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When we arrived in Gulu, we spent only one night in the place we had booked to stay in. A serendipitous confusion of a lost booking and an entire house becoming cheaply available near the Kabero Opong district meant that we would relocate lock, stock and sleeping bag to this new home for the duration of our stay in Gulu. Looking back on the photographs I took of us there, nearly all are in the back garden. I don’t think we used the front door once after we entered the house on the first day.

Maybe it was just easier to walk around the house, rather than through it? More likely we sat out back once, took a liking to the view of papaya trees and the neighbours kids squealing with delight as they beat the dirt out of a punching bag next door, and never thought to change views.

If Tom was missing, odds were good Gerald was about in the back garden.

Dinner was eaten on the thin lip of cement that passed for a back porch, extending out from the back door and around the house in a half-meter diameter before dropping a foot to the carpet-soft grass underneath. If people came to the house for an interview, it was typically done on the grass of that backyard. Just pull the mattresses out of the house, flop them down on the soft grass and you have an interview suite. That was where we first met Rose – the interview in which she and Saskia both ended up crying. The one in which a full five minutes was spent trying to clear up which of her children had been raped and how. I missed the first half of that interview. I am waiting for a time that I feel a little stronger before I play it back again.

Passing the time in the back garden between engagements. From left to right: Susana (the social worker), Thomas (the photojournalist), Saskia (the writer) and Geoffrey (the translator).

That back garden was also a place of smiles. Laughter as we tried to make a scary movie late one night. I ran into a clothesline chasing Susana around the grass with a camera. A visiting South African farmer drove his 4×4 round to the back garden, helping us cart water from the pump a few hundred meters away where a scowling granny would shake us down for her 200 shillings every time we queued with the village to pump. The car nearly fell into the septic tank when its wheel went through the manhole cover. It became funny only after it was clear that the car would not be following it into the rancid darkness below.

Tom met Gerald, a kid from a nearby hut, there. It’s where they took a shine to each other. Gerald would write stories for Tom, help cart water, talk for ages. If Tom was missing, odds were good Gerald was about in the back garden. I suspect that Gerald is the part of Gulu that Tom will miss most.

We sat there in the evening listening to Richard from the UNHCR draw vast pictures of thousands of internally displaced people returning home after years in the camps. Of the few who cannot return yet. Of the fewer who may never be able to. There we listened to Rose playing African songs on her harp. Talked about our days, or just sat quietly to write.

I’ll miss many things about Gulu, and take a great many more back with me. But they all somehow came back to that back garden that should really have been used a lot less. But wasn’t, and it came to hold everything together.