reed magazine logowinter2006

Seeing the World in More Than Black and White

Rafal, who grew up in sub-urban New Jersey, used his $1,750 Locher grant to travel to a conflict zone in northern Uganda where more than 20,000 children have been abducted by guerillas in a 19-year civil war. Once there, he took a “by any means necessary” approach—including providing local authorities with false identification—in order to photograph and interview child refugees.

Rafal’s trip took an ugly turn on July 9, 2005, after he’d been in Uganda for about a month. As he recounts the story, he traveled to Pabbo on his own and entered the camp without official permission. He wandered the streets taking photographs, a crowd of children following wherever he went.

Late in the day, Rafal was confronted by an army officer who took him to his office and interrogated him. The officer accused Rafal of being a guerilla collaborator and a journalist, of taking pictures of Pabbo to make the government look bad. On a previous visit, Rafal had signed into the camp as “Dean Moriarty” working for “the Locher Group,” an alternative media organization. This time, he was carrying no personal identification.

After hours of questioning and threats, the officer brought Rafal in front of camp residents and told them he was a terrorist and guerilla supporter. The officer then put Rafal on a truck crowded with refugees heading back to Gulu, saying soldiers would meet him there to examine his passport. When the truck stopped on the outskirts of town, Rafal fled to the home of a Ugandan friend, Patrick Oola, who hid him. Rafal came down with malaria soon after, and spent several days delirious in the hospital before being released and returning to the United States.

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Edited excerpts from the essay by Ethan Rafal ’07, delivered at the opening of his Locher Summer Creative Scholarship exhibition Children of the Night: Images from a Forgotten Genocide.

Pabbo refugee camp, Gulu province, northern Uganda


“We have been conditioned to regard Africa as sub-human. Would we tolerate Joseph Kony in the Hamptons? How about 1.7 million refugees in Malibu? There are people in this world who simply do not make the cut. The Ugandan national newspaper will run a week of headlines on the London bombings, while the story [of child soldiers in northern Uganda] is left out of southern Ugandan publications.”

“Despite the complex genocidal conditions of northern Uganda and however bleak the future for the Acholi [northern Ugandan] people may be, day-to-day life continues in the camps in a mood of normality, as it has become over 19 years of war. This exhibition is an attempt to portray how normal life feels in the camps. Morning passing time with conversation. Nonchalance of mutilation. Afternoon playing cards, checkers, maybe even music. Regular cycles of abduction. Nights cooking food over a fire. Banality of murder, rape, and destruction. This is how war in northern Uganda feels. Normal. Everyday. Silent. Forgotten. Most of all: human.”