Q & A: On Kony 2012, the LRA in Congo, and the Catholic Response

Kony 2012 has been viewed over 100 million times worldwide in the past 10 days. While the media storm rages, Catholic Relief Services is continuing the work we've been doing for decades in the regions of East and Central Africa.
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Kony 2012 -- the video made by the charity Invisible Children to highlight the violent actions of the Lord's Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony -- has been viewed over 100 million times worldwide in the past 10 days.

While the media storm rages, Catholic Relief Services is continuing the work we've been doing for decades in the regions of East and Central Africa where the LRA is active: Helping protect communities, helping people to heal after trauma, and helping improve their lives.

Julien Marneffe works for CRS in Goma, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's Program Manager for a Community Protection and Early Warning project implemented -- among others -- in Haut and Bas Uele, the regions of northeastern DRC that continue to suffer at the hands of the LRA. He told us what he thinks of the Kony 2012 phenomenon.

What's your reaction to the Kony 2012 video and the unprecedented reception it's received?

Julien: If the main aim of the video was to make people aware of the LRA problem and to get people talking about it, then in that respect, it's been an undeniable success -- and one all humanitarian organizations working in this area can be happy about. But, having said that, we must be careful not to oversimplify the issue. It's a complex situation that has gone on for many years, and most importantly demands a multifaceted approach tailored to the context of the different countries where civilian populations are victimized or threatened by the LRA. Also, the sad reality is that for most people, interest in the issue will be short lived. Today it's Kony 2012, but tomorrow, another crisis or another video will be the next online trend, and I fear that most people will forget about the problems of the LRA.

What effect has Joseph Kony and the LRA had on the region and how do people there feel about them?

Julien: Even as the LRA has been expelled from Northern Uganda and does not operate there anymore, it has relocated itself, hiding in the dense forest of South Sudan, Central African Republic and the northeastern DRC. Although the LRA has only a small number of "fighters" left, perhaps only 200-300 according to most cited estimates, and attacks in quite small numbers, usually only 4 to 5 attackers, it has been able to survive, spreading terror and havoc in these regions of Central Africa through lightning attacks: killing, maiming, looting, raping, abducting people, mostly women and children; men are usually beaten or killed. Mass graves have also been discovered on occasions, further spreading terror of the LRA among the local population.

As a result, many of the inhabitants of the communities we work with have simply stopped going to their fields or traveling to the next village for fear of the LRA. For example, I got a phone call last Sunday night from one of my staff telling me that there was a surge of panic in the town of Dungu, because of an apparent attack by the LRA. Large numbers of people from the outskirts of the town were trying to get inside the U.N. compound in the town center to seek refuge. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the mere rumor that the LRA was in town was enough to create panic.

What is Catholic Relief Services and our partners doing to help the situation in the region?

Julien: We've been very active on the issue of the LRA, particularly working with our Caritas partners through the Church's regional networks. We've been in Northern Uganda since 1996, supporting people seeking safety. Even though the LRA is no longer in Uganda, we're still helping former child soldiers to reconcile with their communities. In recent years the LRA has moved into South Sudan, so CRS is supporting the efforts of the Church there. A lot of the impact of LRA activities is now felt in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where I work. Farming has been badly affected because families are too scared to work in their fields because of attacks and abductions. So, through Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, CRS and Caritas Dungu-Doruma are helping people recover economically with seed and tool kit distributions, training on improved agricultural techniques, and developing community protection plans and early alert and response systems.

Can you tell us about the protection project you work on?

Julien: It's called the Community Protection and Early Warning project, and its two main aims are to empower local people to reduce the impact of the violence and secondly, to create a radio network so isolated communities can communicate. The project is also run in South Kivu, where people face the threat of other armed groups.

So, to equip communities better to face these threats, we've facilitated the creation of local committees that develop their own risk analysis and community action plans. It's about reducing their vulnerability and limiting the impact of the threats, which they're facing on a daily basis. So, men and women organize themselves into groups to walk to and from the fields or to fetch water. Sometimes, and this is very unusual in this culture, the men do this work for the women when the situation is considered too dangerous. They've distributed whistles for people to send alerts in case of danger. Roads are cleared to avoid ambushes. The local committees have also been very active and quite effective in mediating with the Congolese army and police to address issues of harassment and human rights violations by their members, which are unfortunately rampant as well.

Secondly, we've created a high frequency radio communication network between isolated communities and the local Catholic diocese. There's no phone network in these areas so it's a way of sharing security and humanitarian information with the organizations that can help, like the U.N. or other humanitarian groups in the area. Thanks to those radios, information can reach a center like Dungu the same day an incident takes place. It used to take days and sometimes weeks or even months for the same information to arrive.

How do people in the area respond to what CRS is doing?

Julien: We've had a very positive response from local people and the Church.

With the community protection project, for instance, people say it's given them more courage and hope to go about their daily tasks, like going to their field to work, or collecting water at the nearby well, which are typically places where LRA attacks take place. People have also told us that the project has increased community solidarity and cohesion in the face of the LRA threat. They feel empowered to stand up to wrong doers. Also, people like the fact that they feel included in all aspects of the CRS/Caritas projects. They said we came to listen to them, learn what their problems are and help them help themselves, while other NGOs come to the village to tell them what their problem is and what the solution is going to be. They feel empowered by the project, realizing that they have the resources and capacity to do things and improve things for themselves. They don't feel alone any more thanks to the radio, and they can take effective -- even if limited -- actions for their own protection, not only against the LRA, but also against the many other threats they face in this region.

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