I met Betty Jokodi, aged about 7 or 8, in the Lokurabang camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) on the outskirts of the Southern Sudanese town of Lainya, in May 2009. Her grandfather pastors a church in the midst of the camp and I had been invited to join their Sunday service. I sat with the children on pews made from logs propped up on branches under the shade of small mango trees.
I was visiting the area with a team of volunteers on a short-term project with Flame International, a UK based charity that works in many war-torn countries. They assist the Church in supporting the spiritual and emotional health of local communities suffering the devastating effects of post-conflict trauma. As a photographer I had been looking for an image that might communicate the wide range of issues and emotions that were prevalent in the area. When I met Betty I saw that she was very much like Sudan in so many ways.
Like Sudan, Betty is staggeringly beautiful but also very poor. Her face was muddy and she was dressed in an old and dirty inside-out homemade shift dress. Like Sudan, she has a traumatic past. Years of civil war with the predominantly Arab northern half of Sudan have kept her family in poverty. Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 they have striven to regain stability with simple subsistence farming, but with no medical support the people are vulnerable to very curable ailments and Betty’s own mother had recently died of measles. And like Sudan she is now fearful of a new threat which just adds insult to injury.
The Ugandan rebel group, The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in fighting for their cause just across the border, have taken to raiding villages in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Sudan. Dispersed by the recent bombing of their base by the joint military forces of Uganda, DRC and Sudan, the LRA now hunt in small packs, killing adults, looting for food and supplies and abducting children to be conscripted into their ranks (estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000 taken since 1987). Those most at risk are families living in remote rural locations away from the towns – families like Betty’s in the shade of the Gumbiri Mountains. Fear of attacks has forced her family and others to relocate to the outskirts of towns to find safety in numbers within the IDP camps. The mountains are only about 10 miles away and their spectacular presence on the horizon serves as a constant reminder of the home that she has left behind. Now she eats boiled leaves while waiting for the recently planted crops to grow until the harvest which is still months away.
But like Sudan, Betty, her family and all those you meet demonstrate a determination to be joyful. Against all the odds and alongside their deep emotional and spiritual woundedness they choose to smile, laugh, dance, sing and worship God with gratitude and wholeheartedness.
The efforts of Flame International are focused on working with the local church. It trains the leaders and offers them first-hand trauma counselling through forgiveness, reconciliation and healing in the knowledge that they then in turn will minister more effectively to their communities as a ripple effect. The hopes that children like Betty have for peaceful and restored lives are subsequently given a realistic prospect. During the team’s two week project they taught and ministered to nearly 200 church leaders, over 500 soldiers and many local churches filled with families, all at the invitation of and in partnership with two local Anglican Bishops. As we left Sudan from a small dirt airstrip another Flame volunteer team was already on its way to Rwanda and yet another to Burundi carrying the same message of hope.
‘Betty with Bullets’ represents the ‘Why?’ that lies behind all of Flame International’s work: to help broken and traumatised people walk forward holding the symbols of a hopeful future and not those of a violent past.