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Community radio fights Uganda’s LRA legacy

By Christina Okello

During the 20-year war between the Lord's Resistance Army and government forces in northern Uganda, community stations like Radio Wa used “come home messaging” to encourage abducted children to defect. Today, their broadcasts for peace are working to heal the north's hidden scars.

"When the radio began, there was a lot of insecurity," Radio Wa's director Magdaline Kasuku told RFI.

It was in late 2001. "There was a lot of violence, there was a lot of killings and one of the biggest weapons they [the rebels] used was children."

Between 1986 and 2006, Joseph Kony kidnapped thousands of children into his rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers.

At the height of the conflict, community stations like Radio Wa in Lira, northern Uganda, began to emerge, offering locals isolated in towns and villages, a different message to the one being played out on their doorstep.

The programme they came up with was Karibu.

"Karibu is a kiswahili word that means 'welcome'," explains Kasuku.

"Many parents would come through the radio to complain, saying 'Look, my child has disappeared, I don't know where he or she is. Could you help me find out where my child is?'," she says.

The programme was so popular in reaching out to communities in the north that it came under threat from the LRA.

In 2002 the rebels burnt it down.

It would take less than a year for Radio Wa to be rebuilt, owing to public outcry over its destruction.

"It went beyond Uganda," comments Kasuku. "The whole world was wondering how a small community radio which is trying to empower the people in a wartorn area, can be burnt down, so it really became a national issue."

Avoiding propaganda trap

So much so that even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni came to inspect the damage, promising to rebuild Radio Wa.

"They said, Tthis radio is so powerful in reaching out to the community here.' So they gave us a wider coverage," recounts Kasuku.

"Normally, community radios are given to cover a kilometre or a kilowatt. That day, he [Yoweri Museveni] promised that we are going to be given four kilowatts."

But in its bid to promote peace did Radio Wa not fall into the trap of toeing the government's line and promoting its anti-LRA propaganda?

For Kasuku, the aim of Radio Wa's Karibu programme went beyond partisan lines.

"Parents would come to the station and make an appeal: 'I want to talk to my child, my daughter, my son, wherever they are, if they're still alive, I want them to know that I still love them. I know that they might have done so many bad things, killed people, and all that, but they should be able to know that I love them,'."

Coming home

The formula encouraged more than 1,400 abducted children to break with the LRA and return to their families.

After the war former LRA combattants questioned by police said they had been encouraged to return home through listening to stations like Radio Wa.

Hearing their mother say "Wherever you are, my child, just come back, we love you, we forgive you," helped persuade them, explains Kasuku.

Children who were abducted, came back, to tell their story and pull the lid off the atrocities they endured under the LRA.

More than 10 years on, after a peace deal was signed in South Sudan, does Radio Wa's message of peace still ring true in the Uganda of today?

The scars of war may be healing but the country is still grappling with kidnappings and killings, this time of young women in the Kampala capital.

Healing the scars

"There are no more gunshots, yes," Kasuku says. "But, when we interact with the community, you find that they have so many unfinished business. There are so many people who up to now have never let go of what their experiences were."

The appearance of LRA commander Dominic Ogwen at the International Criminal Court at the Hague has stirred up painful memories.

Kasuku says, many survivors still live with trauma and insists programmes like hers are necessary.

"We want to continue encouraging people and letting them know they can overcome the trauma, the pain, the violence, all the bad things they went through in life. And they don't need to retaliate."

Ugandan authorities are also keen to document the country's past and are planning a new war museum to this effect.

"People need to start the healing process," reckons Kasuku.

"That is the message that we keep on passing. Even today, despite the fact there is no more war. So, I think at Radio Wa, we realise we have even more work now than we did before," she says.

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