The fitness myths
October 10 1996: 13-year-old Agnes Ocitti hears the iron rods across her school dormitory window being destroyed from outside. She and another 138 girls are dragged from their beds at St Mary’s College in Aboke, Uganda, by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
A teacher, Sister Rachele, sets off in the dark to negotiate with the rebels.
One hundred girls are given back. Agnes is not one of them.
June 30 this year: a Ugandan lawyer—in an elegant slacksuit—delivers the opening speech at local photographer Eric Miller’s exhibition in Cape Town entitled Rebel Chic. Every pair of eyes is here to witness the macabre “fashion show” of the rebels as captured by Miller’s lens. But as Ocitti addresses those present, nobody can look away. And for Miller, she is the light that shines through the stories of murder, mutilation, abduction and looting that are synonymous with this rogue army.
“I feel sorry for them,” she says, lifting her hand in the direction of Miller’s pictures of the LRA soldiers with their vacant eyes and ironing-board postures.
Ocitti had been held in captivity and forcibly recruited into the army for three months, during which she was made to move from village to village, looting houses and abducting more children to join the ranks.
Many young recruits were forced to kill their parents, making “home” a place that no longer existed.
She, like the other children who had been abducted, was forced to kill.
“If you try to escape, your fellow captives are forced to kill you,” she explains. “There was a girl who was about 10 years old from another village. She tried to escape but we were forced to kill her, or else we ourselves would be killed. We were also then beaten.”
One day, as a military helicopter circled in the sky, the LRA, with its large band of child recruits, lay down and hid. When the rebels moved on from their place of hiding, Agnes and a friend stayed behind and, as the LRA moved forward, they slowly retreated from the group.
They presented themselves to a military barracks that reported to the school that they had been found. It took a week for them to get home because there were so many ambushes along the road that they had to wait for a helicopter flight out.
It was not long after that Eric Miller found himself at the St Mary’s College asking Sister Rachele if he and fellow journalist Jesper Strudsholm could meet some of the girls who had been abducted. Aware of the young girl’s extraordinary insights and wisdom, Sister Rachele suggested Agnes.
This was the beginning of a friendship that would lend a personal perspective to all Miller’s work in Uganda.
“Up until then, the Rwandan genocide had been the most disturbing thing that I had covered, but I had seen it through impersonal eyes,” he explains. “This time I was very deeply affected by hearing the story from such a personal perspective.”
That’s why today, not far away from the large images of the brightly-clad soldiers who had dressed up for a meeting with the United Nations, Agnes’s face is there, first with “an echo of trauma” as the photographer describes it, and later as a “beaming” graduate with her life ahead of her.
But, as she herself points out: “It is easy to look at the photographs of these soldiers and to see them as perpetrators. But they too are victims. They too were recruited by the LRA, probably as young boys.”
On the day the photographs of the soldiers were taken late last year, Miller had travelled to the south of the country where LRA leader Joseph Kony was meant to drive the peace process forward with Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.
But, afraid of being arrested and taken to the International Criminal Court in Holland, Kony didn’t arrive.
It was during this long wait between when the meeting was meant to begin and Kony’s actual arrival just 10 minutes before Egeland had to leave that Miller began photographing the other soldiers.
Miller soon registered the off-beat clothing the soldiers had chosen for the meeting.
“I wanted to publicise who they are and what they do ... It only hit me later that it could be material for an exhibition.
When Kony finally arrived at the meeting, Miller was surprised to find a man devoid of any charisma.
“There is a myth across the land about him being imbued with a spirit, but he’s actually very dull.”
Not so Ocitti. Her spirit captures the attention of anyone standing in her light.
Rebel Chic is on at the ART Gallery, Colosseum Building, St George’s Mall, Cape town, until July 31. Tel: 021 419 2679