Fragments of Field Site History

I’m in the Congo for about three weeks doing fieldwork, after many more weeks of wrangling bureaucracy. A great deal of waiting eventually resulted in me hopping in a humanitarian Land Cruiser with a friend and enjoying a day’s ride that bounced, skidded, and rolled through puddles, humps, and potholes. Much of the drive looked like this, and the fact that we had no issues getting to our destination is due in large part to a skilled driver who knows the road. Along the way we stopped to call NGO headquarters to see how secure the roads were. At one point we passed a group of people with flags, palm fronds sticking up from motorcycles lining the road, as Faradje territory welcomed a ministerial visit (we weren’t it, and unfortunately one person dropped some bright flowers as he made a path for us to pass). With ministerial welcoming committees cleared and the security go ahead, we drove, and along the way we’d pass little army outposts or a truckful of park rangers. Eventually, we arrived in town.

After meeting some NGO staff I was dropped off at a sprawling UN compound, where I’m staying. The parking lot is lined with matching agency Land Cruisers and the perimeter is made up of prefabricated trailers and mobile homes. There’s also a small garden. I was led to my room, dropped my things off, and then wandered. The hallway of the living quarters is plain and sterile, but a few residents have made it their own with little signs taped to their doors, memes and inside jokes. I notice that my room number is thirteen.

A bridge on the road to my field site.

If all goes well, my dissertation research will be on high frequency radio networks that are used by rural communities to alert each other. When we stopped along the way to check about road security, it was thanks to this network. Built in the aftermath of a string of incidents in which the LRA killed hundreds of people, the network is supposed to act as an early warning system and help keep isolated communities connected. Many villages are in the middle of nowhere, stretched out in the dense forest with little road access. Getting word to people is not easy, and the radio network serves to allow operators to communicate. The road here was trying enough, and that was a decent path in an able vehicle. Some roads to villages are only footpaths in the jungle, and some villages are hardly visible through the foliage.

Four years ago I was here for a week and did only preliminary work on the same issues. I wrote a tiny bit about it, and it’s been a small section of my broader work on technology, humanitarianism, and conflict in the region. As I shift from FM radio to HF radio, from Uganda to Congo, from one research project to another, I’m facing a steep learning curve but it’s been good so far. The first week has included listening in on radio rounds, meeting folks involved in one way or another to the network, stumbling through informal interviews in French, becoming more familiar with the terrain, finding a surprise archive of letters, and filling dozens of pages of field notes. Next year, I’ll be back for the long haul, but for now I’m doing all that I can to see what’s possible in an area that I’m not so familiar with. I’m also piecing together fragments of a history.

A century ago, colonial authorities established a cordon sanitaire around the Uele region of Belgian Congo to protect the population from sleeping sickness which was a major health concern in other parts of the colony but not yet in this corner. Movement was restricted, the sick were removed and placed in prisons or quarantined villages that looked and felt like penal colonies (one referred to them as “death camps.” The colonial era letters cited in one article are rife with talking about Congolese as economic assets that need to be maximized. Even amidst epidemic and quarantine, rubber and ivory quotas were strictly enforced.

Half a century ago, some poor colonial officer stranded in the northeast corner of the colony built a large castle. According to Wikipedia, he was tasked with building a two-way bridge, but instead built a narrow one and used the rest to create a chateau. I’m sure there’s more to this story. Fifty years later the castle looks pretty beat up, vegetation is overgrown, and at the foot of it sits the UN peacekeeping office. That a colonial castle has turned into a foreign peacekeeping mission’s headquarters seems like a perfect metaphor, but for what I’m not sure. Down the road trucks rumble as they wait to clear customs and drive on up to South Sudan.

A glimpse of “Dungu Castle.”

Ten years ago this community had virtually no MONUSCO or FARDC presence. Once the LRA set up camp in 2005, things slowly began to change. The national army and the UN peacekeepers gradually deployed to the area – including a botched UN operation against the LRA that left eight Guatemalan peacekeepers dead – but they failed to protect civilians when the UPDF launched its own failed attack on the LRA, setting in motion a chain of events that include the Christmas Massacres of 2008 and Makombo Massacres a year later. It’s in response to these massacres that the early warning network was built, but it wasn’t built from scratch. It was expanded using an existing network of radios between mission stations and towns, and functions in a way somewhat reminiscent of radio networks in Kinshasa that predated the cell phone and telephone.

