“Girl” and “soldier”—two words that should never refer to a single entity. Two words that ended up describing a lot of people during the civil war in Sierra Leone, a conflict that lasted from 1991 to 2002. During that time, thousands of children were abducted and made to assimilate with rebel forces. Approximately 30 percent of those children were girls between the ages of eight and eighteen.
It might seem like the conflict ended a long time ago, but that’s part of what interests Jonathan Torgovnik. More than ten years after the war was officially over, Torgovnik, a photographer drawn to projects highlighting the aftermath of conflict, interviewed and photographed eight of the women who were abducted during the war. I asked him a few questions about the resulting short film, Girl Soldier, which can be viewed at the top of this post.
BECKY HARLAN: What was it about this story that interested you?
JONATHAN TORGOVNIK: A lot of the work I do deals with the long-term consequences of sexual violence, the long-term consequences of conflict—if it’s war, if it’s genocide, if it’s a civil war, like in this case. Many years after a conflict is over, we sometimes forget that there are people who still have the effects of that conflict today. And these women, of course, are an example of that.
BECKY: Was there anything that surprised you when you were working on this project?
JONATHAN: Just seeing the women in the village, and walking with them, and talking to them, they seem to be very confident women, very strong women. When they sit in front of you and tell you that, for instance, one of them was forced to kill her brother to stay alive because if she would not do it they would kill her; when you heard from these women that they were forced to take arms, that they were forced to do these things to innocent people, and they were innocent themselves, that was quite shocking.
I wanted to show diversity in the stories of what the girls went through during the time they were abducted in the bush. Although it turned out that a lot of them went through similar horrors in different places. Most of them were with different militia groups, but a lot of the things that they were forced to do—to kill people or maim people, or steal, or burn houses, happened with each one of these groups in different places. This was not just an isolated phenomenon, but it was quite characteristic of how things were going on with these militia groups during the civil war.
BECKY: As a photographer, you often work on intense stories like this one. How does that affect you personally?
JONATHAN: It affects me greatly. I get very emotional when I hear these stories. But mostly, what it gives me is strength. I’m just in awe of the strength these women have and how they’re able to still survive, still raise children, still provide for themselves with all these difficulties and challenges they face. It’s not so much about my emotions, it’s more about how they are being able to tell their stories. I’m kind of a messenger. I collect the stories and then I try to get the public to listen because the women don’t have any channels to get their stories told outside of their community.
BECKY: Why did you decide to make a film rather than just taking photos?
JONATHAN: When you hear and see that woman telling her own story on camera, and then combine that with some of the visuals, the images I made, I think it’s the most effective way to do it. It’s not just taking a picture and reflecting on the picture and maybe reading a caption that contains the information that the woman said. It’s actually hearing and seeing that woman say those things. At the same time, I feel that if it would be only a talking head saying those things, it would still be powerful because what they say is just extraordinary.
BECKY: You’ve really emphasized the resilience of these women, even saying that it’s more apparent here than in other situations you’ve worked in. Why do you think that’s the case for the women in Sierra Leone?
JONATHAN: I think one of the things that helped them heal to the extent they are healing today was this group camaraderie they have—there are many of these girls that have come back to the village and have gone through similar experiences. I think right after the war ended there were some organizations that came into the villages to try to help them build a system of self-counseling, so they come together as a group to exchange stories with each other and just discuss their problems. I think having that really helped them restart their lives. And in the case of this specific village, the fact that the chief was quite sympathetic to what happened and was an advocate for them within the community also really helped them in terms of gaining confidence and trying to restart their lives.
BECKY: What do you hope comes out of the project?
JONATHAN: My main goal is to shed light on the stories of these women who are in a very small village, in a very isolated place, and have to still deal with a lot of layers, a lot of levels of trauma that they need to overcome because of what happened to them. By collecting the testimonies of these women and presenting them to the world through different channels, by whatever means I have as a photographer to get the voices of these women out there, that makes me feel that more attention will be given to these communities and to these women. It’s a little bit naive, but hopefully this type of work can help make some kind of change in future conflicts.
To see more of Torgovnik’s work, visit his website.