Playing Soldiers

Yesterday I went to watch a demonstration in the camp. It was the anniversary of the foundation of the Arab Liberation Front (a Ba’athist-associated minor faction within the PLO) and another significant date associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (another political faction – this time closely associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah – with a particularly dark past that has included attacks on school children), and so two parades had been organised through the streets and alleyways of Beddawi Camp.

The residents are, understandably, very cautious of foreigners taking photos, especially when they are kitted up with guns and demonstrating. Luckily, I went with a colleague who wanted to borrow my camera to take some photos for a website. Some of the shots are quite remarkable, and the things that I saw yesterday have been playing through my mind ever since. Among the standard armed militiamen in fatigues and carrying Kalashnikovs, and the local Sheikhs and members of the Popular Committees (all old men – the de facto political leadership in the camps), were a startling number of children.

Some of these kids were members of the Palestinian Scout Association. They looked smart, in neat uniforms, playing drums and bagpipes, waving flags, and with obvious pride at being in the parade. Others were in replica military uniforms, some as young as 6-7, either holding replica weapons or real guns. There’s something really quite overwhelming about seeing a young boy carrying an assault rifle, struggling under the weight of it while he marches along with his father. One can’t call them child soldiers as this was just a march and not a battle. But it makes me wonder where, in the event of a conflict, would the community draw the age line? When I asked a colleague about this he said simply that, if these Palestinians are attacked, everyone in the community would be involved in fighting back.

The photoset from the parades leaves me in a real quandary. Firstly, I wasn’t the one behind the lens so they strictly speaking aren’t my photos to share. What is more, they contain faces of people who would not want me to share them, and the faces of children who deserve protection and anonymity. Nevertheless, I desperately want to show people what I saw, and for them to be shocked as I was. I’ll not publish the photos (except the one above as it contains no faces), but I will describe one of them.

The highlight of the set was a picture of a young boy, no older than 9-10, at the front of one of the parades. He was wearing military fatigues, a beret, and had a floral wreath around his neck to be laid at a monument in the centre of the camp. His face was ruddy-cheeked, open, and with truly startling eyes – one bright, icy blue, one dark brown. I’ve been trying not to get carried away in florid metaphor, but in this case it’s possibly forgivable. Everything about the child, about the community, seemed to be contained in those heterochromatic eyes. One eye held the brightness of hope, innocence, pride, and the possibility of a better tomorrow that is embodied by children. The other seemed to contain the darkness of violence, fear, anger and despair that has been this community’s past, and may still yet be their future.

(I’ve just been told that the ribbon on the wreath around the boy’s neck bears the name of the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command’. Given their history of targeting children, that’s pretty chilling too.)

For me, the most troubling aspect of seeing armed children is not just the immorality of placing children at risk, but the fact that it saps away all hope for a better future for a community. If children are made to feel proud to be armed, and if this is the only way they are taught to resist or seek change, then it closes down the possibility that they will find their own, peaceful way to pursue the justice and freedoms they will want in their lives.

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