Technology always has a history, and an ecology. It’s also locally iterative and situated. Not just radio technologies but technologies of protection and security more broadly. Humanitarian technologies, military technologies, communication technologies. Technologies of memory, of connection, of risk mitigation, of preparation, of information. With luck, I’ll find some interesting things out while I’m here.

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Arriving Late, Studying After

Northern Uganda has been post-conflict since the 2006-2008 peace talks, during which the LRA rebels retreated into havens in South Sudan or relocated to greener pastures in the Congo. From my first trip here in 2010 until now, the region has seen steady progress.

“The guns are silent,” many Ugandans like to say. And while this isn’t totally true – insecurity and occasional bouts of violence have occurred here and there in the intervening years – the guns associated with the rebels are hard to hear anymore. The LRA are hundreds of kilometers away now, for the most part, and in northern Uganda life seems to be moving along.

Every other Monday for the last year and a half, there’s been a small reminder on the airwaves. A radio station in Gulu town hosted a program – one of the come home radio programs that I study – wherein former rebels would go on air and tell their stories. The goal was to paint a picture of demobilization and reintegration, the final steps of a story that began with violence, abduction, conscription.

After telling their stories, the returnees would be asked what messages they had for those rebels who remained in the bush, for their fellow returnees in Uganda, and for the community at large. To the rebels, these returnees invariably called for them to come home, to surrender, to demobilize. To the returnees and to the community, they often warned against problems that affect much of society – everything from violence to excessive drinking – and tried to promote reconciliation between former rebels and the broader community.

I’m here in Uganda to continue this research. It’s a sort of a launching point to start/continue my next project. But lo, on the drive up to Gulu I got an e-mail from an interlocutor saying that the radio program I studied was no more. It had ended just weeks before I arrived, amidst funding cuts. When the U.S. military officially withdrew their troops from the counter-LRA operation in Central African Republic last month, all of the associated funding streams – including money that paid for a radio program in Uganda – left with them. As recently as late May people were hoping that the funding would stay for at least a little bit after the troops left.

Uganda has been firmly post-conflict for a decade. Amidst that, there have been a number of radio stations over the last few years that reached out to rebels across the border or to returnees amongst the civilian population, calling for reintegration. The afterlives of the war were always very present on the airwaves, for better or worse. But we might be seeing the end of come home radio, at least in Uganda.

As I prepare for my next project, and as I fill in the gaps of my radio research, I’m left thinking: how does one study the aftermath of an aftermath?

“We do this for peace”: Former Rebels on the Air

A lot of questions remain about the shooting in Gulu town two weeks ago. Unnamed attackers fired on the central police station in town on the 12th, about a month after a group raided a local defense unit outpost in Opit, a small village in the district. Things have been quiet ever since, but the attack left lingering worries about insecurity and concerns about whether the attackers were a new rebel group or criminals. The government’s narrative is that it is mere banditry, a group of criminals trying to free an opposition politicians who was jailed there. Some news circulated of a new group claiming responsibility. Again, it’s all unconfirmed guesswork for many people watching.

For their part, many former LRA commanders have been proactive in denouncing violence. In the weeks since the attack, several of them have taken to the airwaves to speak against violence. This week alone, several have been on the radio more than once. Monday, for instance, several well-known former commanders were featured on the radio speaking about the attack.

The former LRA field commander “Maj. General” Caesar Acellam, says it is very unfortunate that former LRA fighters are being named as those who were behind the recent attacks on Opit army detach and the Gulu Central Police Station.

Speaking over a local radio station on Monday evening, Acellam said the attacks has led to a rise in sentiments against LRA fighters… Acellam cautioned former LRA fighters against being lured into rebellion saying it will drag the region into anarchy.

[…]

“Brig” Kenneth Banya, also a former senior LRA commander, in the same radio programme urged former LRA fighters already reintegrated into their respective communities to resist the influence of those who want them to carry arms and fight the government.

I recently spoke with a returned LRA fighter who also took part in one of these recent radio broadcasts. He expressed concern that these recent attacks might be used to try to “provoke” former LRA fighters to “mobilize,” and that their presence on the radio was to help oppose armed conflict. “We do these interviews for peace,” he said. “We wasted our time in the bush, without education; we want a better future for our children.”

