How can children and young people help us re-visualise war and peace?

Regular listeners to the Visualising War podcast might remember that our first guest interview was with Lady Lucy French, the founder of Never Such Innocence, an organisation which gives children and young people a voice on conflict. We have been really inspired by their work, and as the podcast series has developed we have been nudged again and again to think more about the forces that shape children’s habits of visualising war and peace – and also the power of children and young people’s voices to influence how all of us think about war, its aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building. 

‘Eyes Wide Shut, Mind Wide Open’ by Vasko Stamboliev, 2018

Building on this, Alice König has begun collaborating with a wide range of researchers in childhood studies, critical security studies, peace studies and futures thinking, to develop an extensive network of academics and practitioners to ask some of the following questions:

  • What kinds of war stories are children of different ages most regularly exposed to in different parts of the world (through films, gaming, school curricula, local folklore, graffiti, news reports, and so on)? What aspects of war dominate the narratives that children are exposed to? And what narratives about war’s aftermath, conflict transformation and peace-building tend to circulate in the media they most regularly engage with?
  • What do children and young people think about the dominant modes of representing war and peace? How do they describe the impact which different narratives of war and peace have had on them? And how differently might they represent or narrate war, conflict transformation and peace if they were in charge of the storytelling themselves? 
  • Finally, what impact can children’s voices have on entrenched adult habits of visualising war and peace?

Alice will be working with lots of different storytellers in different fields (the museum sector, the world of comics and anime, journalism for young people, gaming, and the publishing industry, among others); but above all, she will be involving children and young people in the project, so that we can learn directly from them.

For this reason, she decided that the 50th episode in the Visualising War podcast series should bring young people into the conversation, kicking off this new project as we mean to go on. She invited three recent Never Such Innocence competition winners to be guests on the podcast: Molly Meleady-Hanley, Jasleen Singh, and Vasko Stamboliev (all of whom now serve as inspiring Never Such Innocence Ambassadors). They shared their memories of the war stories they grew up with, and they also reflected on how war and peace were taught in the different school systems (in Greece, Serbia, Australia, Ireland and England) which they were part of. They talked about the writing and artwork they have done themselves, to express their own views on conflicts past, present and future; and they explained how empowering it has been to have their voices heard, thanks to the opportunities which Never Such Innocence has given them to speak with many different young people from all around the world and to address world leaders in lots of different places, from Buckingham Palace to the Bundestag.

Below you can see the poems by Molly and Jasleen, and above the painting by Vasko, which were awarded first prize in their age groups in the 2018 Never Such Innocence competition. We strongly encourage readers to visit the Never Such Innocence website to look at many more winning entries from their annual competitions – it is a mind-opening experience! A small sample of work is available here. And of course, please do listen to the podcast, where you can hear directly from Jasleen, Molly and Vasko themselves. The podcast we recording with Lady Lucy French at the start of our series is available here.

Me Brother Dan by Molly Meleady-Hanley (Written in the Sheffield Dialect)

Me brother Dan went off to war, marching down Duke Street with his pals.
Heads held high, while the Sheffield crowd clapped and cheered them so!
Me Mam wept and me Dad said:-
“Gi’ore Molly. Be proud. Be happy for our lad. He’s serving his King and Country in a just war.”

Six Weeks later, we got a fancy Can Can card from our Dan.
Reet chuffed we were. Dad read it out, puffed up chest, loud and clear.
Dad said, Dan was doing well and our Dan wished us all good cheer.

Tucking card in’t pocket, he went off down road to get hisen a beer.
Ten weeks later, on Skye Edge Fields, a neighbour came calling us from play.
Saying :- “Come quick Lizzie, yer Mam needs yer - reet away!”
Opening our door, on Talbot Row, we heard Banshee screaming.
Our Mam, paper crumpled on’t floor, sobbing and rocking, hands to heaven.
“Why did he have to die? Me son, me son, me only son!” she cried.
Dan’s body never came home.

He lies without us, in some distant land.
In a place me Mam will never be able to go.
And so she trudges every day to Norfolk Row.
Saying prayers and lighting holy candles for our Dan and other mothers' sons.
These other boys whose lives too will never grow.

And me, well… I keep asking mesen
“Why do they kill caterpillars and then complain that there are no butterflies?”
Me Dad said:- “Listen up our Lizzie. Them there caterpillars and butterflies have
died to keep us all safe and free
You’ll learn that one day me love, when you’re wise from being worn with care.
Until then me Liz, be proud and thankful for the sacrifice our Dan and is pals made for thee."

The Indian Soldier by Jasleen Singh

Home is where the heart is 
I heard a British Soldier say that here 
If that is true my love 
My home is a long, long way from here
My heart is under the mango tree 
Where its sweet blossoms smile almost as wide as me 
Instead shells are pouring like the rains in the monsoon 
Only we don’t know for certain that these will ever stop 

My heart is wandering somewhere far away from this God forsaken land 
Where night is never silent and stars are never seen 
Our richly spiced food is traded for a cold hard bread 
It impales my teeth like the bullets struck in the walls back home
My heart longs to fly away from here and join the flock of migrating birds 
They are escaping the smoke that plumes like wispy ghosts 
For a brighter land with silks of red, yellow and orange 
And a sun that beams just as vividly 

My heart longs for freedom, freedom and peace 
I have a wish that my children can live in a world with more justice than me 
I do this for a promise, my love 
A promise to own the soil beneath our feet 

My heart belongs to the corn fields 
And a warm breeze running free 
Instead the corpses cover the fields 
Like sheaves of harvested corn

My heart belongs to the children, hold them tight my dear 
Tell them whatever happens, Papa will always be near 
Tell them funny stories, make them laugh from ear to ear 
I shall be able to hear their laughter, even from a place as far as here 

Our hearts long to sing 
Instead they are silenced 
Hidden amongst the millions of white crosses surrounding our graves. Why? 
We too gave our all when it came to the cry of the fight 

Molly Meleady-Hanley has been writing from the age of 9 and is now a published playwright, having had several plays professionally produced and performed at the Sheffield Crucible. She has been commissioned to write and present poems and art installations for major events, including for the opening of the Invictus Games Trials in Sheffield in 2019. Her poem ‘Me Brother Dan’ was included in the official Battle of the Somme Centenary commemorations in 2016; it was read out at the Menin Gate, and carried by serving personnel from the U.K. and laid on the graves of every Commonwealth armed forces member who died in WWI.

After winning first prize in her age group in the 2018 Never Such Innocence competition, Jasleen Singh has recited her winning poem, ‘The Indian Soldier’, at the Guards Chapel in the Wellington Barracks, Buckingham Palace and the House of Lords. She was chosen as one of three young people to read a prayer at the Westminster Abbey Centenary Remembrance Service in 2018; and she was selected to represent the UK at the German Remembrance service to mark 75 years since the end of WWII, held in the Bundestag in 2020.

Vasko Stamboliev is an undergraduate art student at Athens School of Fine Arts in the department of painting. Currently based in Athens, he was born in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and also spent time living in Perth, Australia, as a child. He is a Young Ambassador for Never Such Innocence and was one of the judges in 2020 for their art competition’.