This week, more than 70 million people watched a viral video about Northern Uganda. The only problem is that the video isn’t really about Northern Uganda at all.
It is, nominally, about the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that abducted children and committed other human rights atrocities and terrorized Northern Uganda for more than two decades. The video doesn’t discuss shifting political alliances among the Ugandan government and other regional players, or how Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s own agenda allowed the group to flourish.
In recent years, the Ugandan military has driven the LRA out of Uganda and their reduced ranks—from as many as thirty thousand to a now-estimated several hundred—currently roam in less governed parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere.
This video is the starting point for this collection of images, but it is by no means the ending point. These images share a version of Northern Uganda that show life at its most poignant and prosaic. They show peoples’ eagerness to forgive and move forward, to heal, rebuild, and start anew. From sewing machines to photo studios, each image alone explains just one person’s life or family or livelihood; taken together, they create a textured mosaic of a place that won’t allow viewers to accept it for any less than it is.
While curating this gallery, I asked photographers to share a bit about their experiences working in Northern Uganda and the importance of faithful representations.
Pete Muller: Molly, 20 (at the time), and her son Fahim, 3, sit inside their home in the industrial area of Gulu in 2008. Like thousands of residents of Gulu district, Molly and her partner, John Boscoe, fled their native lands during the peak years of LRA activity. When I met them in 2008, they lived in a shared and crowded structure amidst automotive repair shops and metalworking shops. Prior to the conflict, the area had been reserved for industrial work and contained few households. As violence and abductions soared, the area became a destination for those seeking the relative safety of the town where military forces were stationed. It was overcrowded, loud, and motor oil tainted the soil.
During our time together in 2008, when the risks had largely ebbed, Molly and John were eager to return to their native lands but lacked the financial wherewithal to do so. They felt trapped and longed for quieter surroundings. Like other Acholis I encountered, they worried less about the return of the LRA and more about ongoing Acholi disenfranchisement at the hands of the central government and the prospect of political instability that could result. While John Boscoe was haunted by memories of abduction attempts, his world was no longer defined by the real-time fear of Kony and his minions. He and Molly were, instead, gripped by their relative lack of education, financial opportunity, and prospects for future prosperity.
Like thousands of other formerly displaced Acholis, they have since resettled in Boscoe’s native lands. They rebuilt the huts that were burned by the LRA a decade before. While I have yet to visit, I’m sure the compound is swept, groundnuts are planted, and young Fahim sleeps soundly through the nights in a way his father—when he was a boy—never could.
Stephen Alvarez: In my work in Northern Uganda, I chose to concentrate on how a community rebuilds itself after its own children are forced to tear it apart. Most of the people I have interviewed in Northern Uganda don’t want Kony arrested or dead, they want to forgive him. They want him to come home. That process of forgiving someone and bringing them back into a community is complicated and messy. It can be difficult for Americans, with our John Wayne attitudes about justice, to understand and accept. This doesn’t excuse the LRA’s barbaric war, but it does offer the best hope Northern Uganda has. To learn more, please read about Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative
Heather McClintock: Encapsulating words and emotions into tiny perfect consumable packages has often been difficult when it comes to my time spent in Northern Uganda. Three trips and ten months in country, and I am still asking myself the same questions and still looking for answers. As a photojournalist, I bear witness. It is not an occupation; I am there to serve. And in that service, the most important tenet is trust. Often, that first layer comes from a translator, a fixer, or a guide. Someone who will lift the veil, someone who will share the truth and the reality of what is happening on the ground with me. The man who introduced me to Uganda, and in particular what was happening in the north—the towns and IDP camps outside of Lira, Gulu, Kitgum and Pader—was Victor Ochen. My photographs, without his heart, his soul, and his compassion, would simply not exist. Victor Ochen, my voice, was born into the LRA war, raised in IDP camps, and while not abducted himself, other family members of his were. Transformed by his experiences, he was compelled to create Africa Youth Initiative Network. The organization exists to serve all those who have been physically abused, kidnapped and enslaved by the LRA. I do feel that Uganda is best served from within, and by the hands of her own people, and Victor’s NGO is the manifestation of just that. Honesty and transparency should be effortless, and they are all that an NGO should have.
Andrea Stultiens: In a globalized world, we shouldn’t just be looking at each other through photographic images. Instead, we must use them as a tool to reflect on and understand how we relate to others. I was reminded of this once again when I walked into a photo studio in Kitgum (Northern Uganda) that had “our” Dutch Keukenhof wallpapered as a backdrop. A green garden with a pond and lots of yellow and red tulips seemed to be staring back at me. I recognized and understood what I saw instantly—though it meant something different to me than it did to the people operating the studio and those using the backdrop. There are many other things I see but do not understand or even recognize as being something. That doesn’t mean they are meaningless: by documenting what we see, recognize and consider meaningful, we can share it, encounter other perspectives on the same visual “facts.” This doesn’t only go for what we see around us right now, but also for photographs made in the past. If we look at them as vehicles to attach views and stories to, rather than objects holding some sort of claims of truth, they have worlds to offer.
David Wright: I feel enormously fortunate to live a life where I can wake up, be safe, turn on my faucet to drink clean water, and drive to the grocery store or farmer’s market where I am presented with a plethora of healthy and safe foods to eat. Emergency medical services will come to my door if I dial three numbers on my telephone. Excellent schools are a stone’s throw away. I have employment and I am able to make a living. I realize this is not the case for a significant percentage of our world.
During my two months working in Uganda, I was fortunate to have many individuals and families share their experiences, both bad and good, about living in Alebtong, a small village 45 kilometers outside of Lira. The LRA specifically targeted and killed the older generations to make younger generations feel like they no longer had assistance from their families, and to prevent the spread of oral histories, skills, and knowledge. Peter, an elder, is the father of one of the students that I worked with through A River Blue, a non-profit school providing psychosocial counseling and vocational training to vulnerable youth.
In making this work, I wanted to be very straightforward that the LRA has devastated northern Uganda through poverty, war, rape, and domestic violence, and that these atrocities continue to affect the people. Equally important, I wanted to show that organizations exist and are continuing to be developed to better the lives of these Ugandans through resources, education, and determination.
Sara Terry:I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone working in Africa is to first point the lens at yourself, metaphorically speaking. I think we have to ask ourselves what lens we’re bringing to how we view a story, because, like the law of quantum physics, the act of observing changes what is observed. I believe that how we observe is an integral part of that. Making a photograph from a point of view of someone who subtly believes that Africa needs to be “saved” by the West, or given “justice” or “freedom” through Western standards is going to yield something completely different from making a photograph from the point of view of trying to understand a story from an African perspective. That’s what I am trying to do with my ongoing project, “Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa,” which these photos are from. I don’t claim to have succeeded on every level, but I have tried to come as a learner in this work, as someone whose point of view is that there is great wisdom in Africa and its traditions — and that the West should stop trying to save Africa, and engage honestly in trying to learn from Africans and the answers they hold to their own problems.