These radio broadcasts have a lot in common – not least of which are the stations, presenters, and guests involved – with the come home radio programs that I’ve studied in the past. Using former rebel voices to speak against violence is a frequent occurrence on the airwaves here. Even though war left northern Uganda a decade ago, insecurity looms – these incidents are just the most recent examples (here are some older ones). Radio messages pertaining to bringing LRA fighters home continue, and get relayed in central Africa where those rebels remain. But locally, the program continues within different contexts – with former rebels coming together to speak out against violence, in an effort to stave off war, but also demonstrate their commitment to peace after having been in the bush for much of their lives.

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.

Hate Radio

2/3 of my thesis is about how radio can be used to mitigate violence in the LRA conflict. The programs aren’t perfect, and may even facilitate other kinds of violence through increasing militarization, but the radio programs aim to use the airwaves to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and to warn civilians of impending attack.

When I explain my project to people, one of the most common reactions is to compare it to the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide. There, the killing of 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu occurred with RTLM Radio playing in the background. The radio station went down in infamy as inciting the genocide with divisive messages of hate, calling on Rwandans to purge their country of Tutsi, linking Tutsi civilians to the rebel RPF fighters, and publicly naming people who would then be targeted.

Ever since Rwanda, radio and its potential for inciting mass violence has captured the popular imagination. There are fears of radio programs turning peaceful neighbors into killers by engaging in fear-mongering and naming people and places to be attacked. There was even recent news that radio stations in Bentiu, South Sudan had been used to instigate violence.

I watched Sometimes in April last week in one of my classes, a film about the Rwandan genocide that is told through the story of one family. I was surprised at how much the film hits you over the head with the role of RTLM radio in the genocide. One of the main characters, Honoré, works at the radio station, and the film moves between the genocide, during which Honoré issues hate on the radio and also tries to smuggle his brother’s Tutsi wife and children out of Kigali, and after the violence, where Honoré is being held on charges of incitement. In almost every second of every scene in 1994, the radio is playing.

But how much of a role did RTLM actually play?

Scott Straus, author of The Order of Genocide, an in-depth study of why Rwandan men took part in the genocide, has a 2007 article that questions the assumption that radio helped drive the genocide [pdf]. In it, he soundly debunks the theoretical cases for radio’s role in inciting genocide (a. theory that media can influence the public so directly go against established communications research; b. theory that radio caused listeners to go out and kill denies killers agency; c. theories of radio’s role rarely situate it among other theories of violence) and he also takes on empirical studies that say that RTLM was a main driver of violence.

Straus compares a few different data sources and pokes holes in the idea that RTLM turned people into violent killers by broadcasting hateful messages. First, he notes that RTLM’s broadcast range was limited to Kigali and western Rwanda (that’s without considering the country’s hilly topography). He then compares this to the fact that killings occurred in all government-held territories, even those where RTLM did not have an audience. Second, he looks at the actual broadcasts temporally. Admitting that a small fraction of attacks were called for explicitly by RTLM, he finds that, broadly speaking, the increase in killings did not coincide with the increase in inflammatory or extremist broadcasts during the genocide. Lastly, he includes quantitative evidence from broadcast content and qualitative evidence from interviews with perpetrators that show that most of the broadcast content did not actually mobilize killers.

Overall, he finds that the radio had a “second-order” effect in bolstering those who advocated for violence, but that most perpetrators were not convinced by the radio to go out and kill; rather they were recruited in person or were reacting out of fear. He summarizes his findings as such:

The positive evidence of radio media effects is that the radio instigated a limited number of acts of violence, catalyzed some key actors, coordinated elites, and bolstered local messages of violence. Based on these findings, it is plausible to hypothesize that radio had conditional and marginal effects. Radio did not cause the genocide or have direct, massive effects. Rather, radio emboldened hard-liners and reinforced face-to-face mobilization, which helped those who advocated violence assert dominance and carry out the genocide.

I don’t know much about the recent story about radio and violence in South Sudan, but I do know that the country has never effectively addressed ethnic divisions that were so acute in the recent decades. Radio may play a role in inciting violence, but it can only do so when the foundations have already been laid for such violence.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

The blog has lain dormant this month, but it’s because I’ve been keeping rather busy. While the site has hibernated in the cold, I’ve been working on coursework and the thesis, and preparing for another talk as part of the African Studies Brown Bag series. If you’re in the New Haven area, I hope you’ll swing by. The talk will cover the come-home messaging programs in the LRA conflict, looking at how they “work” and how they differ from each other, with some exploratory talk about the transference of reconciliation across communities. See below for more details:

Come Home Messaging: Radio and Forgiveness in Uganda and Congo

Wednesday, February 26 | Luce Hall 202 | 12:00pm

In response to intense violence that included conscription of civilians into rebel ranks and atrocities on a mass scale, some civilians in northern Uganda have tried to end the war through reconciliation in the form of forgiveness, amnesty, and peace negotiations. One means of promoting these ideas has been various types of radio messages. This talk will focus on radio messages that encourage abducted rebels to surrender and come home and will look at how the radio messages – and notions of reconciliation – have traveled across borders.

