Bows and arrows and cell phones

Editor’s Note: Paul Jeffrey, a CNS stringer, traveled to  Southern Sudan in November to report on and photograph preparations  for the January referendum on independence. He filed this blog on the intersection of modern technology and traditional communication.

YAMBIO, Southern Sudan — Although the Arrow Boys self-defense militias in Sudanese villages along the border with Congo use rather primitive technology in fighting off attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army, they take full advantage of electronic technology in passing on information. Cell phones allow the Arrow Boys to keep in touch with neighboring villages so that the movement of LRA soldiers can be closely followed.

In researching the story I wrote for CNS about the local response to LRA terrorism, I interviewed Comboni Sister Giovanna Calabria, a feisty woman in Nzara, about 20 miles from Yambio. She told me about the importance of cellular technology in meeting the threat.

“I never again will say the cell phone is useless,” she said. “People are calling all the time to share information or find out what’s happening. We’ll call the (Ugandan troops stationed nearby) and ask them what they know. People will call us with reports from the villages nearby, or to warn us to stay inside tonight. This network of cooperation has protected many of us.”

A few days after I was in Nzara, I heard a rumor of a new LRA attack. I called Sister Giovanna from Juba, and she verified the information. When I asked her for more details, she told me to call her back in 10 minutes. I did so, and she then put on the phone a leader of the local Arrow Boys who gave me a full accounting of the Nov. 19 attack on Basokanbi, some 10 miles away. A unit of the LRA had attacked, burned some houses, stolen voter registration materials and kidnapped eight children, one of whom (an 8-year-old girl) escaped a short time later. The LRA squad was chased by both the Arrow Boys and some members of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but they got away with their captives.

In Riimenze, where I went on patrol with a group of Arrow Boys  to photograph them in the jungle, there is no cell phone coverage. So they use drums. They beat out the different rhythms they would use to pass different messages about the LRA. It’s a skill they’ve honed over the years in frequent tiffs with a nomadic tribe that passes through yearly with its cattle.

Sister Giovanna admitted mobile phone technology has its limits. “I pray every night that the Lord will take (LRA leader) Joseph Kony,” she said. “But apparently God doesn’t get a signal.”

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