SEATTLE — Imagine standing alongside a 13-year-old diamond mine worker in Central Africa as he sifts through the earth. Or sitting beside a young girl as she describes a massacre carried out by local militias. Photojournalist Marc Ellison and illustrator Didier Kassai have created a way of making these stories come alive. House Without Windows is a graphic novel that incorporates 360-degree video in order to surround its readers with the dangers and hardships that children in the Central African Republic face on a daily basis.
The project is a collaborative effort between Ellison and Kassai, who is originally from the Central African Republic (CAR). Together, they have created a portal through which foreigners can witness the experiences of those growing up in a country that is considered one of the worst in the world to be a child.
House Without Windows opens in Bangui, capital of the CAR, a city where street children “are so commonplace that they are just part and parcel of the urban tapestry.” The children are often forced to leave their homes after having been orphaned, beaten or accused of witchcraft. They set up shop on the streets, where they make money through begging, stealing or prostitution, and do their best to avoid violent gangs.
Children from rural areas, the reader learns, often face even greater problems. Violence between the Seleka, a primarily Muslim coalition that comes from the North, and the local Christian militias, known as Anti-Balaka, have resulted in 412,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).
These children have little access to school and little motivation to want it. Many of them end up working in the diamond mines, harboring dreams of quick riches. Illness is also a constant threat, since hospitals are few and far between, and often require long journeys through conflict zones.
House Without Windows is the story of “a childhood interrupted, a childhood lost.” Its title comes from the words of a doctor working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), in her attempt to characterize the country, and to explain why it has received minimal attention from the media, despite the vast proportions of this humanitarian crisis.
Ellison hopes that 360 technology can help spark people’s interest. He calls 360 video an “empathy machine,” a way of engaging an audience in a way that simply reading or even looking at pictures can’t accomplish. He says that distributing frequent video clips — one for every four or five cartoon panels — was a way of making sure that the reader never had the chance to forget that the pictures were telling a story grounded in reality.
House Without Windows also highlights the humanitarian efforts being made within the CAR. It brings the reader to Voix du Coeur, the only sanctuary for street children in the country. Located outside of Bangui, the center takes in up to 40 kids and provides them with a bed and three meals a day. The center also offers vocational programs. The video shows one teenage boy training to become a mechanic, and a young girl filling orders for her dressmaking business. Their new skills, they say, “have given them a life.”
In another part of the country, the Norwegian Refugee Council has set up a school for children who were driven from their homes by the conflict. All of the children who attend have lost at least a year of schooling, and many have suffered severe trauma. Besides offering a free basic education, the school tries to promote peace and reconciliation between students of different religious backgrounds.
Yet the school struggles from a lack of professionally trained teachers, often having to rely on local adults who have had only a few years of schooling themselves. Keeping the kids in the classroom is a constant battle when faced with the allure of the diamond mines. But this is not new. Even before the conflict began, only one in every four children in the CAR was enrolled in school.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has become the primary source of healthcare for people living in the CAR. The graphic novel brings the reader to an MSF-run hospital. Through 360 video, viewers meet a three-year-old girl fighting malaria, the leading cause of death in children under the age of five, and a seven-year-old boy named Dieufera, who is suffering from malnutrition.
The reader is also able to accompany an MSF worker on a bicycle as he rides around the local villages, checking up on and offering advice to the families living in the bush.
This graphic novel is more than a window—it is an immersive experience. At its most effective, it will prompt viewers and listeners to invest themselves in a country about which they had previously known little and to demand change. The project, which was financed by the European Journalism Centre, is published on HuffPost in English and French, in five national editions.
– Emilia Otte