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Backstory: Congolese radio show gives war victims a voice

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 2007


Welcome, dear listeners, to the newest program of the series, Interactive Radio for Justice.... In this program, we receive questions about justice from the population.

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This is how the show starts. The words are in French during the first broadcast, Swahili in the second – the better to reach the people of Ituri, the most war-scarred and volatile region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Almost anyone with a radio can tune in. The show's technicians – after getting caught in Army-militia crossfire twice – finally managed to put up antennas in the region's more remote rain forest areas. So now the signal is strong across Ituri – a good thing, says Wanda Hall, a former International Criminal Court (ICC) employee who started the radio program, because there is no part of this region that does not desperately need justice.

Your questions can concern the way justice is organized, the way it functions, abuses and violations of human rights.

Officially at least, the war in Congo is over. It lasted from 1998 to 2003, during which 4 million people died – from violence as well as war-related hunger and disease. Now, the newly elected Congolese government and a slew of international organizations are working to repair the damage. One of their main focuses is justice: creating new courts and a new army, and working with the ICC to prosecute war crimes.

Ms. Hall, an American who has worked on justice issues in Central Africa for a decade, started Interactive Radio for Justice because she wanted to help people understand what these concepts actually meant, and how they should be impacting life in eastern Congo, a resource-rich but infrastructure-poor region. She teamed up with local radio journalists who travel the region to record people's questions, which they then pose to Congolese and UN officials. The show sounds as if authorities are answering locals directly, as if for a moment, the powerful and voiceless are equal.

"My goal is to give people a microphone who have never held a microphone before," Hall says.

At the beginning, it was hard to pry questions out of a fearful populace, she says. But after two years on the air, the program actually draws Congolese who trek to the station to offer up questions, and they aren't afraid to do so in their own names. But the show's producers still maintain questioners' anonymity – they feel it is too dangerous to do otherwise.

Are military elements authorized to carry weapons while in civilian clothes?

Various armed groups of Ituri randomly planted mines, which cause great damage among the population. Can this also constitute one of the crimes to be charged against those responsible among armed groups who will be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court?

There is a custom according to which a woman can be abducted by the friends of the one who wants to marry her. In some cases, the young woman is 13 or 14 years old. Will the law condemn this practice?

Here in Bunia, Ituri's capital city – a low-rise warren, with no paved roads – groups of residents gather on porches and one-room houses to listen to the show. They're called listening clubs, or clubs d'ecoute.

Bunia is an ethnically divided city, a fact that made the fighting here particularly brutal and personal. Hall wanted to make sure that each district was listening to the show, so she and her team helped set up clubs. They gave each club leader a battery-powered radio – few people have electricity here – and some money to buy refreshments.