Monday, November 19, 2012

Conflict and Cause: children lost in the rubble

Children in Gaza, 2009, from UK Guardian
The documentary film, Gaza Strip, by James Longley was released in 2002. The New York Times review says that "it provides a grim, upsetting glimpse at the lives of some of the 1.2 million Palestinians who live in the crowded cities and refugee camps of Gaza." Seen mostly through the eyes of a thirteen-year old newspaper vendor, Mohammed Hejazi, and absent an Israeli perspective, it gives a one-sided view of this very complex situation. Shot with a hand-held camera in the "cinema verite" style ("truthful cinema") it is powerful piece, particularly in light of current events. Along with the equally insightful, Promises, about a group of Arab and Israeli children living separate and unequal lives within 20 minutes drive of each other, these films help us clearly, but sadly, understand the role of violence in the social construction of hate and discrimination as seen through the eyes of middle school children in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

 ( See also, Palestinian Children's Relief Fund, politics aside )

In July, 2011, I mentioned both of these films in a post entitled "Soldiers, Children and War,"  about a report describing Palestinian children detained and jailed by the Israeli army over a five-year period, some as young as eight and nine years old (Guardian UK "Hundreds of Palestinian minors jailed for throwing stones, says report"). The films, the report, the news, and now the current escalation of hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis, all give evidence that children raised amid violence may well grow up normalizing violence.

Moreover, when sixty years on journalists are reporting from "Maghazi Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip" the very meaning of the words "refugee camp" (prominent in the film Promises), defined by Collins online dictionary as "a camp for sheltering and protecting people who have fled from some danger or problem, especially political persecution," and understood by most accounts to be a temporary solution, needs to be reexamined.  The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) defines today's Palestinian refugees as "those who are descendants of the original Palestine refugees" and "whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." In 1950 when they began, the UNRWA was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services and "one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.4 million, live in 58 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem."

This morning, in an article in New York Times, "Today Brigades Fire on Israel with a New Discipline," we see how, in their everyday lives, children raised under occupation are socialized towards violence. Read together with Sarah Mousa's first person narrative in Al Jazeera, "Notes from Gaza" (she graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010 and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt), we see how violence becomes a regular part of day-to-day living, leading to the emergence of a military force that is described as inseparable from the social fabric and lived environment of the refugees in Gaza. The New York Times reports that "Most Qassam fighters have day jobs — as police officers, university professors, ministry clerks." They live in a "150-square-mile strip with 1.5 million people who know one another’s business, and parents are proud when their sons enlist." Civilian soldiers fighting in communities where they work and raise their families. Sounds familiar.

From the time he was a boy, Ali al-Manama dreamed of joining the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Hamas movement. His commitment intensified when his father, a Qassam fighter, was killed by an Israeli drone in 2001 as he fired mortar shells over the border. Ali joined up at 15, relatives said, and by 23 had risen to be a commander in this neighborhood in the midsection of this coastal Palestinian territory. 

His wish to die fighting and become a martyr — and the honor it would bring in his community — was fulfilled Saturday morning at 7:30, though the missile struck him not while he was in active combat, but while talking on a cellphone that Israeli intelligence might have used to track his whereabouts. 

“He had been telling us all week about all the achievements of Qassam,” Mahmoud said. “When he heard about the rockets in Israel, he would be very proud.” 

In a quote reminiscent of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War (I am not comparing the political aspects of these two groups) who hid their arsenals in barns on family farms, we learn that in Gaza "military storehouses are woven into residential neighborhoods." 

The article continues:

. . . .most fighters join at the age of 16 or 17, and spend about a year in religious indoctrination, security education, and finally combat training before secret induction ceremonies in which they take an oath on the Koran.

Sarah Mousa's "Notes from Gaza" is a personal account of the bombings in Gaza.  In this piece she also compares the current situation to the 2009 invasion. Below, her words could be describing footage from Gaza Strip filmed, in 2001 or Promises, filmed between 1995 and 2000, or any other hostility in Gaza in the last 45 years. The Arab children featured in the aforementioned films living in refugee camps, if they are still alive, could be the young adults mentioned in today's news.

From the moment I entered Gaza, the blockade and destruction were apparent. Barbed wire fences line the territory's land border with Israel, navy ships are visible off the shore, and drones occasionally hover above. Gaza is indeed a prison, with tight controls on entrance and exit. Although nearly four years have passed since the last major incursion into Gaza, buildings were still left destroyed, as prohibitions on construction materials leave rebuilding nearly impossible.

When I arrived at the home of my friend Jeje, a young college student majoring in English, her demeanour made me almost forget where I was. Her friendly greeting and her mother's fish and spicy salads stood in contrast to the scene around us. As I drove up to Jeje's home, I passed by a crater-sized hole, which when prompted she later told me was from a missile that had barely missed her home in the 2009 invasion and shattered her windows, which are yet to be replaced due to restrictions on glass. As we walked through Gaza City, my friend pointed to the destroyed homes of a few of her classmates, no longer alive.

