How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult

Broadcasts key to dismantling Lord’s Resistance Army

How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult

Uncategorized July 31, 2013 0

A U.N. helicopter over eastern Congo. Ferruccio Gobbi photo How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult Broadcasts key to dismantling Lord’s Resistance Army... How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult
A U.N. helicopter over eastern Congo. Ferruccio Gobbi photo

How Radios Are Beating a Congo Rape Cult

Broadcasts key to dismantling Lord’s Resistance Army

The helicopters circled over the jungle canopy in Central Africa, speakers affixed to their airframes blaring messages presumably in the Acholi language of the rebel fighters, begging the rebels to quit fighting, lay down their machetes and AK-47s … and go home.

Incredibly, it has worked.

For years the U.S. military, America’s African allies and the U.N. have been using radio broadcasts to battle the elusive Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous cult-like armed group that began as a Ugandan resistance force in the 1980s but in recent decades has been roaming the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan under leader Joseph Kony, a charismatic madman wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Once sponsored by the rogue government of Sudan, today the LRA survives by enslaving children and pillaging defenseless villages, raping and killing as it goes.

Finding and directly fighting the LRA has proved difficult in the region’s thick forest. So the world turned to radios to do what troops could not. And now the LRA seems to be falling apart, its members lured away in part by broadcast messages of hope.

A operator in Dungu in 2010. David Axe photo

‘Come home’

The U.N. was apparently the first to harness the power of radio. In the town of Dungu in northeastern Congo, members of the U.N.’s Demobilization, Disarmament, Repatriation, Reinsertion and Reintegration body — known as “DD Triple R” — made contact with LRA fighters and their camp followers and tried to convince them to risk quitting the group and returning to society.

The idea was that a steady drain of fighters and followers would gradually weaken the LRA. “We must get foreign armed groups to surrender so at long last there can be peace in Congo,” Guillaume Kahongya, a DD Triple R radio announcer, told War is Boring in 2010.

That was easier said than done, DD Triple R team leader Ian Rowe admitted. “It’s difficult to reach the LRA just because of the nature of the way they operate.” Intelligence reports indicated the main body of several hundred LRA fighters plus its followers, all under Kony’s command, had moved into Central African Republic, beyond the range of many existing U.N. operations.

The move left scattered bands of just a few dozen people operating across eastern Congo under the leadership of Kony’s lieutenants. It was these isolated fighters that the U.N. in Congo was targeting.

“There are two main tools we use: radio and flyers,” Rowe explained. “The flyers are distributed via local communities and community leaders and also by the various military forces in operation across the region: the [U.N.] military contingent, the [Ugandan People’s Defense Force] and the Congolese military.”

There were three variations on DD Triple R’s basic message, Kahongya said. One targets camp followers — usually kidnapping victims who are held as laborers or sex slaves and forced to give up their former identities, including their native languages, in favor of the LRA’s rootless lifestyle and its Ugandan dialect.

The second, called “come home” messages, aimed at persuading LRA fighters to quit and go home. The third was meant to educate Congolese civilians. After years of LRA atrocities, many Congolese are inclined to simply kill on sight anyone suspected of LRA ties. Creating a system for demobilization means persuading civilians to let people quit the LRA without fear of reprisal.

It was difficult to measure the effects of DD Triple R’s efforts, Rowe conceded. “It’s hard to say how many people heard the radio and because they heard the radio decided turn themselves in. It’s hard say how many people see the flyers posted in the forest and whether that’s an incentive to try to escape.”

“In addition, lots of escapees or ex-combatants who turn themselves in or surrender do so to other elements — the FARDC, the UPDF — and they have their own systems for repatriating or reintegrating them,” Rowe continued. “So we don’t always know how many people are coming in.”

“At the basic level, the amount of people we have received [at DD Triple R] has not been high,” Rowe said. “This year [2010] I think we received 20 to 30 people who have escaped or ex-combatants who have turned themselves in. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem like much, but there are others we don’t see or don’t have the access to know about.”

But over the past two years the U.N. has gotten big help from an American aid group and the U.S. military, significantly extending the reach and effectiveness of the broadcasts.

A Church radio operator in Congo in 2010. Invisible Children photo

Equipping the Church

The Catholic Church has long performed many of the functions of government in remote eastern Congo — including maintaining long-distance communications. Twice a day on most days, a Church operator in each of at least 13 villages radios into Dungu, the regional hub, with a news update. Dungu calls back with the combined news from all 14 locations.

In early 2010 the California-based aid group Invisible Children, which would later create the famous Kony2012 viral video, came up with a plan. It would reinforce the existing Church radio network, transforming it into an early-warning system for quickly alerting communities about rebel movements — and also relaying the come-home messages.

Each of an initial 11 new radios for the network cost just $140,000, with additional expenses for Invisible Children to install the gear and train operators. The plan was a “home-run,” according to Adam Finck, a key organizer from the aid group.

With the Americans’ money, the U.N.’s expertise and the Church’s basic infrastructure, work on the early-warning system got underway in mid-2010. And a year later, the effort got help from a new deployment of 100 U.S. Special Forces troops to Congo and surrounding countries. The soldiers would “act as advisers to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA,” U.S. Pres. Barack Obama said.

The Americans, whose activities tragically have been curtailed recently, sent the helicopters to blare out the same messages also being broadcast by the U.N. and the Church. And by this summer the results were apparent. “Approximately 15 percent of the LRA fighting force across central Africa has defected since January 2012,” Paul Ronan, from a Washington, D.C. nonprofit group called The Resolve, announced this week.

To be fair, Kony’s own actions have frayed the group. “Kony’s orders to execute disobedient commanders and sideline older commanders is causing discontent within the ranks,” Ronan said.

But the radio messages seem to have helped the unhappy fighters understand that there’s an alternative to rape and pillage. Drawn in part by the broadcasts, many of them have come home.

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