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How a nonprofit trained an army to stop Uganda’s atrocities

For more than 25 years, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorized citizens in Uganda, killing tens of thousands and abducting more than 25,000 children to become soldiers and sex slaves. But one philanthropic group used nontraditional means to stop the slaughter. Hari Sreenivasan spoke to human rights advocate and the Bridgeway Foundation CEO Shannon Sedgwick Davis to learn more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more than 25 years, Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army terrorized citizens in Uganda; killing tens of thousands, abducting more than 25-thousand children to become soldiers and sex slaves and displacing more than 2 million people. I recently spoke with Shannon Sedgwick Davis, an attorney, human rights advocate and president and CE0 of the Bridgeway Foundation, who, in attempt to stop the violent armed group, stepped outside the traditional threshold of philanthropy. She's written her account in a book: "To Stop a Warlord: My Story of Justice, Grace and the Fight for Peace." Why decide to get involved in this specific fight you're working with a charitable foundation? There are lots of problems you could tackle. Why this?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Yeah. So our foundation has a mission statement to stop genocide and mass atrocity on the globe. And we just found that we weren't doing that. We found that we were funding a lot of advocacy before mass atrocities or even during mass atrocities trying to encourage other international bodies to get engaged or we were putting band aids on bullet holes in the aftermath. A rebel group would come burn down a school and we would give grant funds to rebuild the school. And after the 2008 Christmas massacres committed by the LRA in which over almost 800 people were killed over a series of time that they were actually there for their Christmas prayers we really had to take a hard look at ourselves and our mission statement and ask if we were doing what we said we were going to do. And then in 2009 we heard rumor that there would be a subsequent Christmas massacre. Christmas came and went and there wasn't. And then in 2010 in March I traveled to the region and I learned from the Human Rights Watch researcher that we were working with that one had actually happened in 2009. So not only were over 300 people killed and hundreds kidnapped but the world didn't find out about it till three months later. And that was it for us. We decided we had to either change our mission statement and do what our mission statement said or we actually were gonna have to stop doing this work. And that's when we decided to embark on this very unlikely alliance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now this was you've basically decided to help train an army to go find Joseph Kony. That's a pretty drastic step.

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Yeah it's definitely drastic and we looked at gaps in the mission. We spent a lot of time on the ground with the local heroes and community leaders who really did have the solutions at hand and really didn't know what it was going to take. And we kept hearing two things that communications was a gap. This is an area where there was no cell phone coverage and often not even a JF radio coverage and so one community would be attacked by the LRA and then the gallery would travel to a nearby community and attack that same community and they wouldn't have warning of that. And so we were able to do some things and work with some local leaders in particular a man a father of a bean war to actually bring HF radio systems to a lot of these communities so that they could give each other early warning. But another particular gap that you pointed to that we actually found along the way was this gap in training. The LRA was operating in these small nimble groups and an area the size of California under triple-canopy forest often and there needed to be some training for the troops that were actually pursuing him, the African Union troops.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, it's hard for us to imagine in such a hyper connected world that really couldn't even communicate over high frequency radio. The training raises a lot of sort of ethical dilemmas and questions how did you get through that? I mean this is pretty precedent setting and were you concerned that this would open a floodgate of philanthropically funded armies.

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Yes absolutely challenging and we had to spend a long time sitting and listening to what we were asked to come and bring and solutions that others and experts that were much smarter than us thought that the area and the region needed. But what we couldn't sit where. It was very difficult to sit with the idea that we would actually intervene in this way. But what we knew we absolutely couldn't sit with was just hundreds of people continuing to be killed this way. The year before we intervened there were seven hundred and seventy six killed by the NRA. The year that we ended our strategic support alongside a multitude of amazing partners and an alliance we had. There were twelve killed and last year the lRA killed eight. That's still too many but we could no longer sit with this in a while.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I think that that is sort of the larger successes that decrease in the number of people who were actually harmed and killed by the LRA. Someone is going to look at this and say that they spent all this time they trained all these people and that guy is still out.

