American special forces deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) to support the hunt for Joseph Kony and his LRA rebels have switched from using bullets to blaring recordings from mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles to persuade the militants to defect.
According to a report by Wall Street Journal (WSJ), US commandos are relying more on psychological operations to lure die-hard militants out of the bush using their families as messengers.
American helicopters roam the skies deep in the centre of CAR, blaring recorded come-home messages. They have also created personalized leaflets with photos of LRA fighters' families, which are dropped into the bush by their hundreds of thousands. American soldiers also produce individualized family pleas to broadcast on jungle radio stations, according to the report.
One message from a mother directed at one Obira said: "I am asking you to be strong and not to worry about anything," she said. "Please come home."
The WSJ report says Obira, long after he heard the message, ran away from the rebels. Obira, now 19 years and back in Uganda, recalled the moment he realized his family wanted him back, no matter what he might have done as a rebel: "I cried on the inside, because I didn't want anybody to see me cry."
Obira's defection marked a victory in one of the most unusual American special-operation missions anywhere in the world. The Americans are using rebel defectors to identify rebels that are still loyal to Kony.The rebels' relatives are then tracked down in Uganda to record messages appealing to them to defect.
American charity group, Invisible Children, says the LRA has been weakened significantly that its force is not more than 300 fighters hence reducing significantly its capacity to fight.
"They're basically in survival mode; the only way you're going to get this type of individual to come out is with a personalized message," WSJ quotes Lt Col Matthew Maybouer, commander of US Special Operations Forces in CAR.
The efforts to use psychological warfare to deprive Kony of followers are led by one Eloise, a 29-year-old psychological-operations officer with a reputation as the rebel whisperer. Eloise, the story says, enlists mothers and fathers of the rebels to beg their children to abandon the bush and return home.
"We're trying to tug at those heart strings, let them know what they're missing," Eloise told WSJ.
The story adds that at least 44 rebels have so far defected from Kony as a result of the specialized messages. The American team also largely depends on David
Ocitti, who himself was a former LRA abductee captured in 2002 after his home was attacked and his father killed.
Ocitti, who escaped from LRAafter six months, is tasked with tracking down the families of the rebels still loyal to Kony, who he convinces to record helicopter messages appealing to their children to return home.
Eloise "gives me the names, I give her the voices,"Ocitti told WSJ. He also delivers family photos that allow Americans to produce personally targeted leaflets that are also dropped in the rebel-held areas.
Over half a million leaflets have so far been dropped in CAR in the last six months. It is said that Kony tells his followers the leaf- lets are poisonous and shouldn't be touched. He also warns them that the Americans can spy on rebels through the leaflets.
Also among the leaflets that are dropped are those showing former rebels enjoying themselves after abandoning the rebellion.
"Eloise aims for the rebels' weak spots. During the dry sea- son, when food is scarce in the forest, the Americans carpeted the bush with leaflets showing a well-known defector enjoying a Margherita pizza. "Hungry?" the leaflet read.
While in the bush, Peter Kidega, a former LRAmachinegun operator, says he once picked up a leaf- let with the words, "We Are Free" written across the top. The photo showed six men laughing together.
This, according to Eloise, is done to show that the would-be defectors would be safe if they returned home. Many of those that have actually returned have been granted amnesty and are now re-settled with their relatives.
"When I saw that leaflet, I realized the propaganda Kony had been feeding us on--that we'd be killed--was a lie," Kidega said.
The US has at least 100 soldiers working with their Ugandan counterparts in the CAR to eliminate Joseph Kony.
Uganda People's Defense Forces spokesperson, Brigadier Richard Karemire, told The Observer yesterday that the method of using personalized messages is not new although it has been successful.
"Fighting is not just about shooting. We have been using that method to guide our brothers who have refused to come out of the bush. It is through such methods that we have had so many people leaving the bush and denouncing rebellion," Karemire said by telephone. He added that those who normally respond to the messages are the fighters whose hands are not "so much tainted with people's blood."
Karemire also added that LRA's capacity to wreak havoc across the region has been largely crippled.
"They can no longer recruit or have gardens of crops like they used to; in short, the LRA have been defeated so to speak," he added.