Friday, November 21, 2008
UGANDA. Gulu. November 2008. Portrait of Jolly Grace Okot in her office at the Invisible Children charity. She was one of the first abducted children by the rebels in 1986. She was forced to work as a child soldier for two years before she could escape. Jolly returned to school and worked with several charities such as Oxfam, MSF and the UNHCR. In 2003, she founded the H.E.A.L.S. and Invisible Children charities. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work and has received many awards for her admirable charitable work for war-affected children.
Despite the fact that one could get a different impression from the images on this blog, the main reason for me to come to Uganda was to work with two charities, Invisible Children and H.E.A.L.S., both based in Gulu in Northern Uganda. Both charities deal with the reintegration and counselling of war effected children, especially of former child soldiers. Jolly Grace Okot serves as the country director for both charities.
As you might know, as only as far back as 2006, the area around Gulu, where I am at the moment, was a war zone where a civil war was waged between government forces and the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) headed by Joseph Kony. In fact, since 1986 the LRA has led a civil war in Northern Uganda. The primary victims of this war were the Acholi people, 30,000 of their children were abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. Often as a test of their “loyalty” to Kony and his LRA these abducted children and teenagers were forced to kill another child or teenager when they were forced to join the army. There has been a ceasefire now in place for two years but a peace agreement has not been signed yet. There is a lot of healing to be done already now but this process will even amplify once the peace agreement has been signed and many more thousands of traumatised child soldiers will come out of the bush.
In the last five days in Gulu, I have started to take portraits of some of the children, have listened to their stories and have written down their often heart wrenching stories. But I feel that I am running out of time before I have to return to Germany and that there is so much more to do to do this story, and more importantly these children any justice. So I have decided rather than to do a half baked story this time to consider this as a start and return to Gulu next year for a longer period.
One story in particular almost made me cry (I have taken her portrait but to protect her, I will not publish her image). M. who is 15 years old now lost both her parents to HIV/AIDS related diseases before she was abducted by the LRA at the age of ten and taught how to use a gun and to kill people. She was forced to kill another child with a panga (machete) and was made to cut this other child in half, or otherwise she would have been killed herself. She has managed to escape the LRA at some stage and now is attending school. I cannot even begin to image what kind of nightmares and traumata this teenager must still live through every day…