Tag Archives: Lord’s Resistance Army

Acholi Opinions of Ongwen’s Arrest

I’ve written a little bit over the last month or so about Dominic Ongwen’s arrest and the charges he faces. There are a pair of recent publications that shed light on the heated debate over his arrest and trial.

For background: Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a young boy and inducted into the rebel group, where he gradually rose in ranks to become a high-level brigade commander. As many have noted, he may be the first conscripted child soldier to be charged with conscripting children, a status that makes his case controversial.

Beyond all of this controversy, many in the Acholi community have long pushed for reconciliation rather than prosecution or military action as a means of ending the war. The radio programs I studied over the last couple of years are just one example of efforts to encourage rebels to demobilize and return home without punishment. The national Amnesty Act is another, and the mato oput traditional reconciliation ceremony is another. There have been numerous efforts at reconciliation that don’t follow the usual retributive justice model. This isn’t to say that these efforts don’t have their own set of critics – they do – but that the question of whether or not Ongwen should face trial at the ICC is complicated.

At the end of January, two pieces were published that speak to the complexity of Ongwen’s arrest on the ground in Acholiland.

First, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith group that was created in northern Uganda to address the LRA conflict, issued a press release on Ongwen’s trial which puts the rest of the world on blast:

The question we all need to ask ourselves, is, how did Ongwen Dominic, in the first place, end up in the hands of the LRA? We have been informed from the most reliable sources that Ongwen Dominic was abducted, by force, at the age of ten years old, by LRA. In this context, we believe that there was, of course, some negligence, on the part of the government of Uganda, which had failed to protect numerous unfortunate children of Northern Uganda for years. On the other hand, the LRA that abducted Ongwen Dominic at tender age, and destroyed his humanity completely, by making him to becoming a mere killing machine in its hands, should be held both accountable and responsible for all that Ongwen Dominic did during the LRA captivity all these years. We also think that the international community did not take immediate action to arrest the unbearable situation of the LRA in time. A lot of mistakes have been made even by the international community, who did not have an eye to see us, as human beings here in Northern Uganda. Instead, we have all become ‘invisible people’ in the eyes of the international community.

The press release also argues for Ongwen to undergo traditional reconciliation in Gulu instead of facing trial at the ICC. This statement includes a strong critique of the retributive justice system:

Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances, should not be punished twice, by humanity. Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances should not be taken to the Hague in the Netherthelands in Europe. As a matter of course, Ongwen Dominic should have been brought back home, in order, to go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (Reconciliation), as a cleansing mechanism to all that he went through during his time in the LRA captivity. The cultural justice system of Mato Oput is pro-life and holistic in every respect in life. Unlike the Court system in the world, it brings restoration of the broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two communities involved into violent conflict.

It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded, by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system. Surprisingly, the Court system, which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides.

A week later, the Refugee Law Project, a think tank affiliated with Makerere University, published a report on Ongwen’s trial and leading perspectives [pdf] in Gulu. It includes similar indictments of the Ugandan government for allowing LRA violence to continue unabated in the north:

Most participants argued that Ongwen is a victim and will remain so because it was the Government that failed in its responsibility to protect him, prior to his abduction. Ongwen was abducted in Gulu in 1990, at the age of 10 while on his way to school. Sheikh Musa Kilil said, “It was the responsibility of government to protect such a child, a pupil who was going to school”. Reflecting on who a victim is in the context of the LRA, a former abductee noted, “Victims in LRA conflict are all those who were abducted, those who lost their property, body parts, their lives, loved ones and others who have been forced to kill”. Another participant argued that Ongwen is a victim because; “Ongwen was abducted, destroyed and ruined. He was made a teacher of a system whose motto value is, kill to survive”

These opinions are just a few more examples of how complicated and potentially divisive this trial, which begins in August, will be.

Ongwen’s Indictment and Lukodi

The ICC has released the un-redacted version of Dominic Ongwen’s indictment [pdf] for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It appears that the incident at the center of his indictment was the Lukodi Massacre in 2004.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

As Ledio Cakaj tweeted yesterday, this will bring attention to the tragic situation of IDP camps in the history of the war – Lukodi was but one of many “protected” camps that the military forced civilians into, then provided little to no protection. Some have even called the camp policy one of genocide. (If you want to read up on this, Chris Dolan’s Social Torture is a thorough analysis of the camps, and Adam Branch has written on the humanitarian complicity [pdf] in the program).

The Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report on the Lukodi Massacre in 2011 which you can access here [pdf]. The trial of Dominic Ongwen will raise a lot of interesting issues, not least because of his unique status as both victim and perpetrator of child conscription. The JRP report also doesn’t name Ongwen as the commander in the attack. I’m not familiar enough with this incident, but it is yet another question that will come up as to Ongwen’s responsibility for the massacre.

Here are a few photos from when I was in Lukodi in 2013. While I was researching radio interventions in northern Uganda, I observed a conference of Congolese and Central African civil society members who were hosted by Invisible Children in Gulu. One day, everyone took a bus to Lukodi where they met members of the community in Lukodi and heard testimonies of what had happened there. A victim of LRA violence from CAR also spoke to the audience about her experience. Later, a group of school children performed before the group headed back to Gulu.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Survivors, many widowed, were recognized by the audience.

