BOOKS / In the frame: I dream of peace

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The Independent Culture
'IN former Yugoslavia, harming children has become a strategy of war.'

Sometimes, bald and almost bureaucratic prose is the most powerful. James Grant, Unicef's executive director, contributes a short Introduction to I Dream of Peace: Images of War by Children of Former Yugoslavia (HarperCollins / Unicef pounds 8.99) which makes a striking addition to the paintings, quotes and poems that form the book itself. He presents the facts and figures fairly coolly, beginning with the observation that whereas wars 'used to be fought between soldiers and on the battlefield', the whole of everyday civilian life is now the battleground (almost every one of the pictures in this book contains bombed and broken houses, homes), and the weakest are its chief targets. Again as cool as ice, Grant observes: 'The trend systematically to make children targets of atrocities reflects a retrogression in human behaviour.'

Retrogression is one way of putting it. While we are watching Schindler's List - presumably a thing we can only bear to do if we are secure in the knowledge that such things are firmly in the past - a 13-year-old refugee called Alik is writing this:

The soldiers ordered us out of our house and then burned it down. After that, they took us to the train, where they ordered all the men to lie down on the ground.

From the group, they chose the ones they were going to kill. They picked my uncle and a neighbour. Then they machine-gunned them to death. After that, the soldiers put the women in the front cars of the train and the men in the back. As the train started moving, they disconnected the back cars and took the men off and to the camps. I saw it all.

Now I can't sleep. I try to forget, but it doesn't work. I have such difficulty feeling anything anymore. Forcible taking-away (of women and children - or children alone - to camps, of men to war) is a theme the children draw and describe over and over again. I Dream of Peace presents its material without comment, except the words of the children themselves. It's all too easy for charity books such as this to fall into the worst sort of sentimentality - thereby allowing us the worst sort of cynical indifference (why is it that if it's soppy and embarrassing, we can turn away with a clearer conscience?). In this one, it's the power of the pictures that cancels all such carping qualifications. Almost all show a broken home, in the literal sense; they can all (as my seven- year-old pointed out with admiration) draw planes really well. Almost all use the colour red - on first flipping through the book, the colours look rich, even jaunty. That is, until we see that the deep magentas are fire and explosion, that the poppies blooming on the limbs of the stick figures in 'We were only going to the shops' are bursts of blood on the children's shattered arms and legs; that the scarlet pansy in the tummy of a five-year- old's self portrait is entitled 'Fear in me'. In 'Children forced to leave', a 12-year-old boy's careful pen drawing of a bus, and children with suitcases hugging their parents, is executed in tidy black and white - except for, here and there, dribbles of red emerging from the windows of the ruined houses behind, forming small, neat pools in front of each building.

The pictures - whose authors are identified only by a first name, and sometimes the name of a place - reveal much more besides. Lettering, for instance - sometimes the Serbian Cyrillic, sometimes the Croatian Roman - shows how the great divide is now even enshrined in the written language. And suddenly, with a sinking of the heart, we realise - as we look at the picture by 14-year-old Ratko called 'Daddy don't go to war', of a confused-looking soldier with his child clinging to his ankle - that the beloved fathers of some of these children are the very monsters and murderers of whom others, even within the covers of this small book, are living in terror.

And then we also perhaps realise what it is that we are going to expect of these children in the future. This book arises from the use of art therapy to treat children suffering from traumas induced by violence, separation and war. As James Grant says: 'We now know that the after-effects of traumatic events can last even longer than a lifetime, transmitted by parents to their children, and so continuing the bitter cycle of hatred.' It was because the parents and grandparents of the children whose plea for peace forms this book could not break the cycle of hatred visited on them by their forebears that this war is happening. For these children, perhaps, there is hope for change: if only because the need is recognised. They will not only have to survive, but, in the future, find a way to live at peace. They deserve our help.

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