Backstory: Congolese radio show gives war victims a voice

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.

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.

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.

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."

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