An old woman had died. Before burying the her, the residents of the village of Obo - in southern Central African Republic, just north of the Congolese border - gathered around a campfire to eat, drink, cry and sing in celebration of the woman's long life. It was a night in March 2008, just another beat in the slow rhythm of existence in this farming community of 13,000 people.
Then the dreadlocked fighters from the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group - tongo-tongo, the villagers call them - rose from their hiding places in the shadows and advanced toward the fire. Others blocked the paths leading from town. The rebels killed anyone who resisted, kidnapped 100 others and robbed everyone in sight.
The LRA forced the captured men and women to carry stolen goods into the jungle before releasing them. Boys and girls, they kept. The boys would be brainwashed, trained as fighters and forced to kill. The girls would be given to LRA officers as trophies, raped and made to bear children who would represent the next generation of LRA foot soldiers.
It was a familiar tragedy, repeated countless times across Central Africa since firebrand Christian cultist Joseph Kony created the LRA in the mid-1980s, aiming to establish a sort of voodoo theocracy in northern Uganda. Defeated in its home country, in 2005 the LRA fled westward across Sudan, Congo and Central African Republic, looting, raping, killing and mutilating as it went.
Obo was just one of hundreds of communities terrorized by the LRA. Many simply wither and die afterward.
But Obo didn't.
Instead, Obo's surviving villagers raised their own volunteer scout force (depicted above), armed it with homemade shotguns, and began disseminating intelligence on the LRA's movements using the village's sole, short-range FM radio transmitter.
The results of this do-it-yourself approach were encouraging. Since the attack three years ago, Obo has not suffered another major LRA invasion. Noting Obo's successful strategy, Invisible Children, a California-based aid group, in March traveled into Central African Republic to help Dutch group Interactive Radio for Justice upgrade the town's radio to a much longer-range model, further boosting the community's self-defense capability.
Invisible Children's goal is to increase by 30 times the area the town could keep on alert, while also plugging Obo into a radio-based "early warning network" that Invisible Children has been building in Congo since last year. The network of high frequency and FM radios allows communities across the LRA-infested region to share intelligence and warn each other of impending rebel attacks.
How the people of Obo have guarded their town, and the role American humanitarians played in their success, represents a possible vision for grassroots security in a region that has long defied large-scale armed intervention.
But there's a downside to DIY security. In arming itself and taking on intelligence tasks, Obo is essentially giving up on ever receiving help from Central African Republic's impoverished government. That can only further undermine the government's tenuous legitimacy - and could fuel wider instability in the future.
"We Are Not Afraid … "
Marleine Solange Yagasaurma was only 16 years old when the LRA kidnapped her in Obo that night three years ago. She was given to a cruel, one-eyed rebel commander who raped and impregnated her. She gave birth to a baby girl. For two years, she trudged through the forest with her child, moving from temporary camp to temporary camp as the LRA tried to stay a step ahead of its pursuers.
"My idea was to escape during an attack, during a raid on a village," Yagasaurma told journalist Joe Bavier. She and another LRA "bride" got their chance last fall, when the Ugandan army ambushed their group's camp in the night. "I said to the other girl that now was the time to escape," Yagasaurma recalled. "We were right next to the village. So we ran. I had my baby with me."
She reached the safety of the nearby village. Later, a Ugandan airplane transported her back to Obo. She might not have recognized her hometown. In 2008, Obo was defenseless against LRA attack. The Obo Yagasaurma returned to in late 2010 had become a vigilant, armed camp.
The morning after the LRA's March 2008 attack, the sun rose on a transformed community. Before, the tongo-tongo had been able to terrorize an entire village, kill scores of people and take more than 100 prisoners using just their machetes. During the 2008 raid, the LRA reportedly didn't fire a single bullet.
After the attack, the surviving villagers were determined to never again be defenseless. "We are not afraid," an Obo resident named Joseph told Invisible Children's Adam Finck. "We are not afraid because we are the victims. They attacked us. They took our children. They killed others of us. That motivates us not to be afraid of them."
More than 200 men volunteered for scout duty, forming five platoons. "These ad-hoc groupings of young and old men from town patrol in the mornings and evenings, successfully … keeping a safe perimeter around Obo," Finck reported after a trip to Obo in March.
But the men of Obo knew they needed more than courage and manpower. Too poor for military-grade weapons or even the kind of firearms American hunters take for granted, Obo set about building an arsenal of homemade, single-barrel shotguns loaded with hand-packed shells.
And to relay intelligence gathered by the scouts on their twice-daily patrols, Obo's only radio DJ, a young man named Arthur, donated air time on his short-range FM transmitter. Between music sets, Arthur repeated information on LR movements gathered by the scouts, giving the few thousand Obo residents within range of his radio time to flee when the rebels approached.
But Arthur's radio covered an area of just three square kilometers, reaching only a small percentage of Obo's 13,000 residents, many of whom live in huts adjacent to their fields, miles from the town center.
