Uganda: How a Catholic radio station is saving child soldiers
"We love you, Robert. Please come home! From your parents and your brothers and sisters". These, and other messages like them are regularly heard on the children's programme of the Catholic diocesan radio station "Radio Wa' of Lira in northern Uganda. They are addressed to children who have been abducted by the rebels of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and forced to become child soldiers. Many of the surviving children no longer dare to return home, after having been deliberately forced by the rebels to kill or mutilate neighbours and even close family members in their own home villages, or to burn down their houses. By doing this, the rebels hope to make it impossible for them to return home. Other children simply do not dare to try and escape their tormentors. Through the radio broadcasts the Church is hoping to give them the courage to try and get back to their families. And so the children's programme "Karibu", (or Welcome!), also features former child soldiers who have managed to escape, telling their story and about their new life, in the hope of encouraging other children. These broadcasts are listened to, even in the bush, and as a result, over the course of time, over 1,500 child soldiers have managed to flee their captivity because Radio Wa gave them the courage to believe in a new life. The rebels were so enraged, in fact, that in September 2002 they attacked the radio station and set fire to it. But the radio mast was undamaged and so Radio Wa – "Our Radio", as the name means – continues to this day to broadcast its programmes, in an effort to bring peace and reconciliation to Uganda.
For over 20 years a bloody conflict raged between the LRA rebels, under their leader Joseph Kony, and Ugandan government troops, making it one of the longest of many such cruel wars in Africa. Today there is still a great need for healing, reconciliation and rebuilding. At times, over half the population of northern Uganda were living in refugee camps, for fear of the abductions and massacres, and estimates suggest there were something in the region of 2 million displaced people, while some 30,000 children are thought to have been abducted to be used as child soldiers or sex slaves by the rebels in the bush. Since 2008 the situation has stabilised, but an official peace accord fell through when Joseph Kony failed to turn up for the signing ceremony. One of the demands he made as a condition for the peace talks, incidentally, was that the children's programme of Radio Wa should be taken off air – that is how seriously the rebels took the programme.
(Radio Wa's modest premises)
Although Radio Wa is extremely modestly equipped, both in its staff and its material resources, it has provided an invaluable service to the population. For example, it also runs a weekly radio soap, in which such important issues as AIDS, domestic violence, marriage and family issues, alcoholism, returning from the refugee camps and building up a new life after the war, the search for reconciliation, etc, are addressed in an entertaining matter, but on the firm basis of Catholic teaching and Gospel values. There is also a programme that explains about the dangers of witchcraft, in which former practitioners of witchcraft explain the tricks they once used in order to deceive people. This is an issue that has become increasingly important, especially since there have recently been numerous instances of "magic rituals" in which children have been sacrificed – often in the belief that it will bring wealth and comfort. The spread of AIDS has also contributed to a growth of belief in witchcraft, for many people still believe that this deadly disease is the result of witchcraft, or a curse.
Other programmes are addressed at women, while others again speak to those in prison. Sometimes Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli himself speaks on burning topical issues. The station also has a facility for outside broadcasts, so that live reporting and commentary can be given on religious services, special events and other ceremonies. Currently the station has a range of around 120 miles (200 km), so that a great many people can benefit from the programmes.
Up till now the radio station staff have been working with old-fashioned equipment. The texts for the radio broadcasts are still written on paper, in pencil or Biro, and the technology for recording and storing the programmes is also outdated, making everything labourious, time-consuming – and of course expensive. Computers would make it so much easier for them to prepare the broadcasts. Also, Bishop Franzelli would like to see his staff better trained, so that the station can provide a still better service than it already does for the people of northern Uganda. But this is one of the poorest dioceses in all Uganda and so the station has to live from hand to mouth.
The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is helping to fund new equipment for the station and training for its staff.
(Bishop Franzelli broadcasting on Radio Wa)
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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