Throughout my time there, I continued to see contradictions. Children played joyously in the rubble of destroyed buildings. Young students, well-informed and outspoken, self-professed "tweeps", refused to surrender to their circumstances. When asked what the "outside world" (that is what Gazans call everything outside of the territory, land that is for many of them beyond reach) should know about Gaza, they insisted that they not be portrayed as humanitarian victims, as people starving in need of aid. Instead, they wanted light to be shed on and action to be taken against the daily violations of basic rights which they endure.

Much better writers with more experience and knowledge of this conflict will continue to analyze unfolding events in Israel and the Gaza Strip. As an outsider, I am in no position to offer insight or opinion to match first person accounts or political, military and academic expertise.  However, I want to point out, as presented in the news and other media, how children living generation after generation in refugee camps, their homes patrolled by a well-trained and heavily armed military, their communities secured by armed guards at check-points, their routines subject to question at any time, the air they breathe and the streets in which they play filled with the sight and smell of gunfire, will find their own ways to give meaning to their lives when other avenues are denied, even if that means the possibility of violence or death.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Little Girls in the (Boxing) Ring

Last night in class I screened a film about child slavery called Stolen Childhoods. It shows heart wrenching footage of children working in the carpet industry in Nepal chained to their looms; kids picking coffee in Kenya, hands burning from the chemicals on the plants; and eight-year-old girls, bonded laborers, making bricks and working in stone quarries in India. Around the world today, there are a quarter million children today working for wages that amount to peanuts - if they receive wages at all after their meager food, housing and penalties for mistakes have been subtracted and interest added to their daily life of toil. Even in the United States, children as young as ten can legally do farm work in Texas. Then, this morning, while checking out the latest news from the Asia Society I learned about the film Buffalo Girls  (see clip above) about child boxers in Thailand: there are 30,000 of them in the ring all over the country.

(See also Child Labor ).

The movie highlights two: is it ethnocentric of me to judge families that encourage their eight-year-old daughters to fight? The film maker takes a more balanced view, read below. From their official web site, the inside story of Buffalo Girls:

In rural Thailand, the buffalo is a revered animal to the farmers who work with and care for them. They are symbols of Hard Work, Patience, Strength and Loyalty.  In the big cities of Thailand the word has taken on another meaning. It's now also a derogatory way of describing someone from the rural provinces; someone who works hard and doesn't think or talk too much.  
Let's take a closer look at Stam and Pet's lives, and see which category they, and the 30,000 kids who fight for their families,
fall into.

BUFFALO GIRLS is the wrenching, sometimes heartbreaking story of two eight-year-old Thai girls seeking their country’s national Muay Thai championship and a cash prize that could change their families’ lives forever. BUFFALO GIRLS has its world premiere at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

BUFFALO GIRLS will undoubtedly provoke widely varying responses from audiences. To westerners, the participation of children in Muay Thai may appear reprehensible and indefensible. Fighting without headgear and incurring bruises, bloody noses and even broken bones, there is certainly a physical toll on the children. But in a country where the per capita income is less than 10% of that of the United States, there are other harsh realities to consider. The impoverished farming communities of rural Thailand offer few opportunities for people to better their lives and boxing is one of the few alternatives to the country’s commercial sex trade as a means of escaping the extreme poverty. There are some 30,000 chidren under the age of 15 fighting in the rings of rural Thailand

Muay Thai itself is a 700-year-old martial art with a long, cherished history in Thailand. In ancient times, it was accepted as the area’s best defense against invaders. Today, the sport retains a spiritual element and the combatants perform a series of rituals and blessings as they prepare to fight. Only in recent years has it become acceptable for females to be near the action, let alone enter the ring. For the villages involved, an evening of boxing becomes a communal event with farmers and laborers enthusiastically betting on the matches. With their limited incomes and little or no access to affordable credit, gambling is viewed as a viable part of the local economy and a means of increasing their meager resources.

For Pet and Stam, the eight-year-old protagonists of BUFFALO GIRLS, boxing is an opportunity to help their parents supplement the family income and improve their standard of living. Child boxers in Thailand can often earn as much as half of a family’s monthly rent from a single bout, sometimes taking home more than what a farmer or factory worker earns in a month.

The girls work with professional trainers, doing sit-ups and push-ups, lifting weights and running in preparation for upcoming fights. Although petite, both Stam and Pet exhibit a lean, powerful athleticism in the ring. As a younger child, the earnest, studious Pet was often sick and has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. Her parents credit boxing with improving her health. The more exuberant, animated Stam glows with confidence from her participation in the sport.

“When I first saw the children boxing, I absolutely thought it was horrible,” states director Todd Kellstein. But after spending two years in the rural Thai provinces documenting this world, Kellstein admits that his overall perspective has changed. His initial anger with the parents of the children for putting them in the ring gave way to a resigned empathy for their circumstances. “It is difficult to understand the economic circumstances that lead to child boxing, but what now angers me is economic inequalities in the world. These circumstances exist and we should think of ways to make it better for everyone. Not just in Thailand, but everywhere.”