Survivors were recognized by the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.


Students performed dances to Christian songs.

The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

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This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.


Recent Data on the LRA

Hopping back on the blog train to post links to three helpful, informative pieces of data related to research on the LRA. First is some very basic data on LRA activity in Orientale province of the DRC. Timo Mueller recently tweeted a link to this, a spreadsheet with data on LRA activity in the province from 2008 to 2014.

The file includes data on attacks, killings, abducted adults, abducted children, and injuries caused by the LRA by every quarter and every year, with some various breakdowns for the different categories. It’s not incredibly detailed data, but includes enough to be useful in looking at the overall effect that the LRA presence has had in the region over the years.

More recently and more exhaustive, two recent reports have been published about the victims of LRA violence in northeastern DRC. First is the latest report from the Resolve, Healing Their Image: Community perceptions of the UN peacekeeping mission in LRA-affected areas of the Democratic Republic of CongoAs Paul Ronan (of Resolve) tweeted, the report isn’t surprising, rather it highlights common knowledge on the ground – Congolese civilians don’t trust the peacekeepers in their midst.

When I was in Dungu last summer, I struggled with the same thing. People would tell me the perils of having Congolese or Ugandan soldiers in the area, tell me of incidents of abuse, and then they would still favor these over MONUSCO peacekeepers. This survey includes 347 people in five major towns in Haut-Uele district, Orientale province, each host to a UN operating base. The report includes brief sections on MONUSCO’s actual role in the region and the local communities’ other protection mechanisms (from migration to early warning to militia formation) before going into community perceptions of overall security, MONUSCO’s protection efforts, information sharing, defection efforts, and the opinions about the defectors themselves. Some snippets:

Even though they viewed patrols as an important aspect of protection work, the majority of participants responded that MONUSCO patrols were inrequent and ineffective. Participants stated that peacekeepers rarely patrolled near farm fields, along roads connecting communities, or within town. In one community close to Garamba [National Park, where LRA are active], participant stated, “We see them walk in our midst without protecting the population.” Participants spoke of irregular patrols and how the inconsistency made them feel unsafe, a sentiment that likely contributed to negative perceptions of the peacekeepers (11).

And a quote from a group of women:

We see them, but we don’t know why they are here in our area. [We ask] that MONUSCO inform the community, and explain to the population why they are here, to do what, and explain what are their projects. Especially that they heal their image in front of the population, because for us they bring despair, they are against our safety, they protect the LRA against us, [for] what good do they live among us? It’s better that they leave, and leave us in peace (10).

The report has other useful pieces of information, and is fairly short. Worth reading for anyone studying the LRA, MONUSCO, or peacekeeping in general. It can also be paired with Séverine Autesserre’s recent work on peacekeepers’ everyday lives and how they shape their effectiveness on the ground.

Secondly, Conciliation Resources just published a report of their own, A People Dispossessed: The plight of civilians in the areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army. This report focuses on the continued “chronic insecurity” that Congolese in this region face, both from the LRA and from Mbororo cattle herders, and explores the mishandled response so far, highlighting how protection is defined, ill-conceived military strategies, the unwillingness of the government to concern itself with the region, the (missed) potential of civil society, and lack of humanitarian aid. The report summarizes these factors thus:

At the fundamental level of understanding, international actors and the armies leading counter-LRA strategies have conceived protection too narrowly as protection from violence. In addition, by opting for a military strategy based on ‘search and destroy’ tactics, they have failed to deter LRA attacks against civilians. The strategy is ill-suited to the LRA threat as it leaves fighters free to move and attack at will. In Congo, the state has lacked the will and/or capacity to provide economic opportunities or essential social services that
fall within a broader conception of protection. Civil society actors, both local and international, have stepped up to fill some of the gap. They have had considerable impact through advocacy, but work at the community level has not connected with security sector protection activities. Finally, international humanitarian agencies and NGOs provided a burst of immediate relief to affected communities but their long-term impact appears negligible (9-10).

It’s also a report worth reading, especially for its exploration of these factors (more in-depth than I’ve copied here) and for its look at the Mbororo issue, an issue that most reports mention in passing but don’t really delve into.

In sum, a couple of good reports on LRA-affected regions of the DRC just came out last month. Read them.

8/7/14 Edit to add: The good people at Conciliation Resources have informed me that the report above, “A People Dispossessed,” was released alongside another report also on the LRA. I just started reading it, but Back but not Home: supporting the reintegration of former LRA abductees into civilian life in DRC and South Sudan seems promising and on an equally important topic. Reintegration and demobilization are a huge part of the push against the LRA, but it’s easier said than done – this report highlights some of the obstacles that still need to be dealt with.

#433rds: 4/27/14

This is part of a month-ish-long blog/Instagram project. For more, go here.


It’s reading week.Wrapping up my semester (and my time here at Yale), I’ve been spending time working on my thesis, grading papers, and reviewing language study.

