Category Archives: Conflict

Rumor and Distrust in the Congo

 “rumors explain; they naturalize the unnatural.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote, from Louise White’s Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, a lot as I work on my thesis. Rumor is a thing that exists around the world, and in many societies rumors play particular functions such as signaling group inclusion, fomenting opposition, etc. After conducting fieldwork briefly in northeastern Congo, I realized that rumors were going to comprise a part of my thesis.

“If there is no LRA, there is no MONUSCO,” one Congolese local government official told me as we sat under a giant hut with his friends and advisers. It wasn’t the first time that I had heard accusations that MONUSCO was either supporting the LRA or at the very least permitting the LRA to continue its dangerous actions in the region. I knew that dissatisfaction of MONUSCO was high across eastern and northeastern Congo, I hadn’t expected accusations that they supported human rights abusing rebels.

Right now, the role of rumor and distrust will be just a subheading in my broader Congo chapter, and so far it’s an underdeveloped one. I’m really interested in digging deeper into the role of rumor, a literature which has a surprising amount of depth thanks to anthropologists. I’m sure I’ll write about this some more, but for now some preliminary thoughts.

Max Gluckman has written [pdf] that rumors are exclusionary acts, and that they act within a network. People who know rumors are the in-group, those who do not are the out-, and rumors serve to make that distinction more clear. In this vain, others have stated that the content of rumors is not important, that the act of spreading and hearing rumor is what is vital precisely because of this cohesive function. This may or may not be the case in the Congo – after all, people freely talked to me about these rumors, but it may or may not have been a part of an inclusion process. I think the content is vital in this instance, however, because the rumors are about a topic with dire consequences, and because the rumors are believed.

When one man told me that he had seen a UN vehicle pull over just outside of Dungu and a band of LRA fighters got out and disappeared into the jungle, he was telling me a story he had told many times. It had happened in 2010, he surely had more interactions with peacekeepers since then, but this story was the first thing out of his mouth as we talked about perception of MONUSCO. This story was wrapped up in anecdotes that the UN was arming LRA, that they were refusing to accept surrendering LRA, that they benefited from the LRA’s presence financially.

Going back to Luise White’s quote at the top of this post, I think it goes really well with what Kristof Titeca has argued, which is that many Congolese create rumors as a means of understanding the rapid escalation of conflict in their community. He said this briefly at a panel I attended, and this notion helped me organize what I’ve been trying to understand as I look at the numerous rumors that I encountered while in the DRC.

The LRA arrived in the DRC in 2005, and were followed almost immediately by an increase in FARDC and MONUSCO presence (and a couple of a years later, UPDF operations as well). The sudden appearance and increase of armed actors makes little to no sense to most Congolese – the LRA have no reason to be here, FARDC prey on the population, MONUSCO is ineffective in protecting civilians, the UPDF have a history of exploiting war. None of these actors are doing anything beneficial, and yet they’re there. Titeca’s argument that rumor helps make sense of that is a compelling one. While the LRA do abduct and attack, the FARDC do abuse civilians, and the UPDF did exploit resources, MONUSCO hasn’t really protected people enough. And so Congolese are faced with explaining the presence of the peacekeepers in the sprawling headquarters building, and maybe that results in believing in the UN’s collusion with the other armed actors.

I’m working on unpacking all of this as I move forwards. I am still in the shallow end of the literature on rumor, but hope to wade deeper in the near future as well. If you know of things I should be reading, I’d love tips as well. With luck, I’ll write more about this aspect of my work as I trod through the thesis-writing phase.

Edit (2/6): This post has been updated to mention Kristof Titeca’s work on the subject, which helped me make sense of my findings and drove me to think through the role of rumor and distrust in the region.

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.

