Space could be the most generous thing we create. Generous in its potential, arduous in its process. In conflict areas, space dissolves into polarities: enemy, ally, perpetrator, victim. And these extremes become the birthplace for misunderstanding, stigma, and hate. As militant groups, armed groups, and rebel groups war with weapons, the battle for peace in communities is fought out amidst these seas of extremes. Where this unnoticed fight wages, there are no treaties or negotiations to forge absolution. Peace hinges on the perceptions and misperceptions of individuals, trying to respond to and cope with the devastation wrought by conflict in their families, schools and communities. This unusual frontline is the landscape where space matters most.
I have spent a good portion of the last six years in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo trying to understand the reasons why children are used as one of the most disposable tools in modern day war. Dispensable, in numerous supply, and with a seemingly endless capacity for brutality, children are the weapon of choice by many armed groups in eastern DRC, where war has raged on and off since 1998, claiming over 6 million lives in its wake. Through documentary film, photography and working with humanitarian groups, children in armed conflict has become my focus.
A Mayi-Mayi child soldier, Kiwanja, DRC. Thousands of children leave armed groups only to return to fighting due to poverty, lack of opportunity or new flares of violence.
Lindsay Branham for DTJ
But their stories, like so many others in the developing world, are often exported out of war and onto the computer screens and television sets of the western world. Another kind of export, story is monetized. As I navigated between the industries of journalism, humanitarian assistance and film, the individuals I had interviewed, photographed and written about, from rebel leaders to child soldiers, mothers, fathers, teachers, peace-builders and warmongerers, I started to hear a din of noise rise from their common experience. Can story be more than a vehicle for an endless chronicle of violence and devastation? Could story transcended traditional distribution channels? Does story hold a power that could change and influence the ramifications of war now? Could story actually become a tool for peace?
John Lederach, a professor of International Peacebuilding from Notre Dame’s lauded Peace and Conflict studies program, writes eloquently about how in peacebuilding, one of the most strategic ways to pursue peace is to, “circle to truth through story.”
These concepts of circling to truth through story and the medium of story holding the potential to be a local expression and tool for peace, inspired me to pilot these ideas. I wrote a grant proposal to test the methodology of what we were calling Mobile Cinema, screening locally-created, collaborative films as an alternative way to address such nuanced issues as stigma, acceptance, forgiveness, and peace. We chose to pilot Mobile Cinema in Northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, an area plagued by the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Thousands of children had been abducted, and many had escaped and returned home to face yet another set of challenges: reintegrating peacefully into their homes and communities and overcoming negative stigma.
When a child has spent the last year in abduction, forced to witness and commit atrocities, and then returns home only to be categorized as “ex-LRA,” excluded from social circles and rejected from communal life, this child is now without a belonging, and stripped of his/her identity. What if story could help restore a community’s perception of this formerly abducted child as just, child? What if changes in cognition towards this child could result in lasting understanding, empathy and finally acceptance?
And so we decided to create fictional narrative localized films to spark discussions around these ideas; an indirect way to circle to truth through the vehicle of story.
But I wanted to see more than just perception change happen in communities. The levels of trauma and psychological distress being experienced by these children was immense and I wanted to explore if there was a way to combine film with psychology and create a more robust intervention that actually reduced trauma and increased acceptance.
In December 2011, I had the opportunity to address a group of child protection experts at Harvard University’s “Adolescent Rights” conference that was looking at the greatest issues children face and the way forward for us as practioners attempting to address this crisis. Out of this gathering I was introduced to Paul O’Callaghan, an educational psychologist from Queens University, Belfast, who had implemented several psychosocial interventions addressing children affected by trauma in eastern DRC, and his experience and expertise in this area is rare. He was interested by my proposal to use film in a larger psychosocial intervention. Dr. O’Callaghan and his colleagues at Queens University, Belfast adapted an existing psychosocial intervention for the NE DRC context and we decided to partner together to create the region’s first community-based, resilience-focused psychosocial intervention targeting formerly abducted children and their communities using Mobile Cinema.
Before we began, in January, 2012, I headed to Northeastern DRC with Jocelyn Kelly from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to conduct a robust qualitative assessment of the affects of the Lord’s Resistance Army on formerly abducted children and to lay the groundwork for the future pilot program. We co-authored a report detailing our findings which can be found here: “We Suffer From War and More War: An assessment of the impact of the Lord’s Resistance Army on formerly abducted children and their communities in Northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
We were repeatedly told by formerly abducted children that all they wanted was to return to “normal”. Community leaders experessed distress over the state of children who had returned from the LRA. The levels of trauma were high and they did not know how to help them. We were asked by community leaders to provide tools and resources so they could help these children reintegrate themselves. They wanted to lead the process.
From this qualitative research and at this bidding, the building blocks of the intervention came to being. We partnered with a local organization in Dungu, DRC, called SAIPED (Solidarité et Assistance intégrale aux Personnes Démunies) led by Ernest Sugule and together adapted a psychosocial intervention manual, trained a team of facilitators, identified communities and began the research phase, designed by Paul, that included a series of 84 questions that identified levels of trauma, psychological distress, stigma, functioning, etc. Caregivers were selected for each child participating in the intervention who were asked an additional set of 64 questions to deduct their perception of their child’s mental health state as well as their own. The randomized control trial Paul designed and the entire research methodology will be discussed in a future post.
