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47: Growing into gunplay

Nick Allen
With the approach of Eid and the associated gifts of money to children that is often spent on toy guns, Afghanistan Today reflects on the pervasive lure of firearms for kids in Afghanistan and beyond.
4.08.2013  |  Berlin
A member of the group of Kunduz children who campaigned this week for an end to sales of toy guns. (Photo: Gul Rahim Niazman)
A member of the group of Kunduz children who campaigned this week for an end to sales of toy guns. (Photo: Gul Rahim Niazman)

Amid the torrent of war-related stories from Afghanistan it would have been easy to miss the recent protest action by 20 Kunduz schoolchildren. It was also war-related in essence, consisting of a leafleting drive to urge local stall owners to stop selling toy guns and to stock more notebooks. Fortunately, Afghanistan Today contributor Gul Rahim Niazman photographed an event that was much larger in significance than scale (see Afghan Eye).

As a foreigner who travelled widely around the country in the past decade, often in the company of heavily armed people, I always wondered what the children really make of the conflict around them. What are they told at home about who the good and the bad guys are, and are boys encouraged to prepare to take up arms as adults to defend whichever camp the parents are rooted in? Does growing up in a society wracked by violence inevitably mean boys will yearn to bear arms anyway, even if their parents try to cultivate an interest in sports, science, maths and geography?

I will admit immediately that I personally know few families in Afghanistan and can only judge by the reactions of the kids I met briefly on my travels. Some kept their distance from foreign soldiers, presumably after parents warned that there can be shooting and bombs around these strangers in their armour and dark glasses. Foot patrols still always drew children, and boys especially. They would clamour for pens and chocolate, but there was also a deeper fascination for these uniformed figures from another world. And fascination for the weapons they carry, different in design from the Kalashnikov and fitted with intriguing sights, bipods and grenade launchers.

Fatal attraction

Children figure prominently in the latest civilian casualty figures released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, indicating a 23 per cent rise in the number over 2012. The reasons for the tragedies are many, but the fact that children accounted for 80 per cent of around 150 civilians killed or injured this year while scavenging on abandoned foreign bases suggests again an obsession with objects of war.

Sure, the kids will be on the lookout for food, clothing and furniture they can take home or sell. But it is the tampering with discarded munitions that swells these grim statistics. Shell cases also have scrap metal value, but their military origin also attracts curious hands. One week ago, I talked to my father about growing up in London during the Second World War. Scouring the streets and ruins for shrapnel from German bombs was the main hobby of boys living in the city, he said.  

In Afghanistan there is also a powerful legacy of stories of fighting prowess from the jihad of the 1980s and the civil war. These inevitably fuel dreams of personal glory in battle among the current generation of children. And then there are billboards dotting the roadsides and cities that promote the national security forces, who are shown proudly bearing arms for their country.

Similarly, children of families involved in the insurgency will lap up the combat stories of returning fathers, brothers and uncles. And for many on both sides, the desire to avenge a relative’s violent death will burn strongly.   

Fever pitch

A group portrait turns into a display of simulated shooting in Khakrez, 2008. (Photo: Nick Allen)

However, the simple fact of exposure to weapons is still a root cause of what could be termed ‘gun-glamour’. I remember how one freezing day in 2008 a group of boys posed for a photograph in Khakrez, Kandahar Province, as British soldiers and ANP officers milled around us.

As they looked into my lens, the boys began simulating shooting motions and noises, working themselves up and baring teeth in an overexcited snarl. Khakrez had been subjected to heavy close-quarters attacks, so the boys knew the devastating effect of firearms. Yet it was also evidently enshrined in their psyche, imbued with some desirable quality and never far from their daily games. The whole scene left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable.  

Then there is the basic danger of being mistaken for insurgents. In 2007, ISAF released a statement urging parents to tell children not to play with toy guns near military patrols, lest the toys be mistaken for the real thing. Troops had reported an increase in the number of replica or toy guns being sighted after the Eid holidays, when children usually get extra money to spend.

Time for rainbows

The topic of children and weapons arose at Afghanistan Today's February workshop. A story we had produced for a British football magazine about the Afghan Premier League was published with some shock-value photos of a burning bus and a grinning urchin brandishing a plastic AK-47. The suggestion was implicit that  Afghan kids are bloodthirsty from the start  and grow up simply to fight.

Proud to bear arms - but at the right age. (Photo: Nick Allen)

Given the magazine’s target audience, some sensationalism was to be expected, and to be fair, they left the text itself in more or less its original, sensation-free form. But as I stood before our Afghan colleagues, I still felt outrage at the insinuation. The point I made to them in response was that in Afghanistan children grow up surrounded by armed men, and war and gunplay has become a facet of life in the past 30 years. Who could fault them for any mimicry?

But in my UK homeland we have very few armed police on the streets, let alone hordes of  soldiers. Yet the fascination for weapons and war among boys and youths strikes me as being equally or more pronounced there and definitely more unhealthy. It comes from the multi-billion dollar movie and video game industries, and their desensitizing, damaging effects on young minds is indisputable.

Afghanistan needs law and order, and people who will bear arms to ensure it. At the same time, the authorities should embrace positive occurrences like the Kunduz protest, and at the very least add more billboards around the country that promote books over rifles and learning over marksmanship.

It is not the issue here, but is worth noting that they wouldn’t be the first. Two years ago, Afghan artist Kabir Mokamel designed a series of privately sponsored billboards around Kabul that transformed weapons of war with butterflies, pens and rainbows.

Nick Allen is the editor-in-chief of Afghanistan Today