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Human Rights Activist Shannon Sedgwick Davis On New Book, 'To Stop A Warlord'


You may remember Joseph Kony from the Kony 2012 video that went viral several years ago. He's the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, or the LRA, a rebel group in Central Africa. The group is notorious for abductions and massacres in remote villages. An effort to take down Kony is documented in a book called "To Stop A Warlord: My Story Of Justice, Grace, And The Fight For Peace" by Shannon Sedgwick Davis. She is CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, which came up with an unconventional idea for ending the LRA's atrocities - use charitable money to train a military force to track down and stop Joseph Kony.

I spoke with Sedgwick Davis and asked her why her organization took such an extreme measure.

SHANNON SEDGWICK DAVIS: We had this mission statement to end mass atrocity. And as we looked around the globe, and as we gave grants, we were finding that we were giving grants to either advocate against mass atrocities that were going on or advocate for international bodies to engage mass atrocities, or we were picking up pieces. We were giving grants to rebuild a school that had been burned down. And we weren't really doing our mission statement.

And in 2008, there was a Christmas massacre committed by the Lord's Resistance Army, and hundreds of people were killed and abducted. And then again in 2009, when I was actually visiting Congo and spending time with a researcher whose work we supported there from Human Rights Watch, I learned that 321 people had been killed in a subsequent Christmas massacre, and we were only learning about it months later. And that's when we had to take a really hard look at our mission statement and say, either we need to change our mission statement to be more accurate, or we need to actually get engaged and try to stop a mass atrocity.

PFEIFFER: And, you know, that massacre you referenced, what was one of many things striking about it is that in some ways, these villagers were like sitting ducks. I mean, a neighboring village would be massacred, and yet, the new village had no way - no warning system to know that they should hide or that these terrible people were coming. So it seemed like there could be simple fixes to help.

SEDGWICK DAVIS: Yes. It was absolutely horrific, and you're exactly right. In looking at the gap of communications, we met an amazing man, a Congolese man. And he really had the solution in terms of being able to send this warning out to other villages and just needed some resources to grow that network. That network now has hundreds of radio networks that are able to warn each other about a variety of atrocities that might be happening in that region.

PFEIFFER: You use a pretty effective writing device of alternating between your story and the story of a man named David Ocitti. He was a child fighter for Joseph Kony. He's an example of someone whose life was transformed. Can you tell us about the emotional purpose of weaving his experience throughout your book?

SEDGWICK DAVIS: Yes. David was 16 when the LRA came to his village and attacked the village. They kidnapped his brothers and him. And then they held him at gunpoint and asked him, who do you love the most - your mother or your father? And he said his father. And then the LRA killed his father. And David, six months into his time with the LRA, made the very brave decision to try to escape. He was successful at escaping.

He became an excellent partner for us. He would go into villages - let's say that we identified someone who was leading a group, who might have been kidnapped at the age of nine and now was 39 and operating in the jungle. David would look for any family that they might have that had survived, record messages from their mothers or their sisters - (foreign language spoken) - come home, my son. I have never stopped waiting for you. And we would plug the iPhone that he had recorded these messages on into these speakers that we had bolted on the helicopters we were using and hover over an area and blast these messages. And 730 came out during the period of our mission.

PFEIFFER: Although one of your partners - I think Laren - is that how you say his name?


PFEIFFER: He seemed unconvinced. At one point, he says, we're going to live in a world where a mass murderer goes free. We didn't capture Kony. I can't say we won. At some time, when I read the book, I wondered, are you trying to persuade us and yourself that it was a mission accomplished even though you didn't get your guy?

SEDGWICK DAVIS: Yeah, so let me be very clear in terms of a mission accomplished. The lives that were saved matter and matter immensely. Kony is still there. The LRA still exists. But we're incredibly grateful for the progress that we made.

PFEIFFER: There's this long history of Western people going into Africa to try to help - mixed results, mixed reception. Did you hesitate at all, either doing what you did or writing your book, that you may be perceived that way?

SEDGWICK DAVIS: Absolutely. These are questions that we asked ourselves constantly through the mission. And how we do this work is essential. Listening closely to communities, being invited by them to come and listen and provide some small support is so important

PFEIFFER: That's Shannon Sedgwick Davis. She's CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, and her new book, "To Stop A Warlord," is out now.

Shannon, thank you very much.

SEDGWICK DAVIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.