Obviously, this is pouring into my letter tiles. Although I don’t know where geology came from, as I have pretty much interest there. My interests lie on the left side of the image: war, rebels, language. So, pardon me while I get all thesis-y again in this blog project:

I think the language of the LRA conflict is an interesting thing to delve into, a thing I only mention in passing in my current project. The way that people are labeled, the way that actions are identified, they mean a lot of things in war. Perhaps the most important is the term “rebel” and how it is used (or not used) in the context of the LRA. Existing as a rebel group since 1986, for many years the government labeled them “bandits.” In the post-9/11 era, “bandits” was dropped as the LRA became “terrorists” in the discourse. This was just one part of the government’s effort to get in on the GWOT funding/training pie, and painting the LRA as terrorists placed the government, as the one fighting terrorism, in more exalted status.

But sometimes the rebels aren’t even rebels. For instance, when 11 LRA were recently captured by the UPDF, it was reported as 1 rebel commander and 10 captives. Everyone reports it this way, ignoring the fact that the commander himself was likely abducted in the past, and without mentioning if any of the captives were actively engaged in the fire fight. In the LRA, the labels of rebel, abductee, commander, and captive are very fluid. Many commanders are also captives, and victims of abduction and conscription have also perpetrated acts of violence. It’s a messy thing, trying to decipher the language of war, but it’s a necessary part of trying to understand it.

“Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral.”

I’m deep into thesis territory. Currently hovering around page 110, madly pounding away at the keyboard. The chapter I’m working on is about two things, primarily: AFRICOM’s involvement in Uganda, and Invisible Children’s involvement in counter-LRA interventions. Yesterday afternoon I had just finished wrapping up a section suggesting that Invisible Children, by involving itself in military strategy, further blurred the distinction* between military humanitarian intervention and humanitarian/development relief (IC does both).

Many NGOs active in war zones collaborate to some extent with militaries, for better or for worse. In the LRA conflict, many used UPDF convoys to deliver goods, and toed the government line when it came to how to direct aid. But Invisible Children’s activities don’t use military support to carry out development aid. They coordinate with the military to help direct counter-LRA initiatives.

Then I happened upon this just-published short article on Invisible Children post-Kony 2012. It’s pretty bare-bones (if you’re interested in the topic, this piece does it more justice), but it includes some discussion of exactly this topic of an NGO’s role in military activity (sans analysis):

Invisible Children keeps a staff of about 80 people on the ground in Africa. They run programs dropping leaflets from airplanes to encourage LRA soldiers to lay down their arms, and setup a high frequency radio network so that remote villages can report LRA activities and movements.

Unlike other NGOs, which usually try to stay neutral in conflict zones to do their work, Invisible Children doesn’t apologize for actively supporting efforts to track down Kony, with help from both the US military and national armies in the region.

“Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides,” says Sean Poole, the anti-LRA program manager for Invisible Children.

This isn’t revelatory. Invisible Children has long stood behind their “comprehensive approach” that blends peace-oriented come home messaging and Safe Reporting Sites with more offensive maneuvers. But it’s an explicit statement of that fact. They see themselves as not neutral, but on the side of peace.

Agree with that framework or not, it’s a feature of the discourse around the international human rights regime. Because the LRA are guilty of human rights abuses and are indicted by the ICC, efforts to pursue them are legitimized with little regard to their consequences. And regardless of whether the current efforts against the LRA can be characterized as “good” or “bad,” the quote above is representative of human rights discourse and humanitarian intervention overall, from Darfur to Libya to Syria.

*The existence of this distinction itself is also up for debate. To a large extent, humanitarian interventions, armed or not, deploy a mixture of unequal, dehumanizing, and (in)directly violent power relations. Mamdani  [pdf] argues that humanitarian intervention reifies international power structures and depoliticizes those deemed “vulnerable,” and Branch goes into all sorts of detail on how humanitarian interventions (military and non-military) have exacerbated the LRA conflict in particular in his book on the topic.

US Ramps Up Counter-LRA Operations

Last night, news came out that the Obama administration is doubling down on the efforts to help hunt down the top commanders of the LRA. According to the Washington Post:

At least four CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refueling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Forces and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes.

For those who’ve been following this for a long time, 100 special force advisers were sent to Uganda in 2011 to help track down the LRA. This recent news is a huge increase in troop commitment and in other material.

So far, the U.S. presence there has helped implement safe reporting sites and coordinate defection messaging efforts, including dropping fliers and flying helicopters with speakers to encourage LRA rebels to surrender. The presence has also helped bolster the Ugandan security sector and further militarized central Africa, though it may have had an effect in monitoring UPDF abuses.

The Ospreys are on loan from a base in Djibouti, where they have been under Centcom control. Africom is borrowing them for counter-LRA efforts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were there on standby in a region where more and more problems are arising. The Ospreys were already active in the region, attempting to respond when South Sudan descended into chaos in December.

The buried lede is that Kony and the LRA aren’t the only (or maybe not even the main) reason to send troops to Uganda:

The LRA poses no threat to the United States, but the administration sees assistance to the A.U. mission as a useful way to build military and political partnerships with African governments in a region where al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are rapidly expanding, as well as to demonstrate adherence to human rights principles.

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.

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.

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.

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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.