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Backstory: Congolese radio show gives war victims a voice

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Kusu Tambwe, a mother of four, runs the listening club in Bankoko, a western neighborhood of ramshackle concrete homesteads with cornstalks growing in between. On Saturday mornings, she puts the radio on a coffee table covered by faded cloth – one of the few pieces of furniture in a bare, mud-floored room – and her neighbors crowd around.

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After the show, they discuss the issues, and raise their own questions. They might send those queries by cellphone text message to the local radio station. Or radio journalists might stop by and record them directly. Sometimes they meet even when the show isn't on to continue the conversation and raise more questions for the people who are supposed to be in charge.

All the members of this listening club are intimately familiar with injustice. Antoinette Kawambe's 7-year-old son was struck by a police SUV, and when she tried to get compensation, a police officer told her that laws do not apply to them. Three soldiers came into Anda Bahiti's home to rob and kill him, but he narrowly escaped their knives and managed to call for help. Four soldiers came into Love Bahati's house and took her hen without paying for it – even after she pointed out that her husband was a pastor.

Last week, Ms. Kawambe asked a question on behalf of the group: Did soldiers need to continue living with civilians?

The poorly paid Congolese soldiers in Ituri don't have barracks, and their presence in communities often causes tension. Just that week, Kawambe says, a soldier had killed a neighbor woman who'd reported him for stealing her homemade beer. The head of the Ituri military court, Innocent Mayembe Sangala, responded on tape. He said that within the next two months, the Army would move soldiers out of the communities and into new barracks. He acknowledged the problems of mixing soldiers and civilians, but also said that civilians sometimes make matters worse for themselves by charging soldiers high rent.

The question and response – taped with an audience – will be broadcast next month. "We were satisfied with this answer," says Kawambe.

Is it authorized for an armed element, wearing a uniform, to relax with civilians in a bar?

Can we, the people of Ituri, file a complaint against some high officials of the regular Army ... for crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the ICC?

Can a citizen prosecute the government of his own country?

Of course, knowing the rules of justice – even getting good answers about justice – doesn't mean there is justice. Bolemba Mambo, a farmer whose land was confiscated by the government, realizes that. He lives on the other side of Bunia, toward the east, and regularly has to worry about soldiers demanding bribes from him. Ask him about justice coming to Ituri, and his response is gloomy: "I'm skeptical," he says. There has been too much fighting, he says, too much intimidation.

But last month, Mr. Mambo walked from his homestead into central Bunia, down the main dirt road with the speeding SUVs and scores of motorbike taxis, and knocked on the door of Canal Revelation, the local station that carries the "Justice" program. He'd been listening to the program since it started two years ago, and he wanted to start his own club.

The radio journalists agreed. Now Mambo hosts neighbors at the home where he's lived his entire life, and they listen to the small Sony radio together.

"We think the radio show will help," he says. "When we ask questions about such things on the radio, it's listened to by many people. Even people who perpetrate crimes here listen. And they will be scared. Because when they make trouble, they will know that the citizens know they are making trouble."

He pauses and gives a weary smile. "Here, we are happy for a first step."