By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published April 13, 2014
The Juba Peace Talks (2006 – 2008) may have ended the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda, sent rebel leader Joseph Kony scampering for safety in the thick forests of the Congo and the Central African Republic and brought the internally displaced people back to their homes. But the consequences, trauma and scars of a war waged in the name of religion are unlikely to be erased soon.
And perhaps nothing captures this observation better than “The Gulu Project”, a photo exhibition capturing the everyday lives of four young women—Beatrice, Gloria, Christine and Lady Sharia—all former LRA child soldiers or wives of the rebels as they struggle to settle in their community.
So what stories do the four young women tell?
Beatrice, 28, had been abducted at the age of nine and kept in captivity for close to 11 years while serving variously as a babysitter for LRA leader Joseph Kony’s children and then wife of an LRA commander and fighter. When she finally managed an escape, she hoped her family would receive her back with open arms. But an attempt on her life by her grandmother who accused her of being an evil spirit because her “husband” had murdered Beatrice’s parents in an LRA attack, sent her fleeing to Gulu town where she now lives with her children.
Lady Sharia, 26, is a popular musician in Gulu. She was abducted by the LRA when she was 13 years old and gave birth to her first child while in captivity. Upon escaping and returning home, she felt out of place and contemplated suicide. She joined the Uganda army, but her superiors advised her to return to school because she could not make a good soldier due to her young age and fragility. She later joined the army band where she learnt her music skills.
Ten-year-old Christine was on her way to church in 1994 when she was kidnapped by the LRA. Three years later she was married off to a rebel leader. Eighteen year later, Christine works as a weaver in a Christian cooperative. She does not want to speak about her past.
Gloria, a young sex worker in Gulu, was among 139 female students abducted from St. Mary’s College Secondary School in Aboke in Kole District in 1996. When she escaped from the LRA and returned home she found that her mother had died and their land taken away by her relatives. Unable to locate the sponsor of her education or earn a living, Gloria sought refuge in the sex trade.
This exhibition by a Kampala-based documentary photographer called Anne Ackermann and held at Makerere Art Gallery/Makerere Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration in Kampala, February 17 – March 18, 2014, was an extract of a larger Gulu Project that follows several young women in their post conflict lives in Gulu town.
It had been widely believed that the end of the LRA conflict that lasted from 1986 to 2006 and left a trail of monumental abuse of human rights and thousands of IDPs in its wake would bring an era of lasting peace to northern Uganda.
But the return of the IDPs to their homes “has been accompanied by a range of new conflicts, most notably over land… Many people still live in dire circumstances, with little access to basic education or healthcare,” Lioba Lenhart, an associate professor at the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies in Gulu University, observes in the exhibition background article, ‘Moments of Joy and Hope, Anguish and Grief.’ “The rehabilitation of the infrastructure and the economic, educational and health systems as well as psychosocial counseling and social and economic reintegration of former LRA combatants and victims of atrocities have remained a great challenge.”
Government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) may have implemented programmes for the reconstruction of northern Uganda, including measures for the reintegration of former LRA fighters, and Acholi chiefs and elders conducted traditional reconciliation rituals.
“However,” Lenhart notes, “the return of ex-LRA combatants has not been an easy process, particularly for adult returnees. Although both children and adults who had stayed with the LRA are perceived as victims of abductions to be accepted back in the community are frequently treated as perpetrators even by their own families and face resentments and threats of revenge.”
Women returning from LRA with children “find it difficult to get a new partner and to integrate their children into the Acholi patrilineal society,” Lenhart adds.
This reintegration problem has forced many returnees not to stay with their communities. While male returnees have frequently joined the Ugandan army, many others have often moved to towns or trading centres where they engage in odd jobs.
The cases of Christine, Beatrice, Lady Sharia and Gloria in Anne Ackermann’s exhibition illustrate how former female abductees manage to come to terms with and let go of the past.
Ackermann’s perspective, Lenhart writes, “focuses on the strengths of these women and their strategies to cope in their own particular ways with exceptionally difficult circumstances in the post-war period. She portrays them as amazingly courageous young women who try to live their lives in a self-determined way, cherish moments of joy and hope despite the grief, anguish and painful experiences they have gone through, and who deserves our admiration, support and encouragement,”
Ackermann, who won the first prize in the Pro Familia Journalism Awards competition for her piece on intersexuality, says she works throughout Africa from her Kampala base. She splits her time between freelancing and working on personal projects like currently The Gulu Project. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and photo festivals in USA, Ecuador, Poland, South Africa, United Kingdom and Germany.
Ackermann told ArtMatters.info that she was motivated into taking the pictures for The Gulu Project because of the resilience of the LRA victims.
“I was interested in the situation of the aftermath of war in general and what makes people continue and pick up after everything has been lost. The resilience and human strength of people in aftermath of war fascinates me,” she said.
It has taken Ackermann two years to document the lives these four young women.
“I have been coming and going in and out of Gulu in the past two years, always spending a couple of days there.”
Ackermann says she has tried not to victimise the young women as she documented their return to normal life.
“The challenges are the usual ones when working with photographic storytelling like identifying strong characters and their stories, getting access to and also avoiding stereotypes. Especially working with women in a difficult situation, I tried to develop new ways of looking at them as strong characters.”
As to whether the four young women welcome her into their private lives, Ackermann says,“They did open up because I took time to establish a relationship and gain their trust before I started photographing them. It is important to show integrity and respect when working with people. And time helps a lot to establish a good relationship based on trust.”
On whether it was easy for them to open up their sad past with the LRA, Ackermann adds,“I believe that re-narrating your story actually helps working through trauma and can have a positive and healing effect for people, of course only if this happens in a protected and safe environment. I don’t pressure or force anyone, but usually people open up by themselves after some time and might even enjoy being listened to.”
Ackermann observes that the LRA conflict has had a huge impact on the people of northern Uganda.
“I think this conflict has done a lot of harmed many people over a long time. The war might be over but the wounds in people and society will take much longer to heal. Attention has to be paid on the long term effects of war on the people,” she observes.
As to the importance of photo exhibitions like The Gulu Project, Ackermann argues that: “Exhibitions like these are a platform for learning, conversation and interaction. By making realities far from us visible and even look ‘beautiful’ in photography we manage to get attention on them. From there we can start engaging in dialogue and practice humaneness by feeling empathy and providing understanding and compassion to fellow human beings in different situations of life.”
The project was supported by VG Bildkunst in Germany and curated by Marc Prüst and Anna Kucma.