Everybody’s in the Ivory Trade

The Lord’s Resistance Army has been involved in the ivory trade for quite a while now, as have many other groups across Africa. The rural parts of Congo and Central African Republic have been the hunting grounds of poachers and armed groups alike for years, sometimes coming from as far afield as Libya. This summer, the Enough Project published a report [pdf] on the LRA’s involvement in the ivory trade, which caused a lot of news outlets to pick up the story, eventually leading Kristof Titeca to write this piece on the ivory trade beyond the LRA. In it, he describes the typical route of the ivory trade in Congo:

The most common trading scenario is the following:  local poachers (or individual soldiers) based in or near the forest pass on the ivory to local traders based in urban centers such as Dungu and Doruma (to a lesser extent Faradje). From there on, there are two trading routes: The first, and more common trading route, is from Dungu to the Congolese-Ugandan border towns of Ariwara and Arua. Most often, the ivory is sold to well-connected traders in these border towns, who in turn go to Kampala and sell it for export, most often to Asia.

The second trading route is from the north eastern side of Garamba Park, where ivory is traded in Doruma (or Bangadi). From here, the ivory goes to South Sudan, from where it enters Uganda (or also goes to Ariwara). It is difficult to estimate the amount of ivory originating from these areas. In Dungu alone, it is estimated that between 15 to 30 traders are dealing in ivory. Interviewed traders claim to be selling around 90 to 200 kilograms per month. In Arua, fewer ivory traders are active, but they mentioned similar quantities.

Ugandan traders are key in this commodity chain/trade network: they play a prominent role at different levels by using Congolese or South Sudanese traders as middlemen, by buying the ivory in Ariwara, Aru or Kampala. The nature of their involvement consistently points at the implication of Ugandan politico-military elites.

While the LRA are rumored to have traded ivory with Sudanese armed forces in exchange for supplies and arms, this segment, and especially that last sentence, is crucial. There is also a large amount of ivory funneling through Ugandan elite circles. This is part of a long-time trend in which a network of Ugandan political and military elites (often one and the same) profit from Uganda’s military exploits abroad, from livestock and coffee to diamonds and now ivory. In a 2012 article on the UPDF’s presence in the Congo, Vlassenroot, Perrot, and Cuvelier explore this network, explaining that much of it – and probably much of what Titeca identifies as “politico-military elites” – is made up of members of the First Family, long-time NRM party leaders, and leading military figures as well as Congolese local elites, armed groups, and businessmen. Vlassenroot et al refer to these actors as “entrepreneurs of insecurity,” as they capitalized on and even facilitated war in the Congo in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to reap rewards from mines.

There have been allegations of UPDF involvement in the ivory trade for some time now. There was evidencethat a UPDF helicopter was spotted near the site of multiple elephant killings last year, and an incident before that in which poachers actually attacked the UPDF in CAR to deter them from infringing on the poachers’ territory. That the military, or at least the military and political elite back in Kampala, are involved in the business is of no surprise.

Which makes the goal of melding anti-poaching and anti-LRA efforts a bit difficult to envision. In the weeks after Enough Project’s report was published, there were several calls for action against the LRA, both for their human rights abuses and their animal rights abuses, to help bring the rebel group to an end. Take, for example, Mark Quarterman’s piece highlighting the report for CNN:

Only effective local, national, and transnational action can stop this horror. Anti-atrocity groups such as the Enough Project can advocate for actions to shut off the demand for ivory in Asia. Conservation groups could broaden their focus to include efforts to end wars that have created a symbiotic relationship between ivory poaching and civilian suffering. Both types of organizations should emphasize the longer-term requirement for effective governance to lessen the likelihood of war and ivory poaching.

Joint and parallel action could tap activist organizations, increase the pressure on policymakers for action and broaden the knowledge about both of these problems among those who previously had focused on only one.

The combined efforts of conservation and human rights groups could spur the efforts of governments and international organizations to slow the destruction of the African elephant and free the people of east and central Africa from the threat of Joseph Kony and his ilk. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, one that could help stop the massacre of both humans and animals in Africa.

