A promise kept

“Why should I talk to you?”

The question from Jennifer, a female former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who I’d introduced you to a few months ago, was one I’d been dreading. Researcher fatigue was an issue that had cropped up in the preparatory reading I’d done before leaving for northern Uganda in the summer of 2011. And to be honest, it was a question that needed justification.

Child soldiers were used extensively by the LRA. Over 30,000 children, as young as 8 or 9, were taken at night from their families into the ‘bush’. They were forced to become wives, soldiers, cooks and porters. Women were expected to go into battle with their babies on their backs.

Many of these soldiers were encouraged to flee the LRA by a radio program broadcast by the Gulu-based radio station Mega FM. It was called ‘Dwog Paco’ – or ‘Come Back Home’. Encouraged by on-air assurances by other returnees that they’d face no retribution upon return, many did so.

But even years after returning, these former abductees, particularly women, face stigmatization from their communities and even their own families. Ironically, they’re referred to as ‘dwog paco’s. Unlike their male counterparts, these women have returned with children.

Single parents, they continue to struggle to support themselves and their children. Many never received a formal education due to their abduction, and have to resort to manual labour to be able to send their children to school.

So many journalists, academics and researchers have preceded me in a country ravaged by over 20 years of conflict. Each, with a few exceptions, have plumbed these former abductees for juicy, sensational headline-grabbing stories, never to be seen again by the participants. Jennifer said that they’d promised to build water boreholes in her community, or to give her money for her testimony. She never saw these people again.

Despite the fact that my research was focused primarily on what had happened to her since she’d left the bush, why should she talk to me? It took a couple of hours of persuasion, and assurances that I wanted to focus on her post-abduction life — and not to re-visit her traumatic experiences with the LRA — to examine the challenges that she continued to face.

A key element of my research was ‘anthropografic’. From the 40 women I interviewed in Agago, Gulu, Kitgum and Lira districts, I gave 5 of them digital cameras. Each woman was given basic instruction into how to use the camera so that they may contribute to the project by documenting their own daily lives.

At the end of this summer, Jennifer said it was important for me to come back and to not forget the women like herself. Come back, she said. After you’ve told people in Canada about us, please come back and help us.

So here I am. At that crossroad.

As a first step to helping these women, I will be taking part in this year’s One World Film Festival in Ottawa. The event, which takes place from 13-16 October, brings together filmmakers, activists, students, and members of the public concerned about human rights and environmental sustainability. The excellent Grace, Milly, Lucy documentary by Quebecoise Raymonde Provencher that focuses on female child soldiers will be screened at the festival. A talk will also be given by journalist Kathy Cook, who wrote Stolen Angels on the same topic. So it seemed like an ideal venue to raise publicity for the women I’d met this summer in northern Uganda.

So as a warm-up to a larger exhibition I’m planning for March 2012, I’ve printed off a limited edition of illustrated books to raffle off at the festival. These include a summary of the project and main issues, and biographies, poetry and photography of some of the women I met this summer. I have also printed 15 photos to sell off in a silent auction.

All proceeds from this book will go back to these women to help them afford things like school fees and sewing machines.

So I hope that those of you who can come to the event. Enter the raffle for a book, or even special order one from me. Or come and bid on one of the 11×14 photos.