Several weeks ago, a YouTube video of children acting out a suicide bombing mission was discovered on YouTube. The video takes place somewhere around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border; the children were determined to be part of a pashtun, or religious school, based on their clothing. It has since been picked up by the press – days later by the New York Times, and recently again by the BBC. In the video, young children – some perhaps no older than three – enact a suicide bombing mission in a game that we shall refer to here as “Suicide Bomber”:
A brief synopsis: A child dressed as a bomber walks before a line of other children. He embraces his smiling friends as a final farewell – several of them grin at the camera. Then he proudly walks forward and confronts another boy dressed in white who, acting as a checkpoint officer, puts his hand up to signal ‘Stop!’ The first child lifts his clothes to reveal explosives and rushes forward towards the fleeing guard and three other boys in a cluster. One of the children (one of the victims, the boy dressed in yellow) throws up a huge cloud of dust and everyone collapses in a heap; the other boys rush up to see. The camera moves over them to focus on the faces and show the results of the attack. The child playing the bomber cannot contain his grin, but quickly becomes serious again. The music being played is a favorite war song of the Taliban about a young man going off to war and how good he looks while carrying his machinegun.
The press’ coverage has interpreted the video as training children to become suicide bombers. UNICEF and other groups according to the BBC have rightly condemned the video while a Taliban spokesman, though denying they produced it and saying he was “saddened” that the children were playing this game, gave a propagandistic response that “they should do it because this is a war that was imposed upon us.” The spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, stressed to the New York Times that they accept children as young as 18 to become suicide bombers, but this runs counter to reports and arrests of children – one as young as 14 – arrested for attempting to blow themselves up. So children suicide bombers is certainly something that our soldiers and the Afghan security forces are worried about, and – particularly given the recent trends in ‘serious games’ to teach soldiers and civilians new skills – is inevitably feared as a propagandistic training video. As the New York Times puts it, “the message is clear: This is something to aspire to.”
But is the “message” of this game really that “clear”? One of the things that strikes me about this coverage is that the play itself is ambiguous, and yet most people have accepted this as a training video. One thing that appears missing from the discussion is the critical and historical perspective.
Simply put, children play games in war zones all the time – play appears to be essential to a child’s well-being and as Brian Sutton-Smith tells us in his seminal Ambiguity of Play, the absence of play within children is a symptom of something terribly wrong with that child. Though is all too easy to think that play could not exist within such terrible circumstances it inevitably does – even within concentration camps.
George Eisen’s 1990 book, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows describes and analyzes several types of games that were played in the ghettos and concentration camps. One of these was “gate patrol” where children would reenact Jewish workers returning to camp, trying to smuggle food in under the watch of other children playing as guards. Yet another was “Klepsi Klepsi”, or ‘stealing’, where one child would be blindfolded while the others would slap him as hard as they could and then when the blindfold was removed, playing innocent. The goal of the slapper was to escape punishment while the child who was slapped had to read the body language of the other children to identify who hit him.
Eisen describes these games as a reflection of the culture that surrounds them as well as an attempt to gain control over that environment:
Play provided the children with a “buffered learning,” an activity frame in which one could learn to be safe in an abnormal situation, without worrying about being out of control. Thus children took into their lives naturally even the death that surrounded them. In spite of their elders’ desperate efforts to shelter them from the atrocities, their games in the ghettos and camps reflected, inevitably, the surrounding horror.
Thus, “Klepsi Klepsi” might be seen as both a reflection of the brutality and conditions in which the children lived but also as a means of learning techniques that could help them, such as being able to identify who was guilty in a situation and how to hide guilt. In addition, it helped give the children an escape mechanism through imagination.
This puts “Suicide Bomber” in a slightly different light and highlights the ambiguity of the game. Is it, as the Taliban and the press want us to believe, a training video? Or is it the equivalent to “Klepsi Klepsi” and other ghetto and concentration camp games, as a means of finding means to cope with a horrible situation through the safety of play? The children in the video express joy and laughter, both at the absurdity of the situation and the presence of the camera. There is certainly an element of chaos within the dramatically billowing cloud of dust that would appeal to what Roger Caillois defined as ilinx, or vertigo, the form of play that finds joy in chaos, not unlike the dancing and tumbling of “Ring around the Rosie”. (Of course there is also mimicry present here as well through the costumes and reenactment, and this is where the concerns of the authorities lie).
Here it is important to note that the cameraman’s identity is unknown, though given height of the camera angle, it seems to be an adult man – probably the same person who added the Taliban song and posted it on YouTube. What is unclear, however, is whether the man is encouraging them to play this game or merely recording a game that was happening anyway.
The bottom line is that the play is ambiguous, and as a result, everyone finds their own interpretation, and the video put to serve the agenda of any party whether it be the Taliban, UNICEF, or police and security forces in Afghanistan. The one part of the discussion that is missing and that we ultimately will probably never know is what the children think of “Suicide Bomber”. If there is one thing that is clear about the video though, it is that the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan – and likely in Iraq as well – will play “Suicide Bomber” because terrorism is a fact of life for them.