If you read this article and Enough’s report, this would sound like a great solution. And it still might be. With combined efforts of conservation groups and human rights groups, effective advocacy may succeed in putting forth new tools to stop the LRA’s abuses of civilians and elephants. But it wouldn’t succeed in stopping the abuse of civilians and elephants. The LRA is only one part of the complex situation of abuses and poaching in the region, some of which is perpetrated by the actors that will be empowered by anti-LRA efforts.

If the abduction of civilians and poaching of elephants by the LRA can be stopped, it will be of tremendous good to those that live in LRA-affected regions. But we shouldn’t expect that this will solve the problem of insecurity that people and elephants frequently encounter in the region. If using militaries (who poach and abuse civilians) to stop armed groups (who poach and abuse civilians) works, we’ll still be left with poachers and human rights abusers.

Dialogue and Destruction: LRA Responses to Ugandan Radio Stations

In the course of my fieldwork this summer, a question arose that I was unable to answer, and it concerns the inconsistent response of the LRA to the work of radio stations in northern Uganda. My research focused on the use of defection messaging, which several radio stations engaged in during the conflict, especially in the early 2000s. But there were other ways that radio was used during the conflict, and of particular note is Radio Mega’s attempt to foster dialog between the rebels, the government, and the civilian population.

In her essay [pdf] on the government-imposed limits that radio actors encounter at Mega FM, Maggie Ibrahim chose as a case study the Ter Yat (“Under the Tree”) weekly dialog program at Radio Mega. In December of 2002, LRA leader Joseph Kony called into the program to discuss why peace talks had failed – other panelists included an army spokesman and a local government official. This was just one instance of many in which members of the LRA called into the radio station on various programs to talk about the conflict or send messages to others. After three months of this type of communication, security forces informed the radio station that rebels would not be allowed to call in again. This was couched within the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was criminalizes interviewing alleged terrorists.

Mega FM radio station in Gulu town.

Mega FM radio station in Gulu town.

In the interviews that I conducted in Gulu, it became apparent that in the early 2000s there was a lot of contact between radio staff and the rebels. The rebels’ only source of news was the radio, and so the radio stations were frequently used to disseminate information and to communicate with the broader community. This, of course, was happening while Mega FM was simultaneously carrying out its defection messaging, which served to sap rebel strength and encourage escape attempts among disillusioned or abducted members of the LRA. The fact that the rebel leadership continued to engage in dialog with an entity that was also actively undermining it seems illogical.

And then we turn to Radio Wa, a radio station in Lira, southeast of Acholiland in the Lango Sub-Region. Radio Wa began running defection messaging in 2002, and was very effective in encouraging defections during the early 2000s, especially as rebels moved through that area after a UPDF offensive in 2002. Unlike with Radio Mega, there was no contact with the rebel leadership except for rumored threats against radio staff. In September of 2002, the rebels made good on these threats and destroyed the radio station, attacking early in the morning and burning it down.

Both radio stations actively encouraged LRA fighters to escape and take advantage of the amnesty. Both radio stations saw themselves as supporting community efforts to achieve peace by bringing the LRA home. And yet the rebels chose to engage in public dialog with one radio station while burning down the other.

There could be a lot of different reasons for this. In 2002, as I mentioned, the rebels were reorganizing from an attack by the military, moving into new areas in which they had never been active before. The LRA has its roots in Acholi territory, and many of the top fighters are familiar with some of the Radio Mega staff from early attempts to bring the war to an end. Lira has little history with the rebels, and this lack of connection may have led to the rebel attack.

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.

Caesar Achellam’s Defection Story

This morning former LRA Maj. Gen. Achellam Caesar spoke to a group of Congolese and Central African civil society, government, and religious leaders in Gulu. A Central African asked him whether he defected or was captured, and I’m summarizing what Achellam responded. I recorded the event, and will try to get a full transcript up later. But, according to Achellam:

He was first abducted in 1988 for being an NRM collaborator. He was told that if he tried to escape the LRA would attack his home village, so he decided to stay with the rebels. In July of 2007, Achellam was detained by the LRA on suspicion of encouraging other rebels to defect. He was beaten and placed in solitary confinement. It was around this time that Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command, was executed. Achellam remained in detention until June of 2009, when continued attacks from the UPDF-led Operation Lightning Thunder forced the LRA to flee. He was detained again in 2011, and escaped in May of 2012. He fled with a few others across into CAR and followed tracks that the UPDF had left behind, surrendering to them when they met.

