Pader, Uganda

This week we have been collecting testimony. We have so far collected many hours of case studies of child mothers and formerly abducted children. Most are between 18-22 years old and have been directly affected by the war. The young girls we interviewed, some after coming back from the bush bearing the children of their captives, were students at the Christian Counselling Fellowship. This is a program partly sponsored by War Child where child mothers have the opportunity  to seek an education whilst having their children being taken care of by the schools nursery. Education here is being used as a tool for reconciliation and recompense. The biggest frustration and anger shown outwardly by these youth is that they have had a large part of their education taken away from them. Children were being bred to be killers and wives and thus skipped basic education and the social skills that a school system would have encouraged. For these young women now their dreams are very much intertwined with their hopes for their own children. They yearn to become whatever they can so that their sons and daughters can choose to become whatever they would want to be. The gratitude shown to those who can help, such as War Child, is overt and heartfelt. Opportunity is a word that comes with an implicit proviso of choice to opt into in whatever it is that is being offered. This vibrant, intense generation of young men and women have been given a choice for the first time. For many where a choice of a profession or an alternate path seemed non-existent for their entire lives you see in them a very real understanding of the value of education as a way to put paid to the past and use their young minds in a way to contribute to their community, serve a purpose and as an example.

Friends of Orphans is a separate NGO set up to provide vocational training in technical areas such as motor vehicle engineering, computer studies and bakery.  Here we found young men, teenagers, regular kids who were again frustrated at having missed out on a large part of their education. We walked around and filmed them as they sat while volunteer teachers would tap a chalk to blackboard under the shade of trees, copying down pertinent points on matted schoolbooks with their laps for desks. Eager and anxious to learn, laugh, cry, make friends, fall in love, joke around, show off - simply make up lost youth spent in the bushes, walking, crouching, beating, killing, maiming, hating. They felt the value of the opportunity they were being given – under funded and short-staffed as they were – a second chance to claim back their stolen start to life.

Among these lives filled with the sounds of school bells replacing the ring of gunfire – we found that their past had not wholly left them. Some had gone through severe, unspeakable trauma and it was clear that almost all we spoke to had not quite processed their experiences. They seemed fragile and at times still very disturbed. When Heidi, as our reporter, would touch on sensitive subjects, their eyes would begin to water and in some cases as with the young boys who would show a macho bravado among their peers, would retreat into timid, frightened children unable to reach back and provide a backstory for our rolling cameras. It has always been a subject of much deliberation with Heidi, Phil and I on how best to approach these kids about their pasts, especially when it had become obvious that any kind of emotional counselling was sorely lacking for most returnees. Our experiences in Sri Lanka had instilled in us a principled approach to filmmaking and journalism, one where the vulnerable subjects of our documentaries would be treated with the greatest of respect both emotionally and intellectually. As filmmakers we have a firm belief in our responsibility toward our audience members of course, but also – crucially - those of whom that are so gracious enough to share with us their stories on camera. When children are involved our approach would have to be as subtle as it could possibly be. We had heard from some of our friends here that BBC Comic Relief had come to Pader a few weeks ago for the regular story of child soldiers and rehabilitation for their October drive. In their search for ‘the human angle’ they had reduced some children to tears. One of the Ugandan representatives here in Pader had pressed upon us that if any of that would happen in front of our cameras, interviews would instantly be stopped and access would be cut off. Later we had found out that the woman who had been conducting the interviews for Comic Relief had apparently asked one young boy if ‘they had killed anyone’. This made me incredibly angry and so much more determined to seek a new way of telling a story like this without compromising a principled approach. The kids here deserve better than that.