The War on Children
A glimpse at life behind the walls of the GUSCO Rehabilitation Centre in Gulu, Uganda, Africa.
(this account was originally written by me shortly upon my return from my Ugandan visit in 2002)
We walked briskly this Thursday morning. We were due to visit a school not far from the Uganda/Sudan border but with the roads havig been land mined by the LRA the night before, we were forbidden to travel on them. So our initial itinerary was scrapped. Fortunately, Mr James Lomoru, chief inspector for schools in Gulu district had lined up a few other often over-looked institutions for us to visit instead. Looking back now, I'm glad the changes were made, otherwise we'd have missed this eye-opening opportunity.
The GUSCO rehabilitation centre is located just on the outskirts of Gulu town in northern Uganda. It is not a huge centre, particularly given its task, and is surrounded by a high bamboo fence. We explained our purpose for being there, albeit on short notice and were welcomed. Permission was sought to photograph and was granted. I hadn't heard of GUSCO before this or what they did. Nor had I heard of the LRA and its involvement in the whole picture. Well, I for one was about to get a first-hand education into the whole sad affair.
We were led into the first structure. It was quite large, of bamboo walls with a type of rubber like outer covering on the thatched roof guaranteeing a dry interior during the rainy season. I suspected it would be hot inside but upon entering, it was surprisingly cool. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the dark interior and when they had, I could see that this structure was occupied by many young women along with a few men. Some were seated at sewing machines, others in groups to themselves. A few of the teachers/instructors acknowledged my presence but the rest of the population stared as if shell-shocked, their faces bereft of any emotion. I spotted a young baby about 18-20 months old sitting motionless on a mat. She looked surprisingly mature for her young years, as if contemplating an already troubled future. This was the sewing skills tent and basic sewing skills were taught here to both men and women in an attempt that once the person leaves the centre, he/she will have a skill in which to ply a trade. It was noticebly quiet. Looking up, I could see the rafter-like structure of the building holding what looked like large dry tobacco leaves. It turned out they were patterns made by previous students and the material was a coarse, paper-like material. Cloth is both expensive and scarce here and this material was used by the students to practise the stitches and seams on prior to making an actual garment. There were so many hanging, that they seemed to be a natural part of the ceiling decor.
This was my indoctrination to a very different way of life indeed. I had been asked to document the travels of a small team on a mission to the district of Gulu, a major town in the north of Uganda. Their objectives were observing teaching practises and conditions as well as strengthening the ties between one of the schools represented. Being a teacher myself (of photography), I was eager to join them and once there, found myself photographing all aspects of life as it passed before my lens. This particular day we were in the GUSCO compound. It stands for Gulu Support the Children Organisation. It is a Ugandan charity and was founded in 1994. Its purpose is to council, support, re-train, give medical aid, clothing and shelter to the children who had/have been kidnapped by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) and used to fight against the ruling Ugandan government. Many of these children have committed atrocities against their own families and others I couldn't begin to imagine. So not only does GUSCO help the children (and they are just that...children, many only barely into their teens) come to terms with their past but also provides them with self-sufficiency skills and a better future to look forward to. GUSCO also helps to provide support to the communities often ravaged by the atrocities committed. LRA brainwashing commits the children to muder members of their own families or relatives, often their fathers. Finally GUSCO also serves to help re-unite children their families often broken up due to the rebel activities. It is a long-term process, but not unsuccessful.
It is estimated that about 14,000 children have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army since 1986. The children are kidnapped largely from the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum. From here they are taken to bases in southern Sudan to fight, clear roads of land mines, serve as concubines, sex slaves or become wives to the rebel leaders, all at the tender age of around 13 - 15 yrs of age. Some manage to escape; many are killed or maimed. When I was there on my visit, the ruling government army had been mustered in a planned raid on some of the rebel bases in an attempt to capture back some recently kidnapped children. 6000 children were predicted to show up at the GUSCO centre that evening - the centre can barely hold 1500.
Our next visit was to the cooking structure, where basic culinary skills are taught. This is for the women as it is their duty to cook and prepare the meals. Class hadn't started yet and we were introduced to a lone student who was washing and drying eggs. It struck me as odd as I'd never washed an egg in my life. But I believe it is all part of the rehabilitation process. These eggs were thus being dried one at a time. A large plate of rice also for the lesson was left out in the open. The structure was quite large with semi-high side walls. This was to allow the smoke from the four wood burning cookers to escape. Normally, smoke has little ventilation in the average Ugandan structure and the place soon became intolerable...well, it was for me in any event.
Outside a few women chatted as they tended a small garden situated at one end of the womens sleeping quarters. We were not permitted access to this structure and I didn't question it. By this time a butchery lesson was about to take place for the young men. Donated meat, having arrived in a plastic shopping bag was tipped over, it's contents spilling out onto a large wooden table, much like the slaughter and visceration of an animal. All this took place in the open air and no attention seemed to be paid to the flies that seems to come from all over. I recognised a tongue, possible from a young goat. Goat meat is very popular wherever I'd visited in Uganda. Other cuts of meat I couldn't recognise, some pieces I just didn't want to know about. Here, instead of butchering people, the same knives now served a different purpose.
Finally we were introduced to three boys at the centre. In my years of looking at and reading about war photographs I immediately recognised that the first boy, suffering from a shrapnel wound was also heavily traumatised and sat motionless, his eyes glazed and unblinking. Nearby sat two other boys; one, who couldn't have been older than fourteen yrs old has lost most of his left leg. The other, a tall young man was totally blind - all three suffered due to their forced land mine recovery. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and forced myself to take it all in. Our GUSCO guide prompted the boys to pose in front of the new men's sleeping quarters - they reluctantly did. I think this was the first time in my entire photographic life that I had to force myself to take a photograph. I had photographed them as and where they sat and was content with that. But now they were asked to "pose"...I mean to me, the word "pose" itself conjures up visions of a happy moment, a joyous occasion and to me it was clear that these young men did not want this. Yet I didn't want to upset our host by refusing and stating my personal feelings...so I shot a few photos. Try as she might, our host again and again asked the boys to smile for the picture and yet they did not. Maybe they could not. After what they'd been through, just what did they have to smile about. These boys, just shadows of their former selves, had had their future stolen from them. It was a painful photographic moment for me, and the only time I've ever felt embarrassed to shoot photographs.
Time was getting on and we had to leave. Cookery class for the women was about to start. they walked from one end of the compound to the other, each carrying their own mat to sit on. I hadn't realised that of the structures within the GUSCO compound, only a few had a few chairs. The women carried their mats on their heads and chatted as they passed by me. It gave me a feeling of hope, that these people were actually on the mend.
The war is still going on. The LRA continues to abduct children in its war against the ruling government. And GUSCO continues to help the young survivors as best it can. For myself, until now, I'd only experienced such sights in books. There's a big difference in seeing and reading about such things and actually experiencing them firsthand. I think I felt guilty, guilty of coming from a first-world country, guilty of a middle-class upbringing and sensibilities, guilty of being ignorant to their plight.