If this story is true, and who knows if it is, then it seems Achellam’s capture was  more of a defection. This is important in terms of the legal aspects of amnesty – which is granted automatically upon application after escape or defection, but must be approved by the Director of Public Prosecution if the applicant was captured.

Achellam’s status is very, very vague. He lives in the army barracks in Gulu with his family, and many assure that he is a free man. But when he arrived today it was with military personnel in tow, and his freedom is rather questionable. That said, an army spokesman said yesterday that Achellam may be in the process of negotiating a leadership role in the UPDF, which is important to note. We’ll see how this all pans out. I’ll add more later if I get more information about his case.

A Note on Defection Messaging

Most of my blogging from this trip will be more about research than traditional travel-blogging, but I’m doing a short e-mail newsletter for friends and family. If you’d like to be included on that list, feel free to comment or e-mail me at scootles7 [at] gmail [dot] com.

So, I’ve been in Uganda for a week now. My research has been slowly progressing, which already puts this trip as wildly more successful than my last sojourn to this country, which I deemed “a failed attempt” at an internship. I’m nervous about the Congo portion of the trip not least because it’s the Congo and all of the associations, realistic and overblown, that come with that, but also because I don’t speak a bit of French, Lingala, or Zande and because the schedule is very, very up in the air. But, for now, it’s nice to be back in Uganda and be (somewhat) active in my work.

So far, I’ve interviewed the head of radio for Invisible Children and the program director for Mega FM, one of the biggest stations in the north. These interviews have all been about defection messaging, also called come-home messaging (dwog paco in Acholi). The messages include former rebels telling other rebels that it is safe to come home, encouraging them to take advantage of the amnesty law. You can find out more about these messages here and even hear some samples clips in different languages at The Voice Project.

It is widely agreed that the radio messages are extremely effective. This isn’t just coming from the people who work in radio, it has been labeled by aid workers and peace advocates as an effective means of encouraging LRA escapes and surrenders for some time now. Mega FM was started with a large amount of funding from DFID with come-home messaging in mind, USAID’s policy on the LRA includes capacity-building on radio defection efforts, and this programming has recently been a primary thrust of Invisible Children, which states that 89% of returnees cite the messaging as one of the reasons they returned.

But not everyone agrees. I met with Tim Allen, professor of development anthropology at the London School of Economics and long-time (like, long-time) follower of the LRA, a month ago and he said that he thought that the role that radio played was vastly overstated. Indeed, in his and Mareike Schomerus’s report on reception centers [pdf] in 2005, their team found that:

Hardly anybody from the sample heard about the amnesty while still in the barracks and reception center staff have confirmed that most who arrive in the center do not know about it.


Of those who had heard about the amnesty, many had a negative impression of what it actually meant. In the bush, LRA commanders tell combatants that the amnesty is actually a government ploy to lure people out of the bush and kill them. Commanders deny their soldiers access to radios and make every attempt to suppress information.

Many reception centers say that, anecdotally, returnees say that they try to sneak around and listen to radios when they can to hear news from home, and that is how they find out about the amnesty.  This report was written in 2005, so perhaps things have changed between then and now, or perhaps some center staff had different experiences. Allen and his team raise some concerns about the reliability of returnee anecdotes, citing that one of the jobs of reception center staff is to teach returnees how to talk about their experiences in constructive ways. Some returnees may be picking up that they should cite radio regardless of their personal experience, either as an unintentional side-effect of the rehabilitation process or as part of the belief that it will get them better aid packages.The point remains that there is some ambiguity over how much access to radio the lower-level members of the LRA have.

