In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rural radio stations are used to protect civilians from violence. Part of a growing network of high frequency (HF) shortwave radios that connects rural villages in remote parts of the DRC and neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), these radios are switched on each day as local radio operators report their village's status in relation to a widespread conflict in the region.
Some of the radios are the remnants of an already-existing network of communication between missionary outposts; others are brand new and were built specifically to fill gaps in what has become a security-focused network.
All of them are increasingly coming under the fold of Invisible Children's "Early Warning Radio Network," a system that aims to help protect communities from violence perpetrated by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has attacked civilians here sporadically since first setting up camp in the DRC in 2005.
The rebel group, known over the last twenty-six years for its penchant for attacking civilians, abducting youth, and maiming its victims in Uganda, South Sudan, DRC, and CAR, has been the subject of Invisible Children's efforts since the non-profit first began in 2006. For three years, the US-based organization has been building its radio network to help protect Congolese and Central African civilians from LRA attack.
In December of 2008, after two years of slow-moving negotiations had failed to result in a comprehensive peace agreement, the Ugandan army (UPDF) launched a large-scale offensive into Garamba National Park, DRC, where much of the LRA had been stationed during the talks. After the botched attack failed to yield results, the LRA responded with a prolonged series of retaliatory attacks on the local civilian population.
Known as the Christmas Massacres, the LRA attacked multiple Christmas gatherings in several towns and villages in 2008, surrounding and killing civilians across northeastern Congo.
Hundreds of people were killed in the following weeks as the LRA carried out massacres throughout the region. A year later, the LRA repeated this pattern, looting and attacking people in ten different villages over the course of five days in 2009, leaving over 300 people dead and 250 people abducted in what are now known as the Makombo Massacres. These two incidents are at the root of why Invisible Children has dedicated so much to implementing this radio network.
In a video produced by Invisible Children, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Ida Sawyer argues that "if there were a way for the people in Mabanga Ya Talo, Makombo, and Tapili villages [villages attacked in December, 2009] to report somewhere and let them know that there was this attack going on, and if there were people able to respond to help protect them when there is an attack, then maybe all of those people might not have been killed and abducted."
This lifeline is now a part of the daily lives of many localities. Twice a day, the villages in the network check in and report on recent occurrences. These reports go to one of several network hubs in the region. This network is able to then alert nearby villages of potential threats, send military enforcements after the LRA, or mobilize humanitarian workers as needed. Several radio operators and local leaders explained that the network helps to protect the villagers.
But these communities face more than one source of insecurity. Soldiers from the Congolese national army, the FARDC, are billeted in many of the villages that are part of the network. These soldiers are there ostensibly to protect the local population, and are tasked with pursuing LRA fighters whenever nearby villages issue distress calls.
In reality, however, the FARDC soldiers rarely engage the LRA directly. One informant explained that, if one village reported being attacked, soldiers posted north and south of that village would converge on the area, intending to catch the LRA along the main road.
The problem was, according to other informants, the LRA tended to disappear into the forests rather than use roads. This was not just a misunderstanding of LRA tactics - many suggested that the FARDC feared the LRA, and avoided confrontation whenever possible.
While the FARDC were known for being inept at fighting the LRA, they did prove effective at a different use of force. In many villages, there are stories of military abuse of civilians, from forcibly stealing livestock to beating villagers.
Often, according to informants in these villages, these acts are committed by underpaid soldiers who are far away from home and have no attachment to the region.
One person familiar with Invisible Children's HF radio network stated that "the greatest threat to the HF radios is not the LRA, it's the FARDC." Often, the local population becomes a victim to soldiers' needs and whims. Indeed, in his argument against Invisible Children's LRA-centric approach, Kristof Titeca cites a UN report that "in 2011, a dramatic 48% of all incidents against civilians were committed by individual Congolese soldiers, while (only) 17% were caused by the LRA."
While Titeca argues that the LRA Crisis Tracker distracts from military abuses, the radio network itself does, at times, handle reports of military abuse. Reports are filed to various authorities - military forces like FARDC and MONUSCO as well as humanitarian and human rights organizations.
One village reported frequent abuse by a number of soldiers, and the military commanders in the region quickly replaced those soldiers, much to the relief of local civilians.