Concurrently, Ricky Norris, a filmmaker at DTJ and I spearheaded the Mobile Cinema creation. It was critical that we produced localized, collaborative film, where even the very story line was something that came from communities themselves. I led a series of focus groups with formerly abducted children and their families who openly elucidated on their experiences and what they wished had been done differently to help them reintegrate into their communities better. They defined “acceptance” and “home” and “identity” and “normal” for me. From their eloquent and vulnerable descriptions of their experiences, I wrote a screenplay for a four-part narrative film series about a brother, Jean-Pierre, and sister, Marie, who had been abducted by the LRA and were attempting to come home. Each part of the film held specific messaging that fit into the overall psychosocial intervention and the 8-session platform addressing topics from psychoeducation to the role of the parent and community leader in reintegrating formerly abducted children to active participation in community restoration. We then worked with SAIPED’s theatre troupe who had experience producing sensitization dramas, cast the film and went to work filming it. Characters memorized their parts and we adapted the films as we went according to what was most culturally relevant, natural and familiar. The filming process itself was illuminating, specifically for the children who were playing the roles of formerly abducted children. Their identification with an abducted child by playing that character was quite poignant for them.
Upon wrapping the shoot, Ricky edited the films together and we conducted test screenings with SAIPED staff, a local mental health expert and Dr. O’Callaghan to ensure the films would not cause any secondary trauma or elicit any kind of negative triggers. Once vetted, the films were ready to be included in the overall psychosocial program.
Over the next six weeks, we piloted the full program in Kiliwa and Limai, two communities chosen both for their exposure to LRA violence and their vulnerability to future attacks. The pilot program stretched over 16 sessions in each community, and included 320 people. We delivered the quantitative questionnaires at four points in time: before the intervention, after the first round, after the second round and three months later in order to isolate effectiveness and determine longer term mental health impacts as a direct result of the intervention.
The quantitative results we gathered indicate that over time the intervention was successful in reducing depression and anxiety and adult reporting of conduct problems. This was critical since our intervention had a resilience focus not a trauma focus. I will detail the differences here and why this is important in a future post.
But the use of film, in particular, story, to facilitate lively discussions around peace and acceptance and identity happened, and elicited a stronger response than we even anticipated. After each film screening, the facilitators would lead discussion groups, where character’s behaviors would be analyzed and lessons learned would be shared in small groups and then publically in front of the entire group.
Due to the quantitative data, we were able to conclude that the intervention helped to demystify and de-stigmatise the effects of the LRA and provide a platform to discuss this openly, thereby reducing the avoidance and intrusions individual children experienced.
The films, their own story, created an alternate and neutral space for empathy, trust, friendship, forgiveness and understanding to grow organically, between child and adult, formerly abducted child and non-abducted child, accepted and rejected. Polarities were dissolved and acceptance began. The space created through the films was itself a vehicle of peace.
I see space as the beginning of the beginning. The journey continues much further beyond the porous borders space creates, hammered out into the daily life rituals and realities of communities in conflict. But once fashioned into potential, it can always be a safe place to return to. This established trust can become the nexus for unity. And this is what I have seen.
Now our chief has started to fight for the benefit of children who have returned from the LRA.
— Head teacher, Limai
Before, our community was not united. This program helped us to love one another. Now we are starting to be united.
— Parent of formerly abducted child, Limai
And now, we stand on the precipice of another horizon. I am about to return to NE DRC and support SAIPED to expand this intervention to 920 more people in LRA-affected areas. We will work in partnership to create more spaces to circle to truth through story, to seek peace together by reframing the very ways we see one another.One formerly abducted child who went through our program told me that, “this program explained to others to have them stop calling me names. And they have stopped.” What this means for this child is that he is now accepted, that he now belongs, again. This child’s story alone makes all of this worth it. His encounter with equality, empathy and kindness. These things are just as significant players in the peacebuilding process as any kind of formal peacebuilding strategy. Peace is not constrained to the cessation of hostilities alone. Peace for these children could very much equate to the eradication of violent thoughts and perceptions towards them, to an end to their nightmares and scary thoughts and fear. Peace could mean being invited and welcomed back into their communities, to a return to “normal.” Can we not be part of this kind of peacebuilding?This approach works. Our quantitative data is evidence of a better quality of life for people who continue to live within the daily affects of war; they still have to face daily insecurity, but are living with lower levels of trauma symptoms and psychological distress levels. This matters.When we returned to conduct the post evaluation three months after the pilot program, people were still utilizing the skills they were taught during the sessions to manage their own depression, anxiety and trauma, and formerly abducted and non-abducted children were playing together. This space had created a kind of internal peace in these communities, a unity that was being fleshed out by healthier children and families and within the community as a whole.Change is absolutely possible, despite the circumstances that attest to the contrary.Join us as we go back to NE Congo to support our local partner as they serve communities already engaged in heroic work to overcome war. And be part of these circles of truth.