This was no ordinary day it was December 31st the last day of 2010. The office was bustling with excitement. Not only was is the last day of the year, but we were also going to a village to meet with some new COPERMA clients recently demobilized child soldiers and to interview some young girls who had to flee their villages after being raped.
When we arrived I was not sure I would be allowed to shoot at all, but hoped that Amy would ask if it was possible. Some of these kids were minors and I wanted to be very sensitive to their traumatized state.
In general there is great debate about photographing rape survivors at all. My feeling is this. Rape is not a comfortable subject. People do not like to talk about it or think about it. It is a subject most people would rather ignore than face. In all honesty it is more comfortable for the general public to not look at images of survivors. Not the other way around. These women have survived one of the most traumatic events you could experience and still physically be alive. If they want to share their story and telling other people will empower them I want to help make their voice heard. If a girl was raped when she was 15 and she is now 17 years old, estranged from her family, and supporting a child alone I feel for all practical purposes she is an adult and has a right to make the decision to speak publicly. That said, I feel very protective of the younger girls who may not be able to fully understand the lasting repercussions of speaking out about being raped.
As we settled in for the interviews a COPERMA community member offered their two-room mud hut for our meetings. This time we sat on a straw bed with a foam mattress in a dank mud brink room. There was one small window that filtered enough light we could just make out each others faces.
First, we interviewed three teenage boys who had recently defected from a paramilitary army. After several years of fighting they had returned to this community to live with their birth families. Today COPERMA wanted to see how they are doing and get a feel for if they were readjusting to life in the village. Kids who reenter their village under COPERMA have to sign a contract that they will not return to the army, but there is little anyone can do to enforce it. Sometimes the kids are recaptured by the military and other times disillusioned with the limited job options they return to fight.
The three teens squeezed onto a small wooden bench and leaned on each other. Four of us sat in a semi circle opposite of them. The first boy about 16 was cocky and it was obvious he had few social skills. His eyes were weary and sad. His grin was more like a mischievous smirk. As he talked, he looked away from us into the corner or covered his face with a red handkerchief. He never made eye contact. It all seemed like a game to him laughing and offering what seemed to be agreed upon answers, it was a frustrating interview because it was apparent he was just handing us BS and though it was funny. The next boy seemed almost angelic. With good manners and a genuine smile he began to answer questions more openly, until the first boy began to continually interrupt and feed him answers. Frustrated we told them we wanted to continue the interviews separately, but they refused and said they wanted to stay together. We told the first boy, who seemed to have some pull over the other two, to stop feeding them answers or go outside.
They all talked about killing people, so many people they could not possibly remember. Old people they thought were sorcerers and anyone else who got in the way. They told us about a tattoo they all had that protected them from bullets. It was a small cross that looked like a brand someone had made with a needle. They also said, “If a soldier rapes his tattoo does not protect him and we kill him”. A few different times we tried to ask if they knew anyone with the tattoo who had ever been killed, but they always said, “No”. Asked point blank if they had ever raped anyone they all point blank denied doing so.
Who knows the power of belief is mighty. Maybe no one with the tattoo has ever been shot or maybe it is because none of the villages they attack have guns. After the interview we asked the teens if I could photograph them as long as I did not show their face. They agreed. As I photographed them I realized that one of them had an Obama belt buckle. Of all things, that was the absolute last article of clothing I had expected to run across that day. Pants so torn the thread was barely holding them together and shoes that looked as if they had been worn for years. Somehow this guy in the middle of the bush had found an Obama belt buckle. Hey do you know where I can get on of those?
PART II - Next Post