Yet another drive on another pitted, treacherous, red dirt road. We wind our way to the IDP camp just outside of Gulu town; Sandee and Lillian start seeing people they know walking along the road. They begin calling out names of old friends, waving their arms, barely able to stay in their seats in the back of the van. Once we park, they bolt and begin greeting people with unrestrained joy.
This camp into which so many have been herded is made up of hundreds of thatched roof mud huts built very close together. As soon as we arrive, a mob of little children descend upon us – a sudden wave of distended stomachs, filthy, torn clothing, dirt caked feet and legs. They are thrilled to see muzungus, especially ones with cameras in hand. They quickly fall into a routine of mugging for pictures - dancing about, jumping up and down, turning cartwheels and generally falling all over one another as they compete to get close to us.
Meanwhile, we’re running behind Sandee and Lillian so we can witness (and film) the reunion with their mom. It is a bit anticlimactic, as the greetings they receive from so many other women (darting out from this hut or that) are far warmer than the one they finally get from Mom. We learned later that she is unstable emotionally; she was probably so overwhelmed she couldn’t offer much of a reaction. We also learned later that she was upset because she knew she couldn’t afford to feed the girls and wouldn’t be able to pay for their transport back to St. Mary Kevin’s. (One of our team members jumped all over that and provided Mom with the necessary and extremely meager funds to cover both expenses.) The girls decided to stay for the duration of their school holiday, which is a month or so.
The usual formal greetings and introductions begin. (Our extraordinary guide, driver, translator and friend, Jonathan happened to speak the local dialect.) Chairs are set out for us visitors, a large audience of children and a few adults sit at our feet. Speeches are made. We meet the Camp Leader and some of the elderly women. Very few men are about. We are invited into Mom’s hut. Then she leads us to a field where her husband’s parts had been buried after he had been savagely murdered by the LRA. As soon as we have taken that in, she pulls up her shirt to show us what appears to be a huge tumor on her belly.
Trailing behind us is a long line of giddy children, still playing and laughing and trying their best to get in the line of fire of one of our cameras.
We walk back to the camp and get a good look at this horrible place. The extreme squalor is gut wrenching. This one, no different from any of the other camps, lacks efficient sanitation, putting the 15,000 inhabitants at risk of cholera and other water-borne diseases. It is hot and crowded. The rations are barely enough to live on.
We are told that Mom has lived there for 19 years.
I try to make photographs that are my own. It is far too easy to replicate the pictures we’ve all seen a million times - you know, the ones in Unicef ads or those we see on late night TV with Sally Struthers… flies on faces, swollen bellies, doe-like eyes.