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PhotoSensitive Picture Change : Dwog Paco

Marc Ellison –Photojournalist - @marceellison


Rose Achayo wants to show me something.

She pulls down the front of her pretty blue and black dress to show off the ugly, dark scars across her chest. Rose says members of the Lord’s Resistance Army stabbed her with a bayonet after she dropped a heavy load of rice she’d been carrying for many miles. 


For Rose is  dwog paco  – Luo for ‘come back home’ – just one out of thousands of children that were  abducted from their Ugandan homes by Joseph Kony’s LRA.

Most of us know about the abduction and use of children as soldiers in far-flung places such as Sierra  Leone, Sri Lanka and Colombia. We’ve absorbed the media image of a child soldier as a teenage boy  gripping a Kalashnikov, a necklace of bullets draped around his narrow shoulders, sky-high on a  cocktail of drugs and booze.

But contrary to the misconception that child soldiers are only young boys, Rose is just one of approximately 8,000 girls who were forced to not only be commanders’ wives, but also soldiers, often running into battle with babies on their backs. Rose is a three-time victim: torn away from her home  by the LRA; forced to be a wife in the bush, and now stigmatized by her community and even her own family upon her return.

I hoped that the photograph I took of Rose would illustrate to a western audience that the scars of war are not only physical, but that they also have a more long-lasting psychological effect. Even though the guns have been silent now in Uganda for more than half a decade, most Canadians don’t realize that the problems for female former child soldiers like Rose still persist. 

I believe that a great photograph, like great journalism, should not only serve to educate its audience but also to move them. And I believe all the images in PhotoSensitive’s Picture Change exhibit do just that. Contrary to the old school photojournalism of detachment I subscribe to, in certain circumstances, the photojournalism of  attachment. Reporting from, and photographing people, in post-war societies places the photojournalist in a centrifugal state – a space where the lines of objectivity become blurred. 

Meeting and photographing Mary Achege is a perfect example.

Mary escaped from the LRA five years ago, and yet she tells me that life is still hard for her. Five years on, she still wakes up to see the spirits of those she was forced to kill, standing over her bed. Five years on she is still stigmatized by her own community. Her own mother and brother insult and beat the children she returned with. Five years on, she has to toil on other people’s land to make a living. She never received a formal education and so has no immediate opportunities for a better job. Five years on, she cannot afford the drugs she needs to combat the HIV infection she contracted as a bush wife. 

And she can’t afford the bus fare to get to the hospital, just an hour away – so she goes without.

And she is not alone.


Grace Aryemo stands in the burned shell of what was her home with her young baby on her back, all her meagre belongings lay scattered about her scarred by the fire. The fire was allegedly started by community members angry and scared that a former child soldier had moved into their community. The Ugandan government provides no services to help her.


Sadly, Mary’s experiences are representative of the 40 formerly abducted women I interviewed in the summer of 2011, who still struggle to survive. This is despite the continued existence of reception centres and aid agencies in the war-affected regions of Uganda. There are systemic problems at every stage and level of aid, from the first point of contact at reception centres, to foreign and indigenous NGOs, to government rehabilitation initiatives.


Janet Aciro takes a moment to reflect during an interview. Janet spent 12 years – more than half of her life – as an abductee with the LRA. She says she was gang-raped by Ugandan army soldiers just weeks after her return. She became pregnant as a result of the attack.

Finally I was adamant that these women would have the opportunity to tell their own stories. 

Researcher fatigue is a common malaise in northern Uganda where the Acholi feel they have been poked, prodded and examined by journalists and researchers looking for an insight into a child soldier’s life. So how could I best address this fatigue, and find the medium to cross the linguistic and cultural divide?

Anthropographia was one solution. It’s a visual advocacy of sorts. I wanted these women to actively participate; to help others see the world through their eyes and to help me fairly represent their own stories.

Five of the 40 women were given a digital camera, provided with some basic photography training and then asked to take photos that represented their daily lives: from visits to the local health centre; to their homes, places of work, and friends and family. This approach actively involved them in the research, taught them a new marketable skill, and gave me an invaluable fly-on-the-wall view of what their post-abduction lives are like. The results were staggering not only in terms of how quickly the women developed their photographic skills, but the untold stories they also revealed.


Mary Achege gets to grips with her new digital camera in a Patongo alleyway. She was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army from her north Ugandan home when she was just six years old. Since fleeing the LRA a couple of years ago Mary, now in her twenties, struggles to support herself and her children. The project allowed Mary to not only help tell her own story through images, but also taught her a new skill that allowed her to set up a small-scale photography business.

The photographs I took of women like Rose and Mary, and the photos that the women themselves took, ultimately show that war is only half the story. Often the recovery from conflict is a much longer and harder road to travel.



Janet Adong, a former child soldier, stands outside her home in Patongo, Uganda.



Jennifer Apio, a former child soldier, prepares the evening meal as her children look on.


Mary Achege pumps water at the local borehole - the very borehole where she was abducted by the LRA when she was just 6-years-old.


Mary Achege carries back a 20-litre jerrycan of water from the local borehole - the very borehole where she was abducted by the LRA when she was just 6-years-old.


Christine Adong slumps in the chair waiting. The blood serum slowly rises to the top of the syringe. Her serum is needed to conduct the HIV test Christine has been putting off for years. She’s always just assumed she was HIV+. She was abducted and given as a wife to an LRA commander when she was just 15 years old. But surprisingly Christine has never been to actually get tested. 10 minutes later, there’s good news. The test is negative. But Christine is one of the lucky ones. UNICEF estimates that, as of 2009, 1.2 million people are living with HIV in Uganda. HIV cases rose dramatically as a result of the IDP camps set up by the Ugandan government as part of their plan to thwart the LRA’s attacks on the civilian population, although polygamy in Ugandan culture could be a contributing factor. But 300,000 Ugandans are living with HIV but don’t have access to the necessary antiretroviral (ARV) drugs due to shortages. Many women go without because they cannot afford the bus fare to the nearest hospital. One USAID report stated an average 64 per cent of all respondents felt they lacked access to health services.


Grace Aryemo works in the field as her young son - who came back from the bush with her - looks on. Grace was abducted at a young age by the LRA and missed out on an education and so has to resort to working on other people's land for a dollar a day. She now lives with her a brother in a remote community after residents in her previous village found out about her past with the LRA.


Alice Oyella poses for a photograph in the rural Ugandan town of Nakamura. A year after our initial meeting in 2011, she says she is slowly overcoming her PTSD after years spent with the LRA. She no longer has violent thoughts about attacking civilians or Ugandan soldiers.


Janet Aciro looks on as a technician assembles her new sewing machine. The proceeds from the sale of Janet's photos in Canada allowed her to set up a small-scale tailoring business in Lira, Uganda.


These images were published as one installment in The Toronto Star’s Childhood Interrupted series. For further information of the project go to www.dwogpaco.com and www.marcellison.com

The new exhibition produced by PhotoSensitive, Picture Change, features one photo from over 100 of the top Canadian photographers, including several Toronto Star journalists. The exhibit is a body of work highlighting the way that photography can make a positive change in the world. It might be a photo that inspired action among the public, one that helped bring about a change in law or one that simply forced its viewers to re-think their preconceived ideas.  The exhibit opened Tuesday July 16th and will be on display for a couple weeks at the Royal Bank Plaza Terrace, 200 Bay Street, between the tower and the Royal York Hotel. From there the display will move to another location in the city.


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