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Yes, Joseph Kony does remain and our work remains because of that. But I will tell you that this really didn't end up being about Joseph Kony. You know Kony had a particular M.O. and he would go into they would go into villages and they would kidnap young children and then those children would ultimately become commanders in the army. For example, you might have someone operating in a certain region of the jungle that's maybe 30 now but was kidnapped at the age of 10 and those folks did not want to be out there and did not want to be fighting for this cause. And when we stopped focusing on Kony in particular and started focusing on all those who wanted to come home that's where we really saw success.I mean we were able to identify in certain regions that there might be someone Sam opium for instance who might be hiding out in a particular area and we could actually look back and say Could we find some of his family members do some of his family members remain alive and could we maybe find them. And we had folks that would actually travel back to the region and identify family members for those still fighting in the alleyway and would record messages from those family members from their mothers from their sisters from their aunt dog Pacho come home my son I have never stopped waiting for you. And we would plug our cell phones are our iPhones into these speakers that we had on our helicopter and hover over these regions and in the aftermath. Seven hundred and thirty came out and are free now today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You talk a lot in the book. It's almost half the book is about a young man named David. He was once a child soldier. He was captured by the LRA he managed to escape. Tell us a little bit about how he was able to use his story to help others.

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    David Acheeti is a tremendous individual what a privilege my life has been that I've even gotten to know him. Yes and David's story is woven throughout the book. David's story is not an unusual one. He was born the year that the LRA started at the age of 16 the LRA came and attacked his village. They rounded up all the children and many of the adults they took his brothers and they asked him Who do you love the most your mother or your father. And at gun point David said I can't answer that question. I love them both the same. And they forced him to answer who he loved the most. He said his father and his father was killed there in front of him. And that's the way that the LRH operated creating huge fear in the midst of these folks. And then they would go out and they would be abducted and forced as child soldiers into this particular battle. And what ended up happening was after about six months David decided to try and escape and he was successful at escaping and he came out and tremendously said he wanted to give his life back to this cause. And so David is the one who does a lot of the family tracing that I mentioned earlier.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what happened to his family as he know where his brothers are. Has he found them?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    No in fact every time that we hear that there are some that have come out from the field. David hopes of course that he's going to see one of his brothers but no his brothers have not returned home. David's mother's still alive and his grandmother is one hundred and four years old and he does get to see them now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So tell me in the kind of longer arc now I mean this has been that you've had a couple of years to think about this. If you had at all to do all over again would you do it the same way what have you learned?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    I would absolutely do it the same way but make no mistake there's not a one size fits all in this mass atrocity space and no way am I suggesting that this particular intervention is the way to go for all mass atrocities but rather I believe if you really spend time and learn from those who are facing these atrocities themselves and allow them to tell you their solutions. There's often gaps that philanthropy can play.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What kind of gaps do you think are almost universal when it comes to these different gaps like communication for example that something that is a solvable issue in different parts of the world. So where should philanthropy be getting involved?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Absolutely, communications is I think first and foremost and that's something we've learned and being creative with communications there's lots of other conflicts we can learn from. In terms of how they really attacked that particular element of a conflict and encouraging others to come home. The Ugandan government in particular had decided to give amnesty to anyone who chose to surrender and come out other than the three International Criminal Court indictees, and that was a huge advantage when that was able to be communicated to those who still remained in the LRA.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there a part of you that wonders about giving training to someone who might eventually use that training to harm someone else?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Absolutely yes. And we did all that we could to try and prevent anything like that from happening we made sure that there was human rights elements to that training. We kept a close eye and a close watch on that but absolutely it's something that keeps you up at night and that's something you think about. And this case in particular the other alternative was just not acceptable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there enough being done considering that your foundation for example is focused just on this? But in this space are there a lot of other philanthropies trying to fill a gap where perhaps the U.N. and governments are not able to finish the task?

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Yeah there is simply not enough being done. I mean you only have to turn on your TV or your radio for a few minutes to realize that the world is on fire and that there are so many conflicts just blazing on the globe and we're just simply not doing enough. We're not responding. And my hope is that this book shows that there really doesn't have to be a fence around the human heart that we actually can engage these issues and that there are different ways that we can try to engage these issues ways that are different than have ever been tried before.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright, the book is called "To Stop a Warlord." Author Shannon Sedgwick Davis. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Shannon Sedgwick Davis:

    Thank you for having me.

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