ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One of Africa's most notorious rebel groups was given a deadline to surrender by today. It didn't happen. Instead, the rebels are said to be recruiting and rearming. The deadline was put in place by the UN Security Council and regional African governments. Military approaches have failed to route this guerrilla force, and we're about to hear about one tactic that has had some success, but that faces a loss of funding early this year. NPR's Gregory Warner introduces us to the American behind getting-to-yes-style negotiations in the African bush.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I met Michael Sharp on a commuter boat crossing Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not far from the lake were labor rebel held forests, where every few weeks Sharp would walk, unarmed, to the base of a particularly fearsome rebel group called the FDLR. And there he would sit in the shade of banana trees to drink tea, practice his Swahili and listen to these rebel stories.
MICHAEL SHARP: You can always listen. You can always listen to people who want a chance to talk about how they see the world.
WARNER: Sharp was working with the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches in their Peace and Reconciliation Program.
SHARP: We try to build relationships and just interact. The more we interact, the more they trust us to turn themselves into us.
WARNER: Sharp is being a bit modest here. His church group persuaded some 1,600 fighters - that's about a quarter of the force when the program started - to put down their weapons and exit the forest that they'd occupied for two decades. Now, in a minute, I will tell you the magic words that this group used to accomplish this apparent miracle. But first, I need to make room for a story that the rebels tell about themselves.
ANNA HEDLUND: Do you hear me?
WARNER: Anna Hedlund is an anthropologist at Lund University in Sweden.
HEDLUND: Let me just fix the sound here.
WARNER: I called her on Skype because she did her field research in a remote FDLR rebel camp.
HEDLUND: It's far away from everything.
WARNER: Away from markets or farms.
HEDLUND: Yet the living conditions are really difficult. Most of them want to go back to having a normal life. But it's also difficult because many of them don't know what a normal life is or what it means, because they grew up in the forest.
WARNER: How they got to the forest is the troubling part. The original founders of the FDLR were some of those who committed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They were part of the Hutu militias that killed Tutsi civilians. Then, when the Tutsi army came, many Hutus were pushed out over the border from Rwanda into eastern Congo. And there, they harbored the intention to return to Rwanda and take over.
HEDLUND: They practice their language. They teach the children how to dance Rwandan dances. They have memorial Sundays where they kind of recreate the memory of Rwanda.
WARNER: Were you surprised to encounter such homesickness?
HEDLUND: Yeah. That was one of the most surprising things, actually, that they tried to prepare and to be ready for the day when they will return.
WARNER: This homesickness is what you might call the weak spot that Michael Sharp and his Congolese colleagues learned to exploit. One of those colleagues, Emmanuel Kambale, speaking French, tells me and my interpreter exactly the words that he would use to convince these former killers to go back home.
EMMANUEL KAMBALE: (Speaking French through interpreter) You, Kambale would say, you're over 50. It's too late for you to take over Rwanda, but your children are growing up unschooled in the bush.
Don't you see that your children, who is the future of Rwanda, when he goes back, he is going to be the slave of those who are there because he is illiterate.
WARNER: That's it. Those are the words, spoken over trust-building cups of tea, that have resonated with hundreds of rebels, maybe because like any diplomat or real estate agent, Kambale is aligning incentives. He's telling the rebels, well, you're in the forest standing your ground. That ground is slipping out from under you because time is against you. If you don't give up now, your children, your children's children will suffer, will be slaves. Back on the boat, Michael Sharp points out that this negotiation strategy is not only more effective and less bloody than military campaigns, but it's many times cheaper.
SHARP: This program operates right now on $12,000 a month.
WARNER: But even that shoestring budget, once supplied by the Norwegian government, had been suspended. Sharp thinks the money got re-delegated to Syria, and this commuter boat ride was actually Sharp's chance to rescue his program. While he and I were talking in the stern of the boat, the bow was occupied by VIPs from the U.S. State Department, including Special Envoy Russ Feingold, who reports directly to John Kerry. But just walking those 10 feet to bend an ex-senator's ear proved almost more intimidating to Michael Sharp than walking into the rebel-held forest.
SHARP: Fundraising isn't generally in my job description, and I'm not an expert fundraiser. So I don't really even - we'll see.
WARNER: In the end, he had more success with the warlords. He got an audience with State, but no call back and no check. The project runs out of funding in March, and hundreds of the fighters that had left the forest have now gone back in. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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