Selected By: Sue Brisk, Independent
Photography Project Editor,
Media Consultant, Branding, Print Sales,
New York, United States
In My Life: the story of an Ex-Girl Soldier
Click to enlarge
From the project:
Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa
How does one describe the horror of being a
This very personal story is part of photojournalist
Sara Terry’s project on forgiveness
traditions in post-conflict African countries.
Ms. Terry learned through mutual friends about
a girl, Miriam (her name has been changed
to protect her identity), who is struggling to
forgive herself for her actions as a child soldier
when she was forced to execute villagers.
And execute them she did.
Kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary
United Front (RUF) at age eleven and forced to
join their ranks, Miriam lived a violent life of
terror for nearly a decade. She learned how to
take orders to commit horrible atrocities. She
killed people for no particular reason. If she
refused to follow the demands made on her,
she would have been killed by her commander,
Kill or be killed. Feel nothing. Bury your
personal fears. Accept the terror. Continual
sexual violations were part of the ordeal.
How does a child overcome the experience of
enduring humiliation, terror, trauma, and violence
for such an unimaginable length of time?
How does Miriam allow herself forgiveness?
Photographs have made us eyewitnesses
to war. We have seen youth with AK-47s and
machetes, sweating in the hot sun with their
desire to kill. When the anger boils over, there
are no rules, no governments. My memory of
Africa, mostly from Liberia and Sierra Leone
coverage, has haunted me. The news coverage
created indelible imagery, courtesy of photographers
who worked in extremely dangerous
conditions. Photographers who cover conflict
or war record extremely volatile situations.
They witness the hellish mania, rioting, beatings,
bullets, blood on the streets, body parts,
and beheadings, often from internal wars with
no end in sight. The more graphic pictures
go unseen in the United States, as few news
outlets have the courage to publish them.
Where are those kids now? Have they
forgiven themselves or do they continue
the cycle of violence? Sara Terry explores
what happened to their minds and how the
aftermath of violence affected them. We have
seen the blood of the dead, the scars of the
tortured, and the fear of those with their lives
in ruins. But what about the souls and minds
of the ones who perpetrated the violence and
who must now contend with their past? Miriam
is someone fighting her past and trying to live
for a future. After my first viewing of Ms. Terry’s
project, the impact of this very disturbing
story lingered. How did Miriam survive her
years in captivity? Can she herself overcome
the enormous stigma of that captivity? Will
she be rejected by her village or family? Will
she be killed?
This chronicle of images and handwritten
words by both photographer/journalist and
ex-child soldier enables each to discover a
path to safety. Miriam attempts to forge
her way through the psychological trauma
of her monstrous past to obtain forgiveness.
Through photography, she unconsciously
recreates visuals that serve as metaphors of
her past rebel life. The bond between Sara
Terry and her subject is symbiotic. The triptych
and portrait convey mystery and sadness
within a respectful silence. In Sara Terry’s
photographs Miriam can see herself and find
the safety to rediscover her past.
The images taken by Miriam herself look
innocent, as though she is playing with a small
camera on a class trip or snapping Polaroids
for the family album. The simplicity of her
imagery, however, is in stark contrast to the
handwritten text describing Miriam’s nightmare.
Viewers quickly absorb her experience,
through the simple imagery and the simple
comments, because Miriam speaks a simple
truth. Yet we want to know more: How does
anyone overcome such deep personal scars?
Can the stigma of war ever dissipate when you
are the killer? Once you have essentially been
“killed” by the experience of living as a child
soldier, brainwashed and stripped of all human
rights, can you repair the psychological damage?
Unfortunately, Miriam’s experience is not
unusual. This is a crucial human rights problem
that needs more attention from the public.
This is work that matters; children are
still being kidnapped and subjected to horrors.
Can it or will it ever end? Perhaps we cannot
heal the wounds, but we can encourage
self-forgiveness and begin to create a larger
awareness of the regions and the victims
most in need.
“You” are now a witness.
- Sue Brisk
This work has been made in collaboration with Catalyst for Peace (Portland, Maine)
A former reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and a freelance
magazine writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition
into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term
project about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, Aftermath:
Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace, was published by Channel Photographics
in 2005. Her work has been widely exhibited at venues
that include the United Nations, New York; the Antwerp Museum
of Photography; and Open Society Institute’s Moving
Walls, New York. Her photographs are in the permanent collection
of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in many private
collections. In 2005, she received a fellowship from the Alicia
Patterson Foundation for her work in Bosnia. She is the founder
of The Aftermath Project, a non-profit program that awards
grants to photographers who cover the aftermath of conflict.