On Sensitization and Safe Reporting Sites in LRA-Affected Regions

A few days ago, I tweeted a flurry of late-night thoughts on sensitization in LRA-affected areas that I’d like to flesh out further here. I should start by stating that, while the topic struck me with great interest while I was in the Congo this summer, I didn’t really get to do in-depth research on it, so this is really just brainstorming, or maybe a call for further research.

My research in Uganda and Congo centers around the use of radio. One such use is that of defection messaging: FM radio stations broadcast messages that encourage LRA rebels to surrender. These radio messages are accompanied by leaflets dropped via airplane and messages played over loudspeaker on helicopters. They are also accompanied by sensitization in LRA-affected communities.

When encouraging rebels to surrender, humanitarians/militaries/civil society actors also have to ensure that surrenders can happen successfully. This means sensitization: making sure that communities know that some LRA will (hopefully) try to surrender, that they will help facilitate that (by directing rebels to reception centers, not attacking rebels trying to surrender, etc.), and that people understand why facilitating surrenders is important.

But LRA fighters who surrender are not brought to justice. Acholi traditional leaders and civil society organizations have long-pushed for forgiveness and amnesty as a way to end the war. They pressured the Ugandan government into passing an amnesty law in 2000, and have worked closely with organizations in DRC and CAR to promote forgiveness for the LRA. This is largely because so many members of the LRA were forcibly conscripted, and are therefore both victims and perpetrators.

That’s where my research leaves off, and where another gap in the literature appears.

A potential starting question is, how effective are these sensitization programs? But this misses that gauging effectiveness in terms of compliance/acceptance might miss the dynamics of the sensitization process in the first place. Another question might be, how do Congolese understand and interpret the message these programs put forward? More fundamentally – what do these programs mean for the victims of the conflict?

It’s a lot to ask a victim of conflict to forgive his or her attacker, even if the perpetrator suffers too. When I was in the Congo, I talked to some people about this, and it was hard to get any real answers. On a long bus ride through Garamba, several people told me they would be willing to forgive the LRA if it meant the war would end. Some others suggested that the LRA should face some kind of justice, even if it wasn’t jail (maybe an acknowledgement of abuses, form of payment, etc.)

One example gets at why it’s so difficult to tease out the answers: one informant told me that he absolutely supported amnesty, citing an end to the suffering as well as Christian tenets of forgiveness. Later, my research assistant, who has known the informant for a long time, said that he thought he was lying to me. He had heard the informant talk about killing the next LRA that came through the town, about making the LRA pay for what they’ve done to the people.

It was tough to determine whether my informant had changed his mind or changed his story. Was he lying to me? And if he was, why? Did he think this was what I wanted to hear? Did he think that I was affiliated with groups performing these programs? Did he think he would get something out of it? I don’t know, but exploring this interaction – and others like it – is something I’ll be working on over the course of the next couple of months.

*   *   *

Many of the sensitization programs are implemented by Invisible Children and its partner organizations (a number of local NGOs and religious organizations have worked with IC in the region). There is definitely some Acholi influence at play as well, in addition to pressure from militaries to establish safe reporting sites to which rebels can go to surrender. These groups carry some weight in these communities, as they are actively working on ending the rebel group that preys on these people. This raises the question of how who says the message can change how the message is perceived.

The topic of safe reporting sites is particularly worth exploring. These communities have been asked to serve as a reception point for LRA who want to defect (blue diamonds on the map below). This does two things first and foremost: it allows the community to play a part in the effort to stop the LRA, and it makes the community a potential target to LRA retaliation. The LRA has a long history of retaliating against civilians for collaboration (real or perceived) with the government (see Branch). It’s a tough position: radio messages identify which communities defecting rebels should go to, helping facilitate surrenders, but they also make it clear which communities are collaborating with counter-LRA forces and should therefore be targeted should the LRA retaliate.

