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.