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.

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.

Research to-go

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What Invisible Children is Doing Right: Protection and Knowledge

In case you haven’t read my last dozen posts about Invisible Children, we’ve been having a very back-and-forth relationship for the last few years. On Saturday, I joked that, if we were on Facebook, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” That’s because, at the time, I was waxing nostalgic about how much of an impact Invisible Children has had, both in my life and in the lives of the Acholi people that benefit from their development programs, while I was simultaneously typing up this recent post on how Invisible Children and Samantha Power both advocated for military intervention that might be making things worse.

This love-hate thing I’ve got going on runs deep, and it’s because Invisible Children does a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. And in the past seven years I’ve seen a lot of their work first hand. As you know, my thesis is on radio’s role in the LRA, but while I was in the DRC I also caught a glimpse at some other aspects of IC’s work in LRA-affected areas that I’m still digesting. Here are some roughly hewn thoughts on Invisible Children’s work in the region:

The LRA Crisis Tracker, a joint operation run by Invisible Children and the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, tracks LRA incidents and is just one part of a network that includes the radio stations I studied, local military attaches in villages, and aid organizations operating in the area. This network is part of a broad effort to track LRA movements, coordinate military responses to the LRA presence, and facilitate aid to those in need. Whether or not it works is a whole other story, as several aid agencies have closed up their Dungu offices, the FRDC military attaches frequently choose not to engage with LRA forces, but do choose to intimidate, rob from, and attack the civilians they’re supposed to protect, and LRA tactics have rendered some of the advantages of the HF radio network obsolete.

But the effort to better understand the LRA has increased our knowledge of what the rebel group is doing by leaps and bounds. The Resolve’s most recent report [pdf] has included really essential research findings including the existence of intense divisions within the LRA leadership and identifying groups that want to defect. It also includes estimates of current LRA numbers, including composition of combatants versus non-combatants.

Some of my research on the HF radio network included some questions about the defection process. For a member of the LRA trying to surrender and come home, the process has traditionally included a debriefing with the UPDF [pdf, section 3.2]. This served to give the military up-to-date information about LRA activities from those with insider knowledge, but it also served as a tool for the UPDF to hold returnees longer than they were supposed to, sometimes in an attempt to forcibly recruit former LRA.

In the network that Invisible Children has helped create, debriefings have also occurred (although I don’t know how involved the military is, nor the type of support returnees have during their transition from LRA to home). The information gleaned from these interviews with recent returnees has shaped IC’s actions on the ground, directing flier drops and influencing the programming of radio messages. In the coming months IC is planning a large-scale defection messaging effort (funded through their current #ZeroLRA campaign)  including dropping leaflets about defection, flying helicopters with messages on speakers, and broadcasting messages over FM radio, all in targeted areas where LRA are known to be living, along with establishing safe reporting sites for defectors and providing comprehensive rehabilitation for them upon return. A lot of this has the potential to bring more LRA abductees home, and (hopefully) without relying too much on the military, a group historically responsible for more bad than good.

In addition, IC (and Resolve) are pushing for research to help piece together a clearer understanding of the LRA command structure. For a long time, most people only know the LRA leadership as far as the ICC indictments go. For the most part, many hadn’t heard of Caesar Acellam before he was captured. That’s slowly changing as IC supports efforts to find out who is in charge of the various LRA groups and what they are doing. Ledio Cakaj, one of the co-authors of Resolve’s report mentioned above, has written a paper about the LRA command structure that I’m eager to read in the coming months. IC’s staff in DRC and CAR are working on the same thing: building a clear picture of the LRA. This serves a lot of purposes. It will help in shaping radio programming that can target specific individuals with the potential to cause large-scale defections. It will serve as evidence in the event that those responsible for attacks are brought before courts to face justice. And it will help paint a clearer picture of where Kony and his two remaining ICC-indicted commanders are operating, helping direct efforts to bring them specifically to justice.

You can learn more in this interview with Adam Finck, IC’s International Programs Director. He sat down with a couple of IC staff during the Fourt Estate live stream this weekend, and he shed some light on LRA activity and how IC is responding, including several of the things I mentioned above. Broadly speaking, I think many of these efforts are solid steps towards protecting civilians in LRA-affected regions and hopefully an effective way to get us that much closer to ending this conflict.

Summer Plans in Africa

Greetings, dear reader. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry for inundating you with only weekend reading lists and none of the usual amateur commentary that usually comes along during the week. Things have been busy here – I’m halfway done with my time at Yale now, and final papers this semester were a wreck for me. Now that school’s out, though, I have a small group of draft posts waiting in the wings. Until then, though, I thought I’d give you an update on recent occurrences in the House of Backslash.

This summer, I will be abroad for about two months, spending time in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (and maybe South Sudan) to conduct thesis research. I’ll then be spending a short bit of time in Benin with my BFF who is a PCV there. A short note on my thesis, for those interested:

In the early 2000s, a radio station in Gulu, northern Uganda, ran programming that urged defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is comprised predominantly of conscripted youths. The defection messaging promoted the Ugandan government’s amnesty program and encouraged rebels to surrender and be reintegrated back into their home communities. There has been a lot of fanfare about the defection messaging, but it hasn’t been without criticism. During the mid- to late-2000s, the LRA moved westward towards northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Central African Republic (CAR). Since then, radio stations in both of those countries and South Sudan have been using similar tactics in urging defections. Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Relief Service and Invisible Children have helped patch together a network of HF radios that function as an early warning system for villages that are in danger.

My research plan is to better understand how radio is used in the LRA conflict and how it affects people in the region. I hope to be conducting interviews in Gulu about radio’s use in the early 2000s, and then doing the same for contemporary usage in Yambio, South Sudan, and Dungu, DRC. The goal of these interviews will be to get a clearer picture of what the radio programs said, who was in charge of determining the programming, and how radio stations dealt with outsiders’ (NGOs or the government) involvement in their work.

I will then (hopefully) visit villages in DRC, most likely in Haut Uélé district, to learn about the HF radio stations. Similar to the first phase, I hope to learn more about how the messages function, who is in charge of operating them, and how villagers interact with those who help establish the stations. I would also like to look into how the messaging system affects the daily lives of civilians in these areas, and am interested in learning if the radios are used for anything beyond the NGOs’ intended purpose. Lastly, I’d like to evaluate the effects of the defection messaging in terms of actually encouraging defections. Both of these sections will depend on my resources and the situation on the ground, so I’ll provide updates once I’m there.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this over the course of the next year. I’ll try to post research notes from the field, and I’m sure that I’ll use the blog as I plod through the thesis-writing process, especially in preparation for any presentations I have to give. If you have any questions or comments, go for it. If you’ll be in any of these places, we should chat. As I prep for my trip, I should probably thank the Lindsay Fellowship, the Coca-Cola World Fund, and my parents for their financial help, my wife and my friends for the emotional support, and a host of grad students and professors for their intellectual help. I have never done a lot of the things I’ll be doing, and I’m glad I’ll have all three kinds of support throughout. As we get closer to June (I’ll be leaving at the beginning of the month) I’ll let you know more about my plans. Until then, keep on keeping on everybody.