Tarlabaśi, an area in Istanbul that locals advise you not to visit, where uncertainty and possible dangers abound… naturally that’s where I found human connection. The mood of the streets was one of intensity, alert eyes watching, unkempt children and wild cats roaming the alleys and a common thread of desperation bring the whole scene and my camera together into a symphony of connection.
I was told this place is destined for demolition and that the Kurds, Arabs and Turks living there will have to relocate and give room to modern buildings and to a brighter future. But what of these children? A girl that sells you guns in the street, the boys that build fires for fun and the child with the hammer training for hard labor. What of their future?
Some images print themselves in our minds and on our hearts because they affect us beyond the surface of visual impression. They go deep, they etch a mark on our soul…
If you were to ask me what moment in my journey to Congo was the most haunting, I would say this one when I took this photograph. This child was one of the youngest in the center for demobilized child soldiers. He never spoke, he just stood there and let his eyes that stared without blinking, the scar on his chin and his cloud of melancholy speak for him. His gaze was steady, his look far but near, his mind unreadable. It was a child who spent far too much time in the playground of the lords of war and cruelty.
It was so clear to me the day I saw these children dancing for hours, that Africa, the land, radiates and infuses its people with rhythm. Moving seems to be the most natural thing to them and they move with a lightness and swiftness that are most beautiful to witness. These children are young demobilized child soldiers and dancing is part of their healing process.
I was able to take a couple of short videos and here is one to give an idea of the way it felt to be there and to witness this event in person.
When I knew I would be meeting child soldiers in Congo, I had no frame of reference as to what I would be meeting. I had seen some snapshots sent to me before my trip, I had read the statistics, the articles, seen photos, but all of that did not prepare me for my first meeting. It was a cloudy hot day in Goma, on the northern shores of lake Kivu in Congo, when I was escorted to the gates of what looked like a small prison with barbed wire, metal gates and armed security. But as I would later find out, the prison was not intended to hold the children in, but to keep the men who abducted them and want to find them again, out. It was a safe house for these demobilized child soldiers and a place where they were temporarily housed, medically attended to, given lessons, recreational activities and access to arts that are all meant to help them transition back to life after live in the military. I took this photo in the first few minutes that I was there, because I arrived at the time when the children were in the middle of recreational activities and the place was charged with so much energy, from football, tribal dance, weaving, singing, music playing, painting… and it went on and on for the few hours that I was there.
By the year 2009 when I visited Congo, about 30,000 child soldiers were demobilized by the United Nations and other national and international organizations. The children were treated against shock, diseases and trauma before attempts to integrate them in their own villages and families or foster families in Congo. Thousands of children still remain in the armed forces today.
Childhood is the most sacred part of life. We as adults are entrusted with it to shield it, protect it and allow it its full potential…
And yet, in places like Congo, children are forcefully taken from their families by armed forces, sometimes as early as 7 years old, forced into military training, a life of crime, drugs, war and are shoved brutally into an ugly adulthood robbing them of their gift, their innocent childhood.
UNICEF and other NGOs have been actively struggling to save these children from the grips of war, offering them temporary sanctuary in an attempt to help them kickstart their childhood again and reunite with their families or other foster families in the Congolese society.
With arts, some of these children told me that they are able to escape into other places in their minds, places free of their memories of war, of killing, of brutality. They can dream of a normal life, of happiness and of recapturing the freedom that is an integral part of childhood.
With history lives mystery, the unknown, the unexplained, the unanswered questions, the missing pieces of the puzzle, and it is fascinating to an inquisitive mind and to a fertile imagination. We are drawn magnetically to ancient sites, even as small children, we dream about the builders of the pyramids and picture them walking sideways as they do on the walls of hieroglyphs in Giza, we daydream about what it would be like to live as a Japanese Samurai, or to have been a soldier in the times of ancient Rome…
It was compelling for me to stand in front of the remaining facade of the ruins of St Paul’s cathedral in Macau, built in the 16th century by exiled Japanese Christians, commissioned by the Jesuits and destroyed almost completely by a fire during the typhoon of 1835. I wondered who walked through these great doors, what happened inside the imposing cathedral walls and did they ever foresee the rising of the modern casinos and buildings that are swallowing Macau today?