The scouts-and-radio strategy was, in principle, sound. The problem was its scale. "To be able to really reach people living in Obo and outside, you really have to boost that capacity," Finck explained. A modern FM radio would have 30 times the coverage area of Obo's existing system.
Invisible Children knows a thing or two about radios. Last year, the San Diego-based nonprofit organization installed Italian-made high frequency radios in a dozen communities in eastern Congo, another region bloodied by LRA attacks. Invisible Children helped train the radio operators to report LRA movements not only to civilians in their listening areas, but also to each other.
The idea was for the dozen radios to form a military-style early-warning network capable of giving at-risk communities advance notice of enemy movements. The network's mission dovetailed with U.N. efforts to broadcast radio messages into the jungle, pleading with LRA fighters to turn themselves over to authorities.
Finck was on the team that brought the first radios to Congo in the fall of last year (depicted above). It was around that time that the U.N.'s refugee agency began hearing reports of tens of thousands of refugees showing up on the Central African side of the CAR-Congo border - a sure sign that LRA attacks were on the upswing. Thousands of these refugees crowded into Obo, one of the few communities in southern CAR capable of defending itself.
Invisible Children decided to expand the Congo radio network into Central African Republic, starting with Obo. This time, the American aid group would work in conjunction with the Dutch group Interactive Radio for Justice. Finck, the rest of the Invisible Children team and representatives from IRJ arrived in Obo with a truckload of equipment and supplies, in March.
They installed the new FM radio, raised an antenna and showed Arthur how to work everything. The foreigners also advised Arthur to add to his programming appeals for LRA fighters, many of them kidnapped villagers like Yagasaurma, to surrender. The appeals, similar to the United Nations' in Congo, promise safety, fair treatment and rehabilitation for the returning rebels.
These so-called "come-home" messages allow villages to fight back, in a sense, by countering the LRA's terror with a message of hope aimed at undermining the rebels. It's hard to say how well the come-home messages work, but a number of LRA fighters have turned themselves in recently.
Surrounded by his well-armed neighbors, equipped with a new radio and plugged into a steadily expanding early-warning network, Arthur expressed hope that the thousands of refugees in Obo "can return to their land," and "the children can live without fear."
To Invisible Children, the Obo radio is just the first step in the second phase of its African early-warning network. Two dozen more radios are planned for Congolese and Central African villages exposed to LRA attacks.
The Obo scouts represent a phenomenon found in many conflict zones. When government or occupying armies fail to provide security, vulnerable communities often organize their own forces. It has happened in northern Iraq's besieged Christian communities, across Afghanistan and, most famously, in Sunni-dominated north-central Iraq, where volunteer "Sons of Iraq" groups helped turn the tide against Iraqi insurgents.
The downside of these DIY militias is the risk they pose to the long-term stability of their countries. Baghdad and the U.S. military struggled to stand down and reintegrate Sons of Iraq groups after security improved and they became unnecessary. NATO has canceled several Sons of Iraq-style initiatives in Afghanistan after sedition-minded warlords co-opted some of the militia groups.
The Obo scouts could entail a similar long-term liability to Central African Republic's weak government. "The very act of civilians taking up arms outside of their government's direct control is a potentially problematic issue without an easy answer," Finck admitted.
The scouts could also find themselves at odds with the Pentagon's efforts in Africa.
Since its establishment in late 2008, U.S. Africa Command, headquartered in Germany, has participated in just one direct attack on the LRA. In December 2008, 17 Africom advisers helped plan, and provided fuel for, a complex assault on LRA strongholds in Congo. The main forces for the attack were 6,000 Ugandan and Congolese troops (pictured above).
Operation Lightning Thunder was a disaster. A Ugandan jet fighter crashed early in the campaign, killing the pilot. The Ugandan troops leading the ground assault arrived at the main LRA camp days late. The LRA scattered in all directions, killing a thousand Congolese civilians as the Congolese army stood idly by.
In the operation's bloody wake, Africom determined to take a more passive role in countering the LRA. Instead of directly attacking the rebels, the command sent trainers to help improve the Congolese and Central African armies. Africom is betting on the weak central governments of LRA-infested countries to eventually be able to handle the rebel threat on their own.
But the Obo scouts have all but given up on ever receiving help from their government. "Members of these local defense forces … feel that there is no other alternative [to arming themselves] and have committed to continuing their efforts until their community finds relief from the LRA," Finck reported.
Thanks in part to Invisible Children and the Dutch group, Obo is better equipped than most communities to defend itself against the LRA, and to strike back using come-home messages. As long as African governments remain weak, and their foreign allies focus on assisting these regimes rather than protecting the civilians on the front lines, the kind of DIY security practiced in Obo could become widespread.
The implications of Obo's self-defense efforts are huge for vulnerable communities across Africa, for the rebel groups that threaten them, and for the central governments whose legitimacy erodes by the day, as everyday people build their own armies and intelligence apparatuses from scratch.
Photos and videos: Invisible Children, Pulitzer Center, Voice of America, Ferruccio Gobbi