Collage of photographs in which two women wearing colourful robes and headdresses stand in the desert with a loom in their hands.

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May 18, 2023
Image from Adhel Arop's project, Katiba Banat: Sisters in Arms, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. Photo: Djeneba Aduayom, Photographer & Sohani Holland, Sohani Designs yarn work

We Breathe Together: Adhel Arop Tells of the Child Soldiers of South Sudan

May 18, 2023

“I come from trauma. I understand that from my experience. I’m an artist, so I can express things that others might find hard to do. And I’m grateful that I can.”


Adhel Arop explores her mother’s experiences as a child soldier in South Sudan and their lived experiences afterwards, including the intergenerational effects of trauma, in a new documentary series funded by an Explore and Create grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Her series, Katiba Banat: Sisters in Arms, will also feature the stories of other former soldiers with whom her mother, Amel Madut, has maintained contact. These are other women who were displaced and orphaned children, now grown and living across the world. Here is part of the story Adhel shared with the Council:

Adhel Arop is a creator, a model and multidisciplinary artist whose work includes “Who Am I,” a world-renowned documentary about her experiences on healing, beauty, identity, immigration and speaking in her family’s first language (as Dinka people) to be able to open the door to gathering her mother’s stories. After immigrating from a Kenyan refugee camp to Burnaby, British Columbia, a question from her “auntie” sparked this creative work: “Do you know who your mother is?” she asked.

Amel, Adhel’s mother, rarely speaks about her experiences as a child soldier with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army during the country’s second civil war. Conditions in training camps were appalling; many children died of disease, starvation, or neglect. Others were killed in battle. After walking for three months to escape the war with other children, Adhel’s mother experienced unimaginable horrors, sadness, fear, and despair after being recruited.

Adhel’s search for her own identity began through unmasking and understanding her mother’s story. Now an established documentary filmmaker, Adhel continues to explore storytelling as way to promote understanding and positive change. In discovering her mother’s story, Adhel began to create her own.

Three men stand against a white sky.
Image from Adhel Arop's project, Katiba Banat: Sisters in Arms, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. Photographer(s): Lois Arop

Born in Kenya and then living in a refugee camp in Sudan in the 1990s, Adhel moved with her family to Burnaby, British Columbia, to a neighbourhood full of displaced people from other countries. Everyone had a story.

“As a kid growing up, I knew that war was a thing, that it was all around me, that people had experienced trauma,” Adhel explains. “I didn’t understand it, but I could feel it. I wanted to know why people were the way they were.”

Adhel began to talk to neighbours and family about their backgrounds, experiences and histories, and she felt their pain. As a creator, she found freedom and healing expression through poetry, music, shows and presentations, modelling, photography, dance, and film.

In all artistic projects, Adhel takes a multidisciplinary approach, combining photography, poetry, portraits, filmmaking, and linguistic skills (she speaks six languages fluently).

Adhel Productions is producing Katiba Banat: Sisters in Arms, to be released in the fall of 2023. In Arabic, Katiba means “battalion,” and Banat means “female.” The docuseries focuses on the former Sudanese child soldiers who came together for a reunion in Canada in October 2022.

Adhel’s memories of the reunion include one woman sitting on a bench in a corner by herself. Adhel sat beside her. The woman took her hand and said, “All I have ever wanted was to tell my story. I just wanted someone to ask.”

“These women are waiting for a moment to be heard and seen and understood,” says Adhel. “When they have shared something, there are moments of catharsis and healing. We cry. We grieve. Then they breathe after, and we breathe together.”

Adhel says Katiba Banat is about everyone’s trauma. “As humans, we can’t separate experiences. The Sudanese war in 1983 changed the course of history—not just for a nation, but for a generation of people. These are everyone’s children, mothers, grandmothers. This is a universal story.”

She adds, “And then 30 years pass. There is so much pain in war, but it keeps happening. We hear about Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq—all these places in the world. How many times do we need to hear this before we really understand how we’re hurting each other, and that we are choosing it for ourselves? It just keeps happening.”

Adhel hopes her stories about mothers and girls being soldiers will help people open their hearts and gain new perspectives.

“Creativity is all I am. Communicating, art, storytelling—it’s what I feel I can offer the world. It’s a vehicle for healing. Sometimes just speaking, feeling, acknowledging, giving time and attention—it really can change people.”

Adhel Arop’s project was funded through Explore and Create. This program aims to foster artistic practices that encourage artists to push the boundaries of their creative processes, take risks, and develop unique works that connect with the public. The program goes beyond funding by offering valuable professional development opportunities to artists, empowering them in and through the research, development, creation, and production of their art.