In another incident, a MONUSCO soldier was removed after accusations of sexual abuse. It is unclear, however, how the abusive soldiers were disciplined or where they were transferred to, and without a comprehensive effort to address the root of the problem, civilians will continue to face abuse. Even after replacing abusive soldiers with new ones, one informant explained, "after a certain time, they start acting the same."
Invisible Children leaves it up to each individual community to determine how involved the military should be in terms of access to radio stations. In some communities in which the FARDC does not have access to communications equipment, they have tried to confiscate or control the stations.
Some communities have chosen instead to allow soldiers to use the equipment during allotted times, and under supervision. However, even with these compromises and safeguards, there are also instances in which soldiers attempt to seize the radios to prevent reporting on abuses.
Meanwhile, LRA attacks have dwindled over the course of the last year. There is speculation that the northern part of Garamba National Park has become de facto LRA territory.
There are few patrols by the park rangers in this region, and the rebels have settled into camps, perhaps not unlike the farming plots they operated in southern Sudan a decade before. This cooling of the fighting has shown a brief lull in LRA attacks on civilians, but a different kind of violence persists: that of already-committed abductions.
According to a study published by The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, a Washington-based non-profit that focuses on advocacy to stop the LRA, the rebel group is currently comprised of a number of abductees, including an estimated 140 women and 72 children.
"The issue has been that there has been no military pressure on those groups for a year and a half or two years," explained one staff member of Invisible Children. "LRA defections don't really occur in situations and environments where the LRA is not very threatened."
Invisible Children is in the midst of implementing a large defection messaging initiative to disrupt current LRA activities. Local FM radio stations have been airing calls for rebels to come home, sometimes addressing specific rebels directly and inviting their families or former abductees to speak over the airwaves.
Helicopters funded by the U.S. State Department have been flying over rebel territory in CAR (and will soon fly in DRC), playing similar messages over loudspeaker. Meanwhile, airplanes are dropping thousands of leaflets over rebel territory, depicting amnesty and forgiveness for those who surrender.
All of this defection messaging is on a coordinated rise as Invisible Children has helped to establish new reporting points, places where rebels can come to safely surrender. These reporting points were established in conjunction with the U.S. military and are located in communities along the border with South Sudan, where the military is present.
This improves on the old reporting sites established by MONUSCO, which were often obscure landmarks such as bridges and junctions. These checkpoints were often left unmanned, and defectors would be left vulnerable while waiting for peacekeepers to pick them up. The newer reporting sites are equipped with services for returnees and protection for the communities.
The overall hope of this effort is to push the LRA and keep them on the move. "When movement comes, that's when opportunity for defection comes," the Invisible Children staff member explained. If LRA groups can be kept mobile, more fighters are expected to defect.
Disrupting the LRA, however, could also provoke attacks on civilians, part of a long trend in which the LRA retaliate against civilians when pushed by militaries (as seen by the massacres that led to the radio network in the first place). This is one reason why the reporting sites have been established in communities with a military presence. However, the effect of the militarization of some communities is already apparent in the abuses civilians suffer from soldiers as a cost of their protection.
As the LRA presence has shrunk and other armed actors are overlooked, many humanitarian organizations have slowly withdrawn from the region. Armed violence has spiked in other parts of CAR and DRC, and many organizations have quietly shuttered their doors in Dungu.
This is a critical problem for the radio network, which regularly reports incidents to various organizations in order to facilitate aid and relief. Whether from LRA attacks, military abuse, or encounters with poachers and other armed actors, civilians in the region have frequently found themselves in need of help that is increasingly harder to find.
Over the course of the next few months, efforts to encourage defections will continue to be on the rise. Meanwhile, radio operators in rural villages will continue to report on LRA activity in an effort to protect their communities.
As planes drop leaflets over rebel camps and soldiers remain in their village posts, the radios will continue to turn on every day. Their ability to protect civilians without better protection from soldiers, however, remains questionable. Organizations working in the region need to make military discipline and accountability a priority, as well as providing aid relief to those affected by various armed actors.
Scott Ross is a graduate student at Yale University, where he studies the LRA conflict. He frequently writes about his research - and other things - at his blog, Backslash Scott, and on Twitter at @scott_a_ross. Research for this article was carried out in the DRC and Uganda in 2013 with support from the Lindsay Fellowship and the Coca Cola World Fund at Yale.