LONDON (AlertNet) – Military force has so far failed to protect tens of thousands of villagers in the Great Lakes region from brutal attacks by the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), so local community leaders have decided to take the matter into their own hands.
The LRA roams large parts of Congo, south Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR) abducting children, raping, killing and looting villages. The Ugandan army, with the support of Congo, Sudan, CAR and U.N. peacekeepers, has tried to track down and destroy the rebels but so far with only limited success.
Community leaders now want to try to persuade LRA fighters to abandon the group and return home. They plan to communicate with the group using radio programmes and posters pinned to trees where fighters are likely to pass by.
“They realised they – the ones suffering the most – could have a contribution to make to (ending) the conflict,” Kennedy Tumutegyereize, a peace-building expert working in the region, told AlertNet.
“People in the affected countries asked us ‘How can we talk to this group? Is it possible?’ We were able to say that in the past people have talked to them and the question is how we can enable that again now,” said Tumutegyereize , who is East and Central Africa programme director at Conciliation Resources.
The LRA terrorised northern Uganda for over 20 years before moving to surrounding countries, where they have continued to kidnap children to fight for them.
At the height of the conflict in Uganda, local community leaders and journalists with support from the Ugandan government and army, used radio programmes to persuade many fighters to abandon the LRA.
Mega FM radio station, based in Gulu town, northern Uganda, broadcast “Come back home” messages three times a week, following a simple formula. Former LRA fighters would describe how they were abducted as children, what it was like living with the LRA, and what they experienced after leaving the rebel group.
Senior leaders – from the local government, communities and religious leaders – appeared on the show with the former fighters, to explain where fighters could go to find help reconnecting with their community, and to reassure them that a government amnesty was in place and they would not face jail. The amnesty law was passed in Uganda in 2000 after pressure from civil society organisations and the international community.
Conciliation Resources, a London-based non-governmental organisation, recently interviewed 39 former LRA commanders in Congo, Uganda and south Sudan to find out what influenced their decision to escape.
“They told us the lack of information was their biggest problem,” Tumutegyereize said.
That all changed when they heard on the radio from their parents, former LRA colleagues and community leaders, and were given information on where they could go when they escaped the LRA and what their life options would be.
The messages “helped them to know the world doesn’t begin and end with life in the bush, that there is a world beyond”, Tumutegyereize said.
Community leaders from Congo, CAR and Sudan have asked Tumutegyereize and other peace-building experts to help them do similar work in their own countries. But they face some major obstacles.
There is little radio coverage in the dense forests where the LRA is now hiding, so adapting Uganda’s experiences to CAR, Congo and parts of south Sudan is difficult.
Language is also a problem. Ugandan members of the rebel group speak Acholi, and those abducted from other countries are forced to learn Acholi. But many journalists making the programmes and community leaders in the affected countries do not speak the language.
The LRA fighters aren’t the only ones that community leaders will be targeting. They also plan to write peace songs and dramas to reach communities affected by LRA violence.
In Congo, CAR and Sudan, villagers will attack anyone emerging from the bush who does not speak the local dialect, assuming them to be LRA. The majority do not know why the LRA began fighting – to oust the Ugandan government – or the fact that nearly all LRA fighters were abducted as children. Many were forced to commit atrocities in their home villages – a tactic used by the LRA to sever abducted children’s links with their families.
“We hope this campaign will help communities understand that the more hostile they are to individuals, the more it strengthens cohesion in the LRA. It’s a trick the LRA has used, we believe, to try and antagonise local communities so that it’s impossible for people to escape the LRA,” Tumutegyereize said.