Author Shannon Sedgwick David is photographed with David Ocitti.
San Antonio author Shannon Sedgwick Davis is photographed with David Ocitti, whose experiences in a brutal guerilla group and his escape from it, are featured in her book To Stop a Warlord. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

What is justice?

For attorney and activist Shannon Sedgwick Davis, her definition of the word has evolved over the past decade, through her work to diminish the conflict caused by a notorious Central African rebel group and after meeting David Ocitti, a former combatant kidnapped by the group as a child.

In 2010, Davis heard about the Lord’s Resistance Army’s 2009 massacre that took the lives of 321 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The year before, LRA soldiers killed 620 in the nation and abducted 160 children, many of whom were forced to become soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The San Antonian wrote a message to her fellow board members of Bridgeway Foundation, the charitable arm of investment group Bridgeway Capital Management. “We either come in after mass atrocities and pick up the pieces, or we need to do what we said we’d need to do and stop putting Band-Aids on bullet holes,” Davis typed out on her Blackberry.

Bridgeway Foundation pledges to work toward a world free of oppression, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Led by Davis, who now serves as the San Antonio-based foundation’s CEO, Bridgeway decided to address the root of the problem of one of Africa’s longest -running conflicts and track down the warlord who started the LRA: Joseph Kony.

“I knew right away we couldn’t focus on every conflict on the globe,” Davis said. “It felt like the LRA was the place to start. It was a non-state actor perpetuating these crimes. So we decided to go after them and very naively felt like … if we could just capture Joseph Kony, it would be done.”

<I>To Stop a Warlord</i> by Shannon Sedgwick Davis
Shannon Sedgwick Davis’ book, To Stop a Warlord, was published April 2. Credit: Courtesy / Author

Davis details the search for Kony in her book To Stop a Warlord, which was released April 2. In the book, Davis writes about how she adopted a hands-on approach toward fighting for human rights.

She teamed up with Laren Poole, who co-founded Invisible Children, a nonprofit originally focused on publicizing the plight of child soldiers forced into service by the LRA. Davis and Poole met with U.N. representatives, Ugandan government officials, massacre survivors, and others to determine the best way to find Kony, with the ultimate goal of bringing him to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for trial.

Those who followed events in central Africa since the release of a 30-minute documentary Kony 2012, which detailed the horror that the group’s child soldiers endured, may know the story does not have a tidy ending. Kony is still at large and in hiding. But though Davis did not meet her original goal of capturing Kony, she was able to find another way to de-escalate the conflict that his army brought to villages in Uganda.

Davis and Poole hired a private military trainer to train Ugandan soldiers on rescuing hostages in a rural environment. These specially trained soldiers tracked the LRA through thickly forested areas, but the true remedy came from defectors’ messages to their former fellow rebels, telling them to drop their weapons and leave their post.

“We had helicopters with big loudspeakers and [would] hover over areas that we thought they would be,” Davis explained. “The Ugandan government promised to give them amnesty if they came out. We had over 760 come out after that and saw a greater than 90 percent reduction in violence.”

But the defectors needed a way to reintegrate into society. And that’s how Davis met Ocitti.

Kony’s forces kidnapped Ocitti when he was a boy and killed his father in front of him. Davis weaves Ocitti’s story into To Stop a Warlord as a real-life example of the cruelty child soldiers suffered, describing his horrific journey and eventual escape from the LRA.

“My entire lens of justice is so different than it was,” Davis said. “We have this retributive justice in our criminal system. And the justice that David speaks of is the restorative kind.”

Today, Ocitti has become a voice for peace and works to return former LRA soldiers to their home villages. He spends his time tracking down families who lost children to Kony’s army, asking them to record messages that are then played on loudspeakers in hopes that soldiers will hear.

“Growing up in a culture where forgiveness and grace is not just about saying it, it’s action and meaning it, we all recognize that everyone has done wrong and we all choose to let go of it,” Ocitti said. “It’s not about holding somebody against it but admitting that you are all at wrong and this needs to end. That’s why we have all these rituals.”

Former LRA members must first step on an egg before entering their home villages, because the the egg’s interior is clean and untouched, Ocitti explained. They walk into the village with that clean egg on their foot, with a new beginning. Residents of the village and the former LRA member then drink a liquid made from a bitter root – sharing the drinking bowl – when they start the reintegration process. The bitterness symbolizes the hardships everyone must swallow together, allowing victims and former combatants to move  past it.

Ocitti works with The Resolve, a nonprofit organization dedicated toward providing solutions for peace. He said he does not see an end date to his mission to reintegrate former LRA combatants with their families and villages.

“It is a lifelong process that it will take us forever and ever,” he said.

As for her book, Davis said To Stop a Warlord was a project a decade in the making. She started and stopped writing the book so many times because it felt “too sacred for paper.”

“I really wrestled with whether or not we could tell it,” she said. “At the end of working through this incredible and unlikely alliance around this issue – an alliance that involved activists like Laren, the U.S. government, United Nations, other NGOs, community-based leaders, Davids – we all worked toward something very specific and we decided we weren’t going to stop until we made a difference.”

Kony and the LRA killed 2,400 people between 2008 and 2011, Human Rights Watch reported in 2011. In 2015, when Bridgeway Foundation ended its strategic support, only 11 were killed. The Ugandan government officially stopped searching for Kony in 2017, according to the New York Times.

While Kony remains at large, one of his top officers was arrested and is standing trial at The Hague. Kony’s forces dwindled from a peak of 3,000 to 100 soldiers in 2017. But just because the LRA has faded in global visibility doesn’t absolve the rest of the world from its responsibility, Davis said. Tackling crimes against humanity takes a tremendous amount of time and patience, and people easily forget about them – especially when a new conflict erupts in different parts of the world each day.

“What I worry about is the paralytic effect it can have on us,” Davis said. “If we’re receiving the information [about atrocities] and don’t feel that we, as private citizens, have the capacity to address those things and that it only rests on government entities, we are bolted to our chairs in despair because we don’t feel like there something we can do.”

Davis continues her work at Bridgeway Foundation, striving to halt genocide around the world. Residing in the Shavano Park area with her husband and two sons, Davis also has her mother close by to help when she travels for work; Dee Dee Sedgwick started Blueprint Ministries, a local nonprofit that improves homes for people living in poverty in San Antonio so the dwellings are safer and healthier.

Davis said she wrote the book because it was a story she needed to share. She wants people to recognize they have the power to effect change, and she hopes people will feel determined to contribute what they can, no matter how far a war or conflict feels.

“The worst thing that can happen is complacency,” she said. “If our fellow brothers and sisters like David are suffering like they did, every one of us in the globe should be watching.”

All proceeds from the sales of To Stop a Warlord will go toward organizations seeking justice and protection for civilians in conflict zones, according to the book’s publisher.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.