GULU, UGANDA — When Kenneth Banya heard the voices of his former rebel colleagues on the radio calling for an end to Uganda's 18-year civil war, he knew it was time to surrender. "I wanted to go straight home the first time I heard them," Mr. Banya, a former commander in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), says in a cramped radio studio before going on the air to persuade other members of the rebel group to lay down their arms. "I knew it was safe after hearing them."
Banya is one of hundreds of LRA rebels to return to Ugandan society since 102 Mega FM in Gulu launched "Come Back Home" last December. The show, known as "Dwog Paco" in the local Luo language, features former LRA combatants who assure current fighters that they will not be killed if they surrender to the Ugandan Army, and will receive forgiveness from their communities. The show is the latest example in Africa of how amnesty programs, joined by the power of radio, can help bring an end to some of the continent's most intractable problems. They have helped most recently in Congo, Ivory Coast, and Liberia, while playing a vital role in a recent peace accord that promises to end the 21-year civil conflict in Sudan.
Uganda passed an amnesty law at the beginning of 2000, pardoning all surrendering opposition forces. So far more than 13,500 former combatants from 22 different rebel groups in Uganda have received amnesty protection. But many former rebel fighters say they believed the amnesty law was government propaganda, and they had no means to independently verify its veracity until they heard over the radio waves the testimony of those who were pardoned.
Daniel Hillary Lagen, another LRA officer who recently surrendered, says that high-ranking rebel leaders repeatedly warned that the amnesty is a government ploy to lure them into the open. "I was told that I would be shot or poisoned by the Army if I turned myself in," Mr. Lagen says. "I was misinformed, but I listened to the radio, and that's why I'm here."
Radio is a powerful force throughout Africa, the most accessible means of communication across the continent. David Okidi who manages Mega FM says his station enables former LRA members to speak on air three evenings a week.
Joseph Kony, a primary-school dropout claiming to possess spiritual powers, who pledges to overthrow Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government and rule the country according to the Ten Commandments, leads the LRA. The LRA abducts children and forces them to become fighters. A United Nations report says that the LRA has abducted more than 30,000 over the past decade. Some 200,000 people have been killed and 1.6 million have been forced from their homes during the conflict, according to the UN.
Mr. Museveni and his army have failed to militarily defeat the LRA, but they have forced Mr. Kony back to his bases in southern Sudan. The Ugandan military killed 25 rebels on Saturday during a raid near the southern Sudanese town of Pakanyara, 100 miles north of the Ugandan border.
David Acana, a tribal chief, says that the amnesty act coincides with his community's tradition of forgiveness. "We believe it's important for the perpetrator and victim to come together so everyone can live in harmony," Mr. Acana says.
The military has been integrating former rebels into its ranks since the inception of the amnesty law. Still, the majority of returning LRA fighters experience a difficult transition back into society after spending a battered youth enveloped in violence. Lt. Nelson Egwalu, a 25-year-old former LRA commander who was abducted by the rebels when he was 10 years old, spent more than a decade with the LRA before surrendering in 2001, and integrating into the Army's reserve force. "There's nothing else I can do but stay in the military to survive," he says. Mr. Egwalu earns Ugandan shillings, or roughly $35 per month.
Christie Okello says she watched the LRA shoot and kill her husband and her 4-year-old son last February, but she is ready to accept LRA combatants if they peacefully return home. "I would forgive the rebels for everything if they would just stop fighting now," she says.