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.
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.