My research is predominantly on how the messaging works, which may or may not assume that it works. I’ve been an ardent supporter of messaging, but Allen and Schomerus provide some important arguments to keep in mind. The biggest spike in returns occurred during a time of both heightened radio programming and a major military attack in the early- to mid-2000s, so it’s hard to figure out which event had a bigger impact. No doubt both played a role, and I’d much rather advocate for radio messages than military action. And so that’s what I’ll be studying, and we’ll see how it goes as I move forwards. See update below.

With two interviews down, I’ve traveled back to my old stomping grounds in Lira today. Tomorrow morning I’ll be visiting Radio Wa, a Catholic radio station here that also did come-home messaging, called karibuni programming, which is inexplicably a Swahili word in a region where few speak it. I might ask about that. I’ll be back in Gulu tomorrow to round out my radio-in-northern-Uganda interviews, and then be moving onto other things. Besides that, I’ve been doing a lot of things most expats do: using the internet, eating street food (although there’s a disappointingly small amount to offer in Gulu), avoiding eye contact with other expats, while also making friends with some expats. Same old, same old, here in Uganda.

Update: Friend of the blog and Director of Civic Engagement at Invisible Children Lisa Dougan had this to say on Facebook:

Question for you: Tim and Mareika’s points (at least the ones you’ve mentioned in your blog) were specifically about whether or not AMNESTY messaging was encouraging defections. That can be differentiated from come-home/defection messaging more broadly. We’ve found that several recent LRA defectors have referenced defection messaging as having a role to play in their surrender/escape, while they might not necessarily specifically mention Uganda’s amnesty policy. Some LRA seem to just need assurances that if they surrender, they will have a safe place at which to defect, where they will not be hurt by the FARDC, FACA, or local community, and they want to know that they will be able to go home. We’ve also been the degree to which reintegration programs/packages are actually more important to LRA defectors than an amnesty certificate itself. The distinction between amnesty (as legal protection from prosecution) and a more comprehensive reintegration program might be something you’ll want to look into. Thanks again for your work.

To which I responded:

I think you’re right to differentiate between amnesty messaging and general come-home messaging, and the first portion of Tim & Mareike’s report that I quoted was specific to amnesty and how the UPDF treated it… but the latter section questioned how often lower-level rebels actually listened to the radio at all. I know a lot of people have told me that rebels sneakily listen in when they can, but the report gives a few reasons to be wary about returnee anecdotes.

I do want to restate that, broadly, I’m on team radio on this topic. I really do think it’s done a lot of good, and I think it’s a positive way to bring about more escapes and surrenders. Looking at some of the data, I just wonder if it’s playing as big a role as we think it is. I think flier drops and aerial loud-speakers are a great addition to this that may indeed improve upon the radio method.

Violent in America

It’s been a while since Daryl Johnson, the analyst at Homeland Security tried to raise the alarm about right-wing violent extremism (and then lost his job amid Republican outcry). And it’s only been a few months since a study connected to Westpoint drew the connections between various right-wing groups and the use of violence (also criticized by the Republican Party). And yet, we have to observe recent evidence:

The head of the Colorado Department of Corrections was shot dead at his front door by a White Supremacist parolee who was later killed in a shootout with Texas police. And the Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney and his wife were just murdered, and a lot of people are linking it to the assistant district attorney’s murder in January after an investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood was opened.

Hayes Brown recently pointed out a study that showed that right-wing extremists are “highly engaged” with the Republican Party on Twitter, citing a report’s findings that the GOP could engage with these extremists in an effort to discourage violence. Instead, every time a study makes the connection between far-right groups and violence, Republicans say that they ought to be concentrating on Muslim extremists abroad rather than right-wing shootings at Sikh temples, attacks at abortion clinics, and targeted killings of law enforcement officials.

