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.
The gang released the adults. Boys and girls, they kept.
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 afterwards.
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: 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.