The UN says up to one million people have been displaced since civil war erupted in CAR four years ago. Among them are children growing up in shocking conditions.
So photojournalist Marc Ellison and illustrator Didier Kassai have produced a graphic novel, House Without Windows, to highlight their plight.
Interview: Graphic novel exposes children's plight in wartorn CAR
“Essentially, even before the current conflict started in 2013-2014," Ellison told RFI. "The infrastructure in the country has been crippled by decades of corruption, misrule, misappropriation of funds and the services in CAR are simply awful, there’s a phantom health service, as well as a lack of professionally trained medics and teachers."
The pair travelled around, spoke to a lot of children and the graphic novel documents all of this, not only through illustrations but also with photographs and 360-degree video.
Ellison had wanted to use 360-video for a long time and figured it would be a “good fit” for this project.
CAR is a country that many people, especially outside of the French-speaking world, cannot even place on a map, he explained. So to try to engage these people with an unknown country, he wanted to immerse them in the new environment.
“People have long said that the 360-video is essentially an empathy machine and, to a certain extent, I think that’s true," he commented. "It’s one thing to read about kids working in diamond mines, or read about kids in really bad hospitals with very limited resources, or living in IDP camps, but it’s another matter entirely to be transported and really sort of stand beside kids sweating as they are digging for diamonds or to cycle around an IDP camp with a doctor."
Little media coverage
The graphic novel takes its name from a phrase used by a Doctors Without Borders medic, who described the CAR as a "house without windows", lacking the media attention that would allow people to see in and reducing opportunities to put pressure where it is needed to change the situation.
“With this 360-video, especially if you put on the headset, we are providing that virtual window into this world and hopefully making people aware of what’s going on in the country,” Ellison said.
Social media updates
Another aspect of the project was an attempt to adopt a sort of tutoring adventure approach. Ellison was giving updates on social media, mainly for a Western audience, to explain what he was doing, where he was going.
Ellison and Kassai also appeared on a weekly radio show on CAR's Radio Ndeke Luka to update listeners there about their progress and experiences, which proved a successful way to gather feedback and ideas.
Kassai, a CAR national, was a fantastic experience because of how knowledgeable the local artist was, Ellison said.
“Kassai lived through violence that erupted in Bangui back in 2013-2014 so, not only has he experienced that himself, his attention to details was most valuable. He knew how the Seleka and anti-Balaka [rival militias] dress, how they move around, so it added a real sense of realism to the comic."
But Kassai was also essential as a way to break the ice with the children, who were often quite vulnerable.
“He would draw their favourite animal, or their portrait, and that would make them feel at ease. Sometimes the kids were really shy, opening up to a white foreigner, so Didier would say ‘Maybe I should have a chat with them alone first, because I think there’s more to be told here’.”