Compare this to the majority of liberals and even progressives that decry left-wing anarchist and animal rights violence. Even a single broken window at Occupy Oakland was shunned by a majority of liberals. Meanwhile, conservatives are working to discourage action on actual violence by actual extremists in their camp.

Post-Trauma or Mid-Trauma?

PTSD is invoked in the context of a discourse that is dominated by ideas of an innocent and victimized ‘child soldier’. My discussion suggests that this discourse might not necessarily mirror the FAP’s [formerly abducted person's] own view of his past. The concept of PTSD is based on assumptions, some of which should be challenged in the context of northern Uganda. Parker, reflecting on mental health in the context of north-east Africa, writes: ‘One of the most important issues which requires attention includes the following: PTSD is imbued with culturally culturally specific conceptions of normality and deviance and it is thus difficult to make appropriate diagnosis’ (Parker 1996).

An essential feature of PTSD is an aetiological event in the past – a distressing experience that lies outside the range of usual human experience. The problem, of course, is that what my informants would consider a usual experience is probably quite distinct from the usual human experience of someone living in the Western world. In fact, the narratives presented here suggest that even within their own life the idea of normality is a shifting category.


Another issue is that the disorder works within a temporal framework: the disagnosis of PTSD follows the logic of a traumatic event in the past that is connected to the present in forms of defined symptoms. As Young puts it: ‘[PTSD's] distinctive pathology is that it permits the past (memory) to relieve itself in the present [...] The space occupied in the DSM-III classificatory system depends on this temporal-causal relation: aetological event –> symptoms.’ (Young 1995).

In Uganda, narratives of PTSD go hand in hand with ideas that locate the FAP’s traumatic experiences in the past with the LRA. An alternative view suggested in this chapter emphasizes the periods of transition. While one period of transition takes place with the LRA after abduction, another distressing time might be experienced after return from the bush when the LRA fighter witnesses further threats and the breakdown of the moral space in which he acted as an LRA combatant. Thus, what could be described as a traumatizing time lies not only in the FAP’s past with the LRA, but also in the present. To diagnose PTSD against a background of continued insecurity, terror and fear is difficult, Parker writes: ‘- especially as some of the primary symptoms may be adaptive responses to particularly awful circumstances.’ (Parker 1996).

These are excerpts from Ben Mergelsberg’s chapter in The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality. I’ve never really thought about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a cultural construct, but it makes a lot of sense, especially since what constitutes traumatic events is rooted in what one perceives as normal. More importantly, Mergelsberg makes the important distinction that many returned abductees are still in the midst of what could be labeled traumatic events. After spending much of their lives, and indeed very formative years, growing up in the culture of the LRA, they have been uprooted – voluntarily or not – and are stuck in a transition into a new community with new rules and new behaviors. Can one suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder while still in a state of trauma, or is what we see there something different? Especially in the context of Mergelsberg’s wider argument – that returnees are balancing two separate worlds: one as rebel and one as civilian – it’s something to keep in mind when trying to understand what happens to returnees as they adapt to life out of the bush – with or without rehabilitative services.

One Year After Kony2012: Resources for the Lord’s Resistance Army

Today marks a year since Kony 2012 was released, which means a year minus a couple of hours since it went viral. In the aftermath of the controversy, I threw together a link roundup about the video. To mark the occasion, I wanted to try my hand at a definitive reading list on the conflict and its many facets. I’ve broken this into categories to help anyone looking for specific aspects of the LRA conflict. A lot of the links are open access, but there are a lot of journals too. If you have trouble opening any articles, drop me a line. Please let me know in the comments if you know of other works I should include.

For a broad overview, there are two big things you should read. The e-book, Beyond Kony 2012, edited by Amanda Taub, is available at whatever price you’d like to pay. It includes everything from the history of the conflict to advocacy responses to Invisible Children, all from great people in various fields. The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality,  edited by Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot, is a good primer and tackles some of the myths around the conflict.

