- Jenny Norton travelled to Uganda to work with local partners who were keen to build their community media capacity through a training workshop
The task ahead was clear. Two trainers from the UK, with teams from four East and Central African countries, had five days to produce a newsletter, in French and English, about the Lord's Resistance Army conflict.
We came with a blank template on a laptop. Our local teams had lots of story ideas. All we had to do was to decide exactly what kind of content would make sense for an intended audience of very different people in different countries with different ideas of why a newsletter like this could be useful.
As we assembled at the training venue – a hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda – I began to realise that just getting here had already been a big challenge for many of the participants. Tales of hot and dusty long-distance bus journeys connecting to unreliable local airlines, made our eight-hour direct flight from London seem so straightforward by comparison.
These journeys highlight one of the reasons this conflict has proved so intractable. The LRA operates in very remote areas, far away from big towns, capital cities, good roads and communications systems.
Government officials rarely if ever venture into the affected regions and it's a struggle to get the problem onto their radar.
Monitoring the LRA’s activities
Working with us on the course were members of the Regional Civil Society Task Force – a network of local organisations from the four countries affected by the LRA – Uganda, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and newly independent South Sudan.
Their job is to work with local communities in areas where the LRA operates, and to speak out on their behalf. They monitor the LRA's movements and activities, warn people of impending attacks when they can, and in the awful aftermath of the violence they step in to help rebuild broken lives.
So how could a newsletter help, we asked on day one of the course. The teams had some clear answers, which are best illustrated by the stories of three people taking part.
Making the experiences of local people count
Father Ernest Sugule is a Catholic priest from the town of Dungu in north eastern Congo. He produces monthly reports meticulously charting the number of LRA attacks, killings, and abductions in his area. He also logs how many people have managed to escape from the LRA and return home.
Father Ernest and his team often talk to people in remote villages far beyond the reach of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) troops who operate in the area. Father Ernest's figures, combined with similar reporting from the other affected areas, would be extremely useful to the UN and African Union, as well as to all the government officials and international diplomats trying to deal with the LRA problem.
Sharing the burden
Tatiana Viviane Ozojiri from the Central African Republic has a warm smile despite the horror stories she listens to on a daily basis. She works with affected communities helping people abducted by the LRA to reintegrate into their old lives. It's not easy.
Young girls are routinely raped and return with babies that their families are reluctant to look after. Young men return having learned to kill, and are traumatised by the things they have seen, and the things they have done.
For Tatiana it's important that these people tell their stories and that they are recorded and shared so that families and communities feel that they are not alone in dealing with these problems.
Spreading the message about peaceful solutions
Father Mark Kumbonyaki is from Western Equatoria State, in South Sudan. He recently took part in a high profile meeting on the LRA in the new capital, Juba. Along with other civil society groups Father Mark spoke not only about the devastating impact the LRA is having on local communities, but also about the need to find peaceful solutions to the conflict.
South Sudan's problems with the LRA only really began after internationally mediated peace talks broke down, and the Ugandan and Congolese armies launched a big military operation against the group.
In response to increased military attack, the LRA turned on local civilians unleashing a campaign of extreme and systematic violence.
Father Mark and his colleagues say it's just one example of how complex the LRA problem is, and how solving it will require policymakers and army commanders to look beyond simple military solutions and to work with local people in all the affected countries to find long-term peaceful ways of bringing the violence to an end.
Defining a purpose and setting the agenda
So it was clear that our newsletter would have three main strands. One looking at the situation on the ground, a second focusing on the human stories behind the statistics, and a third looking at the ways in which civil society groups are working to draw attention to the problem and call for peaceful solutions.
We set to work with different groups writing stories for each strand. Teams sat huddled around laptops, avidly discussing story angles and double-checking facts and figures. People worked through their tea breaks and carried on as the sun went down over the lake outside. As darkness fell clouds of tiny flies swarmed through the open windows and buzzed around us.
Crossing language barriers
The newsletter was taking shape but one big question was still bugging me. I could see how government officials, diplomats and peacekeepers could access all this information via the internet. But how was the newsletter going to be of use to ordinary people in remote villages out in the bush?
The answer was simple. The stories in the newsletter would be translated into local languages where they would be read out and discussed at village meetings, and on local radio.
All the Regional Task Force members taking part in the newsletter use radio as a key way to reach local communities. There's also evidence that the LRA tune in to local stations and that stories about abductees returning safely home with no reprisals, have inspired many young men and women to run away.
Making information accessible to grassroots communities
The fact that the newsletter would be translated and turned into radio meant it was important to keep the language as simple and straightforward as possible.
Simplicity was also crucial in the format we used. We opted for a basic Word document that looks smart but will work on the computers our partners use and won't be a problem to email in a region where internet speeds are very slow.
That left us with one last thing to decide – the title. We divided our teams into three groups and two came up with exactly the same idea: The Voice of Peace.
For a small quarterly newsletter whose writers live thousands of miles apart from each other, it's a big name to live up to. But in just five days in Uganda this February we managed to produce our first edition.
We proved we can do it, and in the coming months everyone is going to do their level best to make sure The Voice of Peace keeps speaking out and that its message is heard loud and clear across the region.