A radio network funded by NGO Invisible Children to permit villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to share information on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is also being used by elements of the Congolese army, sources have told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. This may make villagers more prone to attacks by the LRA and other armed groups, as well as increase civilian exposure to soldiers who have themselves frequently terrorised the Congolese population, humanitarian experts said. In an emailed response, Invisible Children said: “The network faces challenges with respect to the presence of the military. The Congolese army has, in isolated situations, disrupted the ability of operators to send unbiased and accurate reports.”
The revelations come after Invisible Children’s heavily criticized video ‘Kony 2012’, released last month, and reports that diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks indicated that the organisation shared intelligence with Ugandan security operatives, leading to the arrest of suspected regime critics. Invisible Children firmly denied the reports.
The Early Warning Radio Network uses high frequency radio technology to enable people in some of the most isolated villages in Orientale Province in DRC to communicate with each other. “As of March 2012, there are 27 communities linked into the Early Warning Network,” reads the Invisible Children website.
Because the villages and radio systems are so remote and the army usage is varied and erratic, it is difficult to know precisely how often soldiers use the radios and the exact content of their Messages. A Congolese colonel in the region declined to comment on this issue. That the military’s use of the system is a concern, however, is undoubtable. “Army use of the radio system makes it a strategic target for a militia and potentially drags those civilians who make use of it into the armed conflict,” said Claude Bruderlein from the Harvard University International Humanitarian Law Research Initiative. “The system could be exposing Invisible Children staff and premises to reprisal attacks. It might also expose other NGOs in the region who use radio systems.”
The absence of functioning state institutions in the remotest parts of the DRC means that organisations are often compelled to work with de facto authorities. “[Allowing the army to use the radios] is obviously a tricky issue, but it’s likely the communities would be at greater risk if they weren’t allowed to manage these relationships and instead tried to prevent the soldiers from intimidating operators and using the radio by force,” said a source in Orientale Province.
Bruderlein agreed, saying that “the army usage [of the radio system] does not mean Invisible Children is choosing sides in the conflict.” However, he also made clear that “it’s up to the organisation running the system to mitigate the risks.” There are concerns that army use of the radio systems would bring ill-disciplined soldiers into close contact with local communities. Human rights organisations have documented numerous incidents of looting, raping and killing by the Congolese army. Statistics from the UN show that in January 2012 in Haut and Bas Uele districts of Orientale Province eight people were killed in ‘violent incidents’, of which the army was responsible for four.
Time slots for the army
Invisible Children said its “primary role is to purchase equipment” and to support its local partner in the radio project, the Commission Diocésaine Justice et Paix (CDJP). It is the CDJP that “manages the operations of the system”. Father Benoit Kinelegu of CDJP explained that his organisation had established a set of rules and regulations for the operation of the system, but that they were still awaiting approval from the local committees that operate the radio systems.
A source in Orientale Province explained that in some cases where it seemed impossible to keep soldiers off the radios, locals “have instituted a 15-minute time-slot per day or per week when the army can use the radio.”
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