If you’re looking for other broad resources, International Crisis Group (ICG) has a report on understanding the conflict. The Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) has a number of field reports explaining and analyzing various events in the conflict’s history, all of which are worth perusing. For specific aspects of the conflict, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development have a report on LRA abductions. In additon, the LRA Crisis Tracker has just issued its annual security review on LRA activity.

There are quite a few decent articles on motivations and politics of the LRA: Frank van Acker and Ruddy Doom and Koen Vlassenroot have written good analyses of the LRA; Adam Branch situates the conflict around Acholi  peasants; Paul Jackson views the conflict from the greed vs. grievance perspective.

Patrick Wegner wrote a great piece on the Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Uganda. Chris Dolan has written a whole book (Google Books preview here) on the camps, in which he details their damaging effect on the entire northern Ugandan society in a case of what he terms “social torture.” He was also the first to break the conflict into phases, pointing out the trends in the conflict which Branch and Atkinson would later pick up on. The Refugee Law Project has a paper [pdf] on effects of violence on displaced communities.

Adam Branch has written a book (preview) about the consequences of humanitarian involvement that is absolutely imperative – his analysis of IDP camps, of the ICC, and of AFRICOM are all vital, and his history of the war is probably the most comprehensive. Sverker Finnström‘s book examines living in northern Uganda during the conflict, and sheds light on the political motivations behind the LRA.

Regarding the ICC, Allen’s short book on the subject is best, but you can also settle for his DFID report [pdf]. Branch has written this short piece [pdf] and a longer one [pdf] on ICC involvement. My professor in undergrad, Victor Peskin, wrote this analysis of the ICC’s approach to both Uganda and Sudan. The Refugee Law Project has working papers on the ICC and traditional justice. Also worth perusing is a series of blog posts at Justice in Conflict about LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo’s trial in Gulu.

On the flip side, regarding Uganda’s amnesty process, Louise Mallinder analyzes the amnesty process and Linda M. Keller looks at alternatives to the ICC. The first issue of JRP’s magazine, Voices [pdf], was about the amnesty process, and the Refugee Law Project has a working paper [pdf] on it as well. ICTJ and Berkeley’s Human Rights Center have a report on popular attitudes towards the ICC and amnesty, and ICTJ, Berkeley, and Tulane later published a joint report [pdf] on attitudes towards these ideas and reconstruction.

ICTJ and JRP have a joint report [pdf] on memorials and memory in LRA-affected regions. There’s also this piece on young adult perceptions of the LRA, which is an interesting perspective. Accord has a great report [pdf] on the long history of peace negotiations between the LRA and Uganda. They also put out this addendum [pdf] by Chris Dolan about the Juba peace process.

Looking at the military side of things, Mareike Schomerus has a look at the UPDF’s actions in Sudan, Sverker Finnström wrote about Kony 2012 and military humanitarianism; a group of authors wrote this article shedding light on what a military solution to the conflict would actually require. The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative released this report right before Kony 2012, outlining what U.S. involvement should look like. More recently, Resolve helped release this report [pdf] on problems with the UN’s response. ICG has a report spelling out what else is needed beyond Kony’s capture/death.

This is my no means an exhaustive list of readings, merely the ones I think are the most important or ones with interesting perspectives, in addition to some reports with lots of information. Again, if you know of other things that are missing that you think are important, leave a comment.

Update (9/1/2013): I’m editing this post to add some things I’ve come across recently. Firstly, Ron Atkinson’s The Roots of Ethnicity: Origins of the Acholi of Uganda is about precolonial Acholiland, but the second addition includes a very thorough history of post-colonial Uganda, including analysis of the LRA conflict. In 2009 he also wrote two good essays about Operation Lightning Thunder. Also, Chris Blattman has linked to the data from the Survey for War-Affected Youth (SWAY) that includes tons of information. In the year since I initially wrote this post, Resolve has published two important reports [both pdfs]: one reveals that Sudan is supporting the LRA again, another is the most recent in-depth look at who makes up the LRA and outlines effective defection strategies.