A blog posting by Raimondo Chiari, Humanitarian and Media Liaison Officer, Internews, CAR, on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund web site.
(This blog post from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund web site covers Internews' project in the Central African Republic.)
On a dry afternoon in 2008 Arthur Zoungagde aka The Genius, a native of the small town of Obo in the Southeastern tip of Central African Republic (CAR), found a microphone on the ground. He picked it up, brushed off the dust and instinctively spoke into it. To his surprise, he heard his own voice a few meters away coming out of an abandoned radio receiver.
In the following days, Arthur multiplied the transmission experiments in an eureka moment, he connected the microphone to an umbrella improving the area of transmission to a dozen meters. Radio Zereda was then born and Arthur officially contracted his alias, The Genius.
Year by year, with the help of the local community and INGOs, Radio Zereda signal footprint expanded to 5 Km. Rural villagers rode their bicycles for long distances and at great security risk just to get close enough to receive Zereda’s signal, the only source of local information, into their small portable radios sets smuggled in from South Sudan.
Today, Obo’s community radio has a 25 Km coverage, and we hope that with the support of Internews and other partners, it will reach 120 Km once it moves into a soon-to-be-finished building up the hill.
Radio Zereda (Zereda means “Peace” in the local language Zandé), is one of Internews’ community radio partners, member of the Association of Journalists for Human Rights (RJDH in the French acronym). It actively contributes to our brand new Humanitarian Crisis Map by sending on a daily basis relevant and verified humanitarian and human rights information.
We are currently finalizing the technical details of our interactive map, and are very much looking forward to the official launch at the beginning of June. By improving a two-way communication flow between local communities, local media and humanitarian actors via community radios and ICTs, we hope to enhance information sharing, situational awareness, mutual understanding, as well as the operational response to CAR’s ongoing humanitarian crises, including the one in Obo.
Obo and the LRA
Set along a narrow dirt road cuddled by tall mango trees, Obo is the capital of Haut-Mbomou, one of the 14 prefectures in CAR, located almost 900 kilometers Km (550 miles) from the national capital Bangui - a one way seven-day bus ride bus during the dry season or two to three weeks during the rainy season. Virtually forgotten by governmental institutions, the overall situation in the region exponentially worsened with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) arrival in February 2008.
Fleeing from a military offensive in Northern Uganda, the LRA moved into the bordering region between CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, continuing its brutal bush-war tactics since the beginning of its rebellion in 1986. As all three affected countries have many other structural, humanitarian and security issues to resolve in other parts of their national territory, the LRA took advantage of this vacuum to settle into a region with difficult terrain and far away from the national capitals Bangui, Kinshasa and Juba. Ongoing attacks and overall lack of security have forced the civilian population in Southeastern CAR to displace from rural villages into larger towns. Living in constant fear and uncertainty, civilians can no longer access their main source of income generation, their lands.
International Military Presence
The Ugandan Army (the Ugandan People’s Defense Force, UPDF) arrived in Obo in 2009. Fueled by years of lobbying by civil society and international organizations, the UPDF were joined by US Special Forces advisors sent by President Barack Obama in November 2011 to support the fight against the LRA and the hunt for its leader, Joseph Kony.
Energized by the impact of the Kony2012 viral campaign in the spring of 2012, an internationally approved mission led by the African Union has pledged a multinational brigade into the cross-border region, with 5,000 troops contributed by the four affected nations (Uganda, CAR, South Sudan and DRC). Obo has become the military coordination center for CAR, receiving the first reinforcement of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) on April 16.
The local population and the internally displaced communities in Haut-Mbomou are closely monitoring these developments, with high expectations to be able to safely return to their villages and to move freely in and out of their fields in the near future.
News, music, religion and “leaving the bush”
With a staff of eight (plus two interns) and powered by solar panels, Radio Zereda broadcast every day from 5:30pm to 9:00 pm offering a wide range of programs.
The daily news is transmitted in the local languages Zandé and Sango, reporting local events and the daily news program sent by the RJDH with information from the other 10 community radio stations and the 20 community correspondents across the country, also members of the RJDH.
Radio Zereda also features three LRA awareness shows a week. Hosted by a former LRA fighter who was abducted as a child, the program is broadcasted in the Achioli language to reach Ugandan rebels, to encourage and explain to them the necessary steps towards disarmament and demobilization.
To complement the messages going out to the fighters, Radio Zereda also directs awareness campaigns towards the civilian community, focusing on the necessity of acceptance and forgiveness towards ex-LRA combatants who were forcefully recruited. These messages are a vital incentive to reassure that no harm will be done to those who choose to “leave the bush” on their return home.
Other programs include Public Service Announcements (PSAs) from the International Criminal Court, also reaching out to affected communities from DRC; faith based programs - on Friday there is Muslim prayer, on Sundays Catholic priests host a talk show; and finally there is plenty of music, entertainment and message on special events or celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, etc.
The world’s eyes on Obo
After a stay in Northern Uganda and Bangui during the previous week, on the morning of Sunday April 29, an international media delegation landed in Obo to report on security, cross border and LRA related regional dynamics from the ground.
Coordinated by the US Department of Defense and the local US embassy, the delegation included journalists from Al Jazeera , The New York Times, RFI, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Their time in Obo was divided between a visit to Radio Zereda and the association of victims of the LRA, followed by briefings by the US Special Forces, the FACA and the UPDF in the joint command center.
Ricardo Dimanche, the Director of Radio Zereda, did a distinguished job as the official spokesperson for the local radio- as you can see in this BBC story - even if his name has been reported incorrectly…
As Internews, I was happy to support our local radio partner as well as to facilitate and translate during various interviews. We hope these world class journalists will contribute to bring much needed visibility, awareness and funding, not only towards the humanitarian crisis in the Southeast, but also to non-LRA related emergencies affecting the civilian population throughout CAR.
My last night in Obo, I gave my farewell to our colleagues and walked back from Radio Zereda to the ecumenical center where I was lodged. In the all-encompassing darkness of a city with no electricity on a moonless night, I made my way through uneven paths by shining the dim light glowing out of the screen of my old school cell phone.
Gradually, I began to hear scattered sounds bordering the trail. I stopped and listen carefully, slowly realizing that I was surrounded by a unison hum: the sound of Radio Zereda’s live broadcast coming out of households all around me, yet invisible in the dark.
I smiled and walked on. Just before arriving, I encountered an older man sitting outside his mud brick home with the radio blasting. He turned it down, greeted me and invited me to sit down. We chatted for a while. Noticing that he did not have any hearing impediments, I discretely asked why he kept the volume so loud. “This way,” he explained, “my neighbors, who cannot afford to buy batteries, can also listen to Radio Zereda.”
Stay tuned, far more to come.