Again, the role of the organizations promoting these sites is important. Given their central position to counter-LRA activities, Invisible Children, the Ugandan military, and U.S. military are primary actors in supporting, implementing, and protecting reporting site communities. They also have a lot of leverage in some of these towns, as they provide either protection or development programs. So, when communities decide to participate, it is difficult to gauge just how supportive these communities are. Do they want to participate? Were they pressured into accepting reporting sites? Or were they simply convinced by the argument for participation?

In a report from Discover the Journey [pdf], a short passage is telling:

Each community said they would be willing to allow their community to become an intentional defection point. Of the research locations, all except Duru, DRC, have received previous sensitization around the defection/safe reporting site principles. (29)

The report takes this as affirmation that the sensitization programs are working. People are being convinced that this is the right way to go. And it very well might be – as I mentioned, not only will defection messaging help shrink the size and fighting capacity of the LRA, but these types of programs allow the local communities to be involved directly in the process. They could be given agency in being a part of the effort to stop the violence.

But they could also be denied agency if they feel pressured to agree. If a community is approached by the military or aid groups to participate – will they say no? Might it be implied that, by saying no to reporting sites, they say no to protection, aid, and rehabilitation? And if that’s the case – is that right or wrong? If it’s for the greater good (ending the LRA, supporting infrastructure, ensuring protection), maybe it’s worth it.

Again, these exploratory questions are based on a very, very small experience in working with these communities. Has anybody studied the defection sites in South Sudan or Central African Republic? Or has anybody worked on sensitization/implementation and want to shed some light on the process? I’d be curious to hear more about how these programs are working, how they were implemented, and local opinion on the matter.

Bad News and Good News from CAR

There has been a lot of bad news coming out of the Central African Republic as violence across the country has spiked. The Red Cross announced that almost 500 people had been killed just in Bangui. The French are already on the ground trying to mitigate violence, the U.S. is airlifting a Burundian force to the area, and the African Union is trying to beef up its presence there as well.

For those interested in understanding or examining the violence more, there are two things worth reading: Louisa Lombard wrote an insightful piece explaining whether or not the violence constitutes a genocide or genocide-in-the-making, as the French have claimed. International Crisis Group also has a report on the situation in CAR, as well as a short post on Bangui. Peter Bouckaert at Human Rights Watch wrote a dispatch detailing just one of the many incidents that have happened there.

With all of this bloodshed going on, it was uplifting to hear news of a large defection of LRA fighters in the east of the country. Separate from the anti-Balaka/ex-Seleka fighting (for the most part), the LRA has been active along the periphery of CAR. On December 6, a group of nineteen LRA fighters went to a small village west of Zemio and surrendered, agreeing to demobilize and return home.

According to Invisible Children, the group decided to surrender after hearing a number of radio programs that promoted surrender and defection. This is a big boost to the defection messaging program, and also a small glimmer of hope in a country that’s going through a pretty rough time right now.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At African Arguments

Good news for those far from Yale and those too busy at Yale yesterday. If you missed my talk yesterday, which covered a portion of my thesis research, don’t be sad. A short essay I wrote that covers the same topic (and highlights the same parts of my research) has been published at the African Arguments blog. You can find it here.

In brief, the essay addresses how the early warning radio network is supposed to work, and highlights some of the functions it serves, but it also discusses the other, bigger source of insecurity for civilians in the region: the military’s unwillingness to fight the LRA, the reduced humanitarian presence, and abuse perpetrated by the military itself.

Be sure to check out the whole thing if you’re interested, and it would do you good to read other posts on the site. African Arguments brings together some phenomenal scholars to write about a diverse number of topics, and I’m thrilled to be featured there.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

For those interested, I’ll be giving a talk about part of my summer research this upcoming Wednesday. The talk is a part of the Yale Council on African Studies’ weekly Brown Bag series (the name is deceptive, there is free food – reason enough to come!). It is a very, very preliminary talk – originally scheduled for February and moved up due to scheduling problems – on the HF radio network that operates in DRC and CAR. For those in the area, I’d love some feedback. More info below:

Rural Warning and Militarism: The Effects of the Radio Early Warning Network in LRA-Affected Congo

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | 12:00-1:00 | Luce Hall 202

In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a network of high frequency radios has been built in rural villages to help protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army. This early warning system seeks to protect these vulnerable populations by alerting villagers of rebel movements, facilitating a military response, and directing humanitarian aid. This presentation will explore how the network functions, how it fails, and the role of regional militarization in the process.