Meha Dixit has a PhD in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her thesis is titled ‘Human Security and Post-Conflict Reintegration of Child Soldiers: Disarmament Demobilisation Reintegration (DDR) Programmes in Mozambique and Sierra Leone.’  She has worked with Amnesty International and Save the Children. She has also taught at Kashmir University.Her latest book, ‘Piece of War’ is a culmination of over a decade long field research in conflict and ‘post-conflict’ zones such as Afghanistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan border (Torkham-Landikotal), Lebanon, including the Lebanon-Syria border, Sierra Leone, Kashmir Valley, India’s Maoist-affected regions of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, and the Indo-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir along the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LoC). It also incorporates interviews of Rohingya refugees along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and at the refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar. Through real-life narratives of people in war-torn zones, this book attempts to uncover the human aspect of war, exhibiting the extraordinary resilience humankind possesses and its ability to cope amid despair and destruction.

Recently in Kolkata in the new year, she was the guest speaker at the prestigious Author’s Afternoon organized by the Prabha Khaitan Foundation. Kolkata-based Prabha Khaitan was a well-known academic, entrepreneur, Hindi novelist and feminist. She translated the famous book, The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, into Hindi.

The Telegraph reported: Everyone has their own prisons, but in militarised societies, these prisons get aggravated,” said Dixit, pointing out that those she met during her travels — from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, from Kashmir to Lebanon — were essentially ordinary people living through extraordinary crises.

 “I was on my way to Jalalabad (in eastern Afghanistan), when both the Taliban and ISIS had their presence there. I had to travel in a shared vehicle, cover myself entirely, and remain absolutely mute during the four-and-a-half hour journey,” recounted Dixit, adding that she could not disclose her Indian identity for fear of being suspected as a spy. Piece of War: Narratives of Resilience and Hope, has been published by Sage-Select, 2020. Price: Rs 450.

Very few academics and journalists choose to travel and document in the extremely difficult and risky conditions prevailing in conflict zones across the world. So, what propelled you to do that?

During my MA in JNU, I was deeply moved by the plight of ex-child soldiers in places such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. Therefore, I decided to work in the area of ‘children in armed conflict’ for which it was imperative for me to travel to conflict or ‘post-conflict’ zones. However, years of travelling to these regions in South Asia, West Africa and the Middle East, and interacting with the locals there, made me want to expand the universe of my research to include ‘civilians’ and explore conflict through their eyes — how they survive, adapt, build resilience and even construct hope in the times of deepest despair.

You wrote a few highly acclaimed pieces from Sierra Leone for Hardnews very early in your journey and research. Tell us about your experiences and understanding about the concept of ‘Blood Diamonds’.

In countries such as Sierra Leone and Angola, diamonds have been used by the militias to fund the fighting during the armed conflict. During the late 1990s,an internationaloutrage against what was being referred as ‘Blood Diamonds’led to the creation of an international governance framework– the Kimberley Process, in the year 2000.

Since its inception, the Kimberly Process has sought to end the trade in conflict, or ‘Blood Diamonds’. For this purpose, it has imposed a set of verification and trade procedures.These procedures, termed as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, were implemented in 2003.A large number of children and youth participated in the conflict in Sierra Leone where militias like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) used diamonds as a major funding resource.

During the conflict, children were used in various roles, including as combatants and labourers in the diamond mines of Koidu in the Kono district. In 2011, during my visit to Sierra Leone, most of over 70 former soldiers (particularly, former child soldiers) I interviewed in the country (Freetown, Bombali district, Moyamba district and Kono district), said that they were abducted or forcibly recruited. Some children were abducted when they were as young as five or six.

Rugged, a former girl soldier, spoke of the brutalities committed by the armed groups, the RUF, in particular. She explained how gratuitous killings, rapes and amputations defaced and bloodied her mesmeric country, her home, leaving its landscape funereal and turning its turquoise seas and lush forests blood red.

“When I was just six, I was captured in the Tonkolili district by a rebel commander from the RUF called RAMBO (he was one of the leading commanders trained by Foday Sankoh – the founder of RUF). I was frequently gang-raped and was made to engage in cleaning and cooking. At the age of seven, I was given a gun and received orders to shoot, but I could not pull the trigger,” she explained.

Referring to the war in Mozambique, Carolyn Nordstrom has been quoted in your book that every individual in a war lives the war differently. This is in striking contrast to the cliched generalization of the lived experience of war, the suffering, the resistance, the survival instinct. Please explain. 

In conflict zones across the world, while there may be a sense of collective suffering, or, collective fear, and, even a collective sense of belonging to a particular community, the usage of the term ‘collective’ also entails the risk of overlooking the nuances of how different individuals may react differently to a similar situation, or, what can be described as “an individual’s unique reality” as noted by Carolyn Nordstrom. Similarly, not each one of them would exhibit the same kind of resilience; some may be more resilient to suffering and pain than the others.

The cases of Amir, Asif and others from Kashmir discussed in the chapter ‘Children of War’reflect that not all young people or individuals will react and respond to conflict situations in the same manner. This is because despite belonging to a certain community, ethnicity or group and possessing a collective sense of being part of that community, each individual, in certain ways, lives war differently.

You insist that despite the collective suffering, there are unique and authentic stories. Tell us about the differences and similarities of the unique and shared experiences of war, the singular and many original stories in conflict zones, such as in Kashmir or Afghanistan, or, in the Middle-East. 

During my visit to Afghanistan, locals who had lived under the Taliban rule, spoke about similar experiences of shared suffering. In Kashmir, most locals, young people in particular, spoke about the shared experiences of anxiety or anger towards the heavy militarization of the Valley. These life-experiences were, in some ways, different during the conflict in Sierra Leone, along the India-Pakistan border, the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and Maoist or Naxal areas in India.This reflects specific socio-cultural, political and economic context of the region, which makes the experience unique.

Yet, there are certain overarching experiences of political violence, the destruction of life, and the banality of death, which are universal to all conflict zones. Therefore, while certain communities in a conflict zone may have shared experiences of war,different from other communities in the same region,violence and suffering cut across all conflict zones. At the same time, each individual lives and experiences war differently in certain ways.

As explained by Mehraj, an 11th standard Kashmiri student, who is originally from Sopore, “Yahan jitne log hain, utni hi kahaniyaan hai…” (There are as many stories in Kashmir as are the number of individuals here).

Children are kidnapped, including girl children, in Sierre Leone, gang-raped, bruatlised, turned into slave labour, forced into becoming killing machines when their fingers can’t even pull the trigger of a gun. You have interviewed so many children out there, as in Sierre Leone. How did they cope with it once they survived it all and became adults?

Child soldiers were officially included in the Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process in Sierra Leone. Yet, in practice, the number of ex-boy soldiers actually demobilised were quite small. Most girl soldiers were marginalized. And disarmament and demobilisation were given precedence over economic and psychosocial reintegration.

Many former child combatants I interacted with were disillusioned with the DDR process, while others were satisfied due to various skills-training programmes. Although several ex-child combatants were still facing severe hardships when I met them in 2011, there were also those who reintegrated reasonably well in society and many of them have been accepted by their families and communities.The community-based approach and traditional healing mechanisms used by the civil society organizations and communities played a significant role in the reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-child soldiers.

Overall, DDR of child soldiers in Sierra Leone had mixed results. While disarmament was considered successful, demobilisation and particularly reintegration programmes had many shortcomings – skills-training programmes mostly lasted few months;reintegration period was short-lived; there were no effective monitoring mechanisms to assess the ex-child combatants’ post-conflict situation. Some of the skills learnt by ex-child soldiers through the DDR were not sustainable, and, in several cases, skills-training programmes did not lead to job opportunities.

In the aftermath of the long brutal war, a number of girls and boys formerly associated with the armed groups, especially the RUF, pointed out that they experienced some sort of rejection and/or were stigmatised by their families and community due to the atrocities they had committed during the conflict. A number of children were permanently tattooed with the symbols or marks of armed militias. Consequently, these young people were confronted with stigma and rejection.

Some ex-child combatants showed me their tattoos, such as tiger, scorpion or a leaf marked on their bodies by the commanders. Mohammad S Turay, a former child soldier said: “I was captured by the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) in Koinadugu district when I was just 14. I was given RPG mortar. They forced me to kill my enemies. They tattooed me with the scorpion mark. I was with the AFRC for three years. Then, I ran away with Alex, my commander.  I joined the Small Boys Unit with the West Side Boys. The WSB was very wicked to their enemies. In 2000, I disarmed at Lungi camp. I learnt driving for three months. But I was not given a license. Now, I wash cars.

How do people who have suffered so intensely cope with trauma? Can music, poetry, cinema, theatre, care, humanism and compassion help? Do they need medical treatment, or, do they suffer the trauma all their lives?

War or armed conflict is likely to affect the mental health of all individuals who have lived through the fighting or continue to live amidst it. Yet, some may be more vulnerable to depression and anxiety than the others, and the capacity of each individual to deal with war-induced violence may vary. Impact of the armed conflict can be determined by social, economic, psychological and environmental factors such as death of friends or family members, family and community breakdown, the destruction of home and loss of livelihood, and the collapse of the social system.The direct impact of the conflict or exposure to violence is likely to make an individual more vulnerable to war-stress. For instance, witnessing the death of a friend or family member(s) in conflict-induced violence such as armed attacks, being compelled to flee due to the destruction of their homes or a threat to one’s life, or even being exposed to bombings, killings and attacks.

As Nasima from Nowhatta in Srinagar, Kashmir mentioned, “Life goes on as normal, at least for me, unless I witness an incident of violence during the turmoil. When I am exposed to killings and violence, it tends to have a huge impact on my psyche.”

In some cases, the exposure to violence may leave a deep scar within the psyche of an individual.  Acongenial environment and family and community support can play a huge role in alleviating the adverse effects of war-induced violence. Individuals and communities may use different creative mechanisms to deal with the constant stress in conflict zones.Arts, music, poetry, sports and even humour(rather, dark humour) are significant means through which individuals may be able tocope during the harshest times.

Amid the destruction or absurdity of war, creativity may offer a meaning to one’s life. Through creativity, an individual who has experienced war-induced violence that has adversely affected his/her perspective of life, may be able to find the resilience and hope to carry on.

Creative expression through arts, poetry and music may also act as a catharsis, thereby relieving a person of the stress or trauma she/he may have accumulated over a period of time. In fact, those who are unable to verbalise their trauma for various reasons may find it easier to express themselves through sketches and drawings, even writing,which may not just relieve their stress, but also enable a therapistto provide them with appropriate therapy.Psychologists have frequently employed this approach in different conflict zoneswith children who were grappling with conflict-induced trauma.

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The successful launch of her book on conflict zones has yet again focused the gaze on the trauma and violence of war-stressed conflict zones. And, yet, amidst the deepest despair, hope lurks. Amit Sengupta talks to author Meha Dixit.
‘Each individual lives and experiences war differently’