some of the ways that the radio doesn’t meet expectations, or has unintended consequences. But even these are structured by the network itself and the promise of humanitarian intervention and technology.

Starting Fieldwork

Greetings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo! I’ve recently arrived to begin my dissertation research in Haut Uele province, in the northeastern corner of the country. I wanted to write up a short introductory post here as I settle in, and will follow up with a few slightly more in-depth posts outlining the research I hope to carry out over the next year.

For those not familiar, my past work has focused on various radio media interventions in the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda. My dissertation research builds on three previous trips to northern Uganda and northeastern Congo (in 2013, 2016, and 2017)—on those trips my focus was split between FM radio programming which encouraged rebel demobilization on the one hand, and high-frequency radio transmissions that were used as an early warning system on the other. Through both, I traced the use of media in counterinsurgency, the convergence of militarism and humanitarianism, and the ethical dimensions of humanitarian intervention amidst conflict, among other things. (Still working on getting those things written up—bear with me!) My dissertation has been narrowed insofar as I will set aside the FM work to focus on the early warning network, but widening a bit as I explore other facets of intervention in my field site’s past, present, and future. I’ll sketch out bits and pieces of this in upcoming posts as well as, you know, my dissertation.

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Photo of Haut Uele province from above.

Because academics tend to weave numerous objects, concepts, and arguments into single, winding sentences, I’m going to give that a go here and outline the underlying questions that are driving my research now, at the outset. I imagine some of this will shift as I spend time here, meandering my way towards findings, arguments, and answers, and some of it will harden as my research deepens. Recently, I’ve been conceiving of this project as having a sort of four-pronged approach to understanding how the radio network works. I’m interested in how the network and those who use it a) define security and insecurity, threats and risks; b) shape and are shaped by other relations of responsibility (especially governmental and international); c) operate within the affordances and limits of high frequency radio as a technology; and d) have histories of their own, both in terms of technological histories and histories of intervention.

As a neighbor just said to me this weekend, it is easy to waste time in Dungu. I hope to avoid that trap, partially by rededicating some of my time to this here blog. Without getting in the way of the actual research, life, and other obligations, I do hope to write more about my research here, as a sort of Field Notes Lite. No promises as to frequency or content, but I’ll try to start with some orienting posts over the next few weeks. Cheers.

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.

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.

Shameless Self-Promotion: ICC Justice at Warscapes

Hello – brief note that I had a piece go up last week at Warscapes on the Dominic Ongwen trial at the ICC, now underway. It builds off of my first article for them last March, and parts of it are visible in this post I wrote the day the trial began. Here’s the article, and here’s an excerpt:

The courtroom is thought to be a site of justice, but critics have pointed out that justice often lies beyond the confines of law–that transitional justice, social justice, and a just memory can be attained not only in the courtroom but in  everyday public life. As Giorgio Agamben once claimed, “law is not directed towards the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth. Law is solely directed toward judgment.” The ICC case is arguably about judging Ongwen, regardless of what that judgment might mean. The LRA conflict is a good example, as Ongwen will likely be the only person to stand trial, and the four attacks for which he is charged are merely the ones with enough evidence to make it into court. This is shocking considering that the war has ravaged northern Uganda for the better part of three decades, resulting in thousands of killings and abductions and the displacement of millions at the hands of both the army and the rebels. The infamous rebel leader Joseph Kony is still in hiding; most other rebel commanders are dead or have been granted amnesty as part of a counterinsurgency demobilization effort. The Ugandan military has never been investigated for its role in the conflict. As such, Ongwen and the four attacks he is being tried for bear the weight of the quest for justice for countless victims of untold violations.

International criminal law has little room to acknowledge Ongwen’s unique position as both a war criminal and as the victim of war crimes. He himself was abducted as a child and forced into the rebel army in the late 1980s. Charged with the very crimes of which he was a victim, Ongwen’s personal history sheds light on the limits of international criminal justice in complicated situations like the war in northern Uganda. Ongwen has had to live his life in the context of everyday violence. His actions, whether he found himself reluctant or enthusiastic about the beatings, rapes, murders, and abductions he carried out or ordered, were shaped by this environment, making him what Erin Baines, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, calls a “complex political perpetrator.” Growing up in such traumatic times, how does one pursue a moral life? And to what extent is one held responsible for failure in that pursuit? While admitting that “the evidence of many of the child victims in this case could, in other circumstances, be the story of the accused himself,” Chief Prosecutor Bensouda argued that “having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification or an excuse to victimize others.”

The uneasy act of prosecuting a victim-turned-perpetrator, and the continued failure to hold the Ugandan state accountable, are some of the reasons that justice here is seen as a fiction, or as justice only partially realized. For victims of other attacks–for victims of Ugandan state violence, and for victims in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo–justice still seems out of reach. The pursuit of justice, after all, is the quest to establish a fair and equitable society for all. In northern Uganda, where the president whose ascendancy provoked the LRA into existence is still in power thirty years later and increasingly authoritarian, there is little in the way of justice. The people of the other three countries have fared even worse, both in terms of justice and peace, as each state has seen numerous crises and wars in recent years. If, as anthropologist Kamari Clarke claims, “justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability,” then revealing the truth of what has happened in the war is as important as finding new ways for people to understand and reconcile with one another. This requires much more than a single trial.

Click on through to read the rest. Big props to the Warscapes team and the critical edits that got the piece out rather quickly. Ongwen’s trial will continue into the spring, so I’ll be keeping an eye out as everything moves forwards. I’m sure there will be more.

Development and the Cash Economy

I spent some time this summer in Uganda with a few different undergrads, many of whom were on their first trip to a developing country. One conversation that came up several times (admittedly, I kept bringing it up) was the difference between a Western conception of development versus what Ugandans might actually want. I’ve been thinking about these conversations, and others, because I’ll be teaching a course on development this fall, and I’m likely to have these conversations with some of my students over the remainder of the year. Pardon the disjointed narrative below as I plod through a few things that are still taking shape.

In 2010, when I was on my first trip to Uganda, a friend told me that sometimes the organization she worked for had trouble keeping staff employed because, once people made enough money for the time being, they would quit. While in the U.S. one may work hard to earn a raise, and continue working to earn more, several people in Uganda, it seemed, were working long enough to make a decent amount of money and then choosing to not work for as long as that money would last.

I don’t know if this is true, but it surprised me when I first heard it as a naïve twenty-year-old. But, true or not in this specific instance, these types of stories are commonplace in the developing (and development) world. The capitalist mindset and assumed motivation for accumulation and profit are far from universal, and yet are part of the baggage that many practitioners from the Global North carry with them, often without even realizing it.

But why work more when you’ve made enough to just spend time with family, or drink, or tell stories, or do literally anything but work? The literature in the anthropology of development (and anthropology of capitalism) is rife with these types of stories. Six years, many books, and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa later, these types of stories are expected. Capitalist wage labor gets equated with slavery1 or tied to devil worship2, just to cite some examples. People don’t focus on wealth in money when they could strive for wealth in cows. They might not strive for individual independence, but rather seek “wealth in people”3. The forms of development we see often have waged employment as a goal, through vocational training, for example. Desire for employment is assumed. Some of the people I met this summer were working on internships or applied research projects that made similar assumptions – that wage laborers wanted to make as much money as possible, that people could be incentivized through bonuses.

I mention all of this not to point out that these students came to Uganda with their own set of assumptions (although that’s certainly true, just as it is with me and everyone else). After all, these assumptions are what make up the foundation of the IMF, the World Bank, and the entire global development regime. I point it out because all of these experiences – my own and those of countless others, from undergrads and newly minted development professionals to those of established scholars, practitioners, and critics – have yet to undermine capitalist development as it is experienced. Even when IMF economists say that neoliberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be [here’s a pdf of the report], it’s a half-hearted apology from an institution that is still 100% behind capitalism (see Chelwa and also Hengeveld). I mention this because the assumption of a capitalist desire to make profit is an enduring one, and one that informs virtually all of development, despite development being implemented in societies whose history of capitalism is much briefer than the U.S. or Western Europe, and despite capitalism being a system that is more likely to exacerbate inequality and poverty rather than reduce it.

* *

In Gulu town since the war shifted across the border, things have changed remarkably. Just in the three intervening years since my MA research and this summer, the town has changed a lot. Roads are paved, a new market has opened, the town has grown. This is, some would say, development.

I was walking with a friend a few weeks ago, and I mentioned to him that I enjoyed living in town. He made fun of me for liking town so much, and told me that he didn’t really like staying there. When I asked why, his answer was simple. “People here are trying to make money.” This was a young university graduate who had multiple jobs and was aspiring to gain a state salary, but he was adamant that life in town was hard (“kwo town tek,” if I remember correctly), and that life in town was marked by people being preoccupied with earning money. Life in the village, though, was simpler and more enjoyable. Several of my friends in town mentioned either yearning for or being in the process of cultivating land outside of town.

This all hearkened back, pretty much explicitly, to Adam Branch’s study of Gulu town during and after displacement [gated, here’s an earlier version as a pdf]. In it, Branch discusses how town changed as displaced people went back to the villages, the region’s poor and returnees ostracized by village life were funneled into town, and the cash economy came with urban development and the NGO influx. While many women and youth saw positive changes in town, many elders (those who were on top of the old system) were wary of these changes, arguing that they eroded Acholi society and values.

But beyond the social structures of life in Acholiland before, during, and after the war, there are also fundamental difficulties that come with a more urban, more capitalist way of life. Branch quotes one women as saying that “village life is better than town life. Life in town needs money at all times and every day which is not the case in the village. In the village you can just dig and eat well even if there is no money there” (p. 3158). Life in a cash system doesn’t come with a safety net.

Development has often focuses on the rural poor, trying to “modernize” people’s farming habits, provide education to those far from schools, etc. But many NGOs now work in cities as well, often with similar goals of bringing people into the economic system. And surely there are a number of entrepreneurial people who embrace this way of life and excel at opening up shops, building up successful businesses. But not everyone wants to make money. What will development offer them?


1. Graeber, David. 2007. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

2. Taussig, Michael T. 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

3. Mier, Suzanne and Igor Kopytoff, eds. 1977. Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, cited in some excellent recent books that look at why people seek to be dependent on others: Jim Ferguson’s (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution and China Schertz’s (2014) Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda.

Branch, Adam. 2013. “Gulu in War… and Peace? Town as Camp in Northern Uganda.” Urban Studies, 50 (15), pp. 3152-3167.

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.

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.

Shameless Self-Promotion: at Warscapes

Short post to link you all to a new piece I have up at Warscapes: “Dominic Ongwen and the Search for Justice.” The article focuses on Dominic Ongwen, an LRA abductee-turned-commander who sat before the ICC’s confirmation of charges in January. I explore his particular case, but also look at the ICC’s broader intervention in the LRA conflict, and how it has narrowed the popular understanding of what types of justice are possible and for whom. You should read the whole thing (please!) but here’s a preview:

When Dominic Ongwen stood before the International Criminal Court on January 21, he confronted  a team of prosecutors and judges presenting a list of his alleged war crimes.  After spending years as a brigade commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen was no longer outfitted in rebel attire, but stood in a gray suit and tie, listening to the proceedings as they were translated into his native Acholi language. He waived the right to have each of the charges against him read aloud in court, so the presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, summarized the seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

When Ongwen was first taken into custody last January, major rights groups heralded his capture as an important step towards justice. Amnesty International argued that “Ongwen now needs to be held to account for the numerous charges he faces of murder, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers and use of sex slaves.” Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, called Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague “a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes.” This was a sign of progress in the ICC’s first case, which was opened in 2004 and has otherwise seen little development.

But while Western rights groups were nearly unanimous in supporting Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, the mood among Ugandans was decidedly mixed—even among victims of LRA violence. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative issued apress release regretting that Ongwen had been sent to the ICC, arguing instead for him to be brought home and forgiven through traditional reconciliation ceremonies. The statement said that the ICC, “which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides” of the conflict. Around the same time, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project facilitated a dialogue of local leaders in Gulu, a town that was at the center of the conflict for many years. A report on the discussion found that attitudes among the Acholi people were complicated and support for Ongwen’s arrest was far from universal.