South Sudan

Layers of loss: An interview with photojournalist Kate Holt on war-torn South Sudan

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Photographs by Kate Holt illustrate the pervasive effects of violence on nearly every aspect of children’s lives in South Sudan.

By Kristin Taylor

“Out of the many refugee and displacement situations I’ve photographed, I’ve never had a child say to me, ‘I can’t dream at the moment.’”

NEW YORK, United States of America, 30 April 2014 – Advocating for human rights and illuminating their abuses has taken Zimbabwe-born photojournalist Kate Holt around the globe. Last month, on assignment for UNICEF, she returned to South Sudan, a country that has figured extensively into her work.

Ms. Holt went to document the effects of violence that began in December 2013. More than four months later, the fighting continues to undermine the fundamental rights of children and to deprive them of their homes, their loved ones and the lives they once knew.

The photographs illustrate the pervasive effects of the violence on nearly every aspect of children’s lives – from health and safety to education and psychological well-being. And they serve as a powerful reminder that the conflict is not only affecting children today, but also damaging their future.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Holt about her photography and the larger story it tells about the situation.

Loss of hope

Q: As we learn in your slideshow, more than 1 million people – over half of them children – have been displaced by the recent conflict. What goes through your mind as you enter the displacement sites hosting many of these uprooted South Sudanese?

A: The thing that strikes me is the hopelessness. Many have been displaced two, three, four times. After the last war, after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, they were able to go home and resettle and restart their lives, and now that cycle of violence has started again. So you walk into these camps, and you meet people who don’t know what the future is going to hold anymore, because their last hope, which was the peace in 2005, has been shattered.

Q: Your photojournalism in South Sudan began long before the country voted for independence from the Sudan. Of course, the latest bout of conflict is rooted in different struggles, but your work consistently demonstrates that the most vulnerable segments of society bear the brunt of violence, as well as its cumulative effects. Can you speak about those long-term effects of violence on South Sudan?

A: I think the long-term effect is that the hope in 2005 – of a generation of youth and children who didn’t know war, who would be the hope of the future – is now gone. I know that many children I’ve spoken to have been very shocked by the war and very confused by it. War was something they heard about from their parents and grandparents, and now it’s happening to them.

Loss of routine

Q: There’s a particularly moving statement from a female youth at the very end of your slideshow: “I can’t dream of what I want in the future when there is still too much of a problem, and until the situation is better, I can’t dream.” When we talk about conflict-affected people, particularly children, there’s a tendency to speak about their resilience, but this quotation seems to problematize that narrative. How are the younger generations of South Sudan coping with the violence? Do you find that their hope is fading?

A: I think it’s very difficult for them to cope with the violence, because their routine and everything they have known has fallen apart. I think that hope may come back when they have some form of routine in their lives. When you’re just sitting around in a camp all day, sitting around in a tent all day, you have nothing to do apart from the survival of day-to-day existence – going to the food distribution points, going back to where you registered, going to get water, helping your parents collect firewood. That, for a child, is just relentless. Out of the many refugee and displacement situations I’ve photographed, I’ve never had a child say to me, “I can’t dream at the moment.”

Q: Speaking about the loss of routine, how is the conflict affecting education?

A: Two children we interviewed for the multimedia slideshow said that, since arriving in their camp, they hadn’t been able to go to school. And for one girl in particular, all of her books have been destroyed. She’s lost her schoolbag. She’s lost her school uniform. She’s now not even with her parents – her father was killed, and she’s no longer with her mother because they’ve been separated. I think that really must be incredibly difficult, particularly for children at that age; when they’re going into secondary school, they have hopes and plans for the future, and suddenly that’s taken away from them. I think it’s very difficult for them to cling to any hope that that will change in the near future.

Loss of family

Q: Can you talk more about the overall situation for children who are unaccompanied, or separated from their families?

A: I think they feel incredibly vulnerable. They’ve got no safety net to support them. They don’t know who in a crisis is really going to look after them. They can live with another family for now. That means that other family gets extra food rations, gets extra non-food items, et cetera, so it’s good all-around for the family, but if there were to be another crisis, a lot of these children do feel like, “Where would I end up because this isn’t my family?”

Loss of what life was before

Q: People are the primary subjects in your images, but you also photographed many everyday objects, often close-up: a bowl of food, a teapot with cups nearby, toys. What story do these objects tell about the conflict?

A: In this type of situation, these detail shots can really extend our understanding in a way that more general human interest photos can’t. If you look at the photo of the children with their toys, you can see that one is actually a helicopter, and the little spokes from the helicopter are made from pieces of wire. In Malakal, where I took that picture, the only things they see in the sky are helicopters – UN helicopters, landing and taking off. I think that’s such a nice story in itself – that children are looking around them for inspiration to entertain them. The other details, things like the teapot and the cups of tea, photos like that show what people have managed to take with them when they’ve had to flee. I think that people try to establish a sense of normality in their daily existence by still having cups of tea and still having a tea strainer and still having a teapot. It is a sign of resilience. I think it’s a sign of people desperately clinging to what their lives were before.