Nation & World

Images of terror through the eyes of children

4 min read

Basma was 8 when Janjaweed fighters on horseback swept into her village in the Darfur region of Sudan. Above them, helicopter gunships joined in the attack.

Last year, from the safety of a refugee camp in neighboring Chad, Basma rendered the incident in a drawing. She was prompted by a researcher from a United Kingdom-based human rights group called Waging Peace.

Her vividly detailed sketch, in colored pencil, is among 500 collected by researcher Anna Schmitt from children ages 6 to 18. Waging Peace turned them over to the International Criminal Court, which last fall accepted them as contextual evidence of murder and genocide.

Forty-six of the drawings are on display through Dec. 12 in the Collins Family Rotunda at the Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Taubman Building. The exhibit is part of a University-wide commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 30 articles thought to embody humankind’s fundamental rights.

The United Nations document — both widely inspiring and widely ignored — turns 60 years old on Dec. 10.

Human rights? Basma knows at least how easily they can be violated. On the right side of her drawing, the size of a letter, a line of men fire assault rifles. On the left are fleeing figures, including an old woman stooped over a cane. Under dotted lines of bullets, bodies lay sprawled.

In the drawing’s center are intimations of what life was like before the attack: a gaily colored hut, a bird perched on a flowering tree, a pecking rooster. But throughout the piece, each object and figure — hut, tree, rooster, fallen body, tassel-capped fighter — is identified by a feathery scrawl in Arabic. Though briefly, Basma provides the testimony of words as well as pictures.

Since 2003 in Darfur, the poorest of Sudan’s five regions, light-skinned Janjaweed Arab militias — supported by the government of Sudan — have been killing black African villagers and refugees by the hundreds of thousands.

Drawing No. 1 in the exhibit, done by an unnamed boy of 13, clearly shows the ethnic character of the conflict. A light-brown fighter, his rifle on one hip, calmly fires at long-robed men the color of charcoal. Another fighter leads two dark-faced children away, tied at the neck. Slavery — and child soldiers — are part of the Darfur story too.

In response, the United Nations has passed five resolutions since 2004, including ones to halt the flow of arms to Sudan and to deploy a large peacekeeping force. None of the five has been fully implemented.

Last year, Waging Peace collected petition signatures from refugees who fled the fighting in Darfur. Some of them included brief testimonies.

Ahmed, age 13, wrote a few sentences, as plain as they are chilling. Among them: “The Janjaweed and the government burnt our houses, cut our trees, and stole our money and food and animals. They killed the women, the men, the elderly and the young and raped the girls.”

Children are plainspoken, in word and in art, and add a frank vividness to the story of genocide, said exhibit organizer Ana Julia Jatar, communications director at HKS’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

“Adults usually modify reality with their own histories — they fail to express what they actually see,” she said. “Children are different. What they see is what they draw. That is what is so fantastic, and at the same time so terrible, about these drawings.”

Some of the drawings show scenes of a happy life — trees, horses, neat houses, and fields. The details of war (blazing fire, bullets, blood, amputations, rape) are depicted only on one side, in one room, or in the distance. But other drawings, said Jatar, “are just plain horror.”

Drawn art has an unsettling beauty that can go beyond other forms of expression, she said. “Words are sometimes not enough.”