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Alumna's documentary work in Uganda opens new avenues for former child soldier

Sara Gentzler, BA'14, left, spent time in Uganda documenting the life of a former child soldier and his family. Her family is now helping the young man get an education and provide for his family.Sara Gentzler, BA’14, has long had an interest in what makes children tick and how the sometimes subtle, sometimes sharp passage of time and experience is reflected in their adult selves.

At the same time, she’s always wanted to tell stories and use them to bring attention to some of the most pressing issues facing the world.

She found an outlet for the latter in 2011, after her freshman year at Creighton University when, as a journalism major, she took part in the Backpack Journalism trip to Uganda, a country still contending with a spasmodic civil war. As part of the crew documenting life in the African nation, she was especially drawn to the story of the thousands of child soldiers who took part in the conflict.

“It’s intense stuff,” said Gentzler, a Gretna, Nebraska, native now living in Seattle and working as a behavioral aide for children with autism. “We’re looking at the aftermath of 20-plus years of civil war to start with. As we went deeper, it became more intense. You read about child soldiering and say, ‘That’s awful,’ but until you go see it on the faces of the survivors and hear them tell their stories, you can’t get at the shocking reality of it. We were all kids at one point, right? They were robbed of that.”

After several weeks in Uganda, Gentzler returned to Creighton. She helped produce the documentary that eventually became Mato Oput (Justice & Reconciliation), which garnered awards at film festivals around the world and was lauded as a penetrating look into the roots and results of the fight.

Back home, Gentzler still felt like some part of her had remained in Uganda, caught in the faraway gazes of those one-time child soldiers. As a journalist, Gentzler maintained an appropriate distance from her subject, but as a human being, she couldn’t help but feel an equal and sometimes overwhelming sense of compassion.

“I admire Nicholas Kristof as a journalist,” she said. “His approach is that you ask the right questions and maintain the place of telling the story and making sure you get it out right to motivate readers and spark change. I felt like my goal was to maintain that distance, but as a human being, I definitely felt a pull toward wanting to do something more.”

Ultimately, Gentzler decided to go back to Uganda. She asked journalism professor Carol Zuegner, PhD, if there was a way she could get in touch with a former child soldier, meet up, and help tell that one story as a way of shedding more light on the horrors boys and girls as young as 8 experienced in the Ugandan civil war.

Gentzler earned a grant from the College of Arts and Science and in the summer of 2012, with a translator and a fellow student toting a camera, she set out into the Ugandan countryside to meet Samuel.

An ex-child soldier, Samuel was now living with his extended family — including his grandparents, mother, brothers and sisters, and his own wife and child — in a small village where at the time, if anyone should discover that he had served as a soldier, even one who was kidnapped and forced into the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a teenager, he and his family risked recrimination and ostracism.

“It was at that moment when, as a journalist, you say, ‘This is bigger than me,’” Gentzler said. “The whole family is there, they are welcoming you in and here’s Samuel saying he can’t tell anyone about this in his clan, in his village, without putting all of his family at risk.”

Returning to Creighton this time, Gentzler began work on another short film and a website, providing poignant comparisons between life in the U.S. and the starker realities of life in Uganda and for child soldiers, generally. She spooled out portions of Samuel’s story in his words, her words, and in indelible portraits of Samuel’s family.

The film earned first place in a competition for online documentaries held by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In the documentary, when Samuel spoke of being haunted by his experiences, the muted tone of his voice echoed in Gentzler’s ears.

Samuel had been attending school when he was spirited away by the LRA. The rebels also killed his father, depriving Samuel’s mother and his eight siblings of an income.

Still a young man of 28 when Gentzler first interviewed him, Samuel seemed much older than his years, and spoke of the significant gaps in his life caused by the trauma and in spite of every effort to heal. All he really wanted, he said, was a chance to get back to normal and maybe give his own child a chance at a normal life, starting with that place he’d been ripped out of so many years ago: school.

“A child solider, being one whose normal childhood development is interrupted, naturally becomes socially outcast,” said Quilinous Otim, director of the Ave Maria Vocational Training and Youth Development Centre, where Samuel restarted his education. “In this case, education helps such people to change their minset, boost self-esteem. With the help of trained counselors, they are helped to overcome trauma and finally get some integrated educational support.”

Sharing Samuel’s story far afield, Gentzler found a ready audience much closer to home. Through contacts initiated on the 2011 Backpack Journalism trip, Samuel is now getting the funding he needs to attend school — with help from Gentzler’s family. Moreover, his daughter is also lined up to begin her education.

“It’s making a huge difference in Samuel’s life, in his daughter’s life,” Gentzler said. “And relatively speaking, the tuition is not what we’d consider a lot of money. But it goes a long way.”

Otim said Samuel, who spent five years under the control of the LRA, is readapting well and getting back some of the life that was stolen from him. He’s taking courses in bricklaying, concrete work and entrepreneurship with the hopes of becoming a building contractor.

“Having gone through the educational process, he has fully recovered,” Otim said. “He is a responsible head of his family and studying at the same time. Samuel is grateful for the educational support from Sara and family. He is happy and confident that his future is bright.”

Gentzler has only spoken occasionally to Samuel since they last met in Uganda four years ago, but their last conversation brimmed over. Though he speaks only limited English, Samuel made certain to drive home his gratitude.

“He just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Gentzler said. “It was the first time I’d heard his voice in a few years and it brought it all back. I just hope he can have that sense of normalcy. What he went through will likely never go away but if he can get some sense that he’s a productive member of society and that he’s helping his family and his country to heal